LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

Some feelings on heartbreak.

Writing is my way of processing – pain, trauma, joy, struggle, conflict – whatever it is, I find my way through the tangle and tussle with words. Putting this out there because I’ve been in need of writing about heartbreak recently and what it actually feels like, and for me this is it…

***

It’s as shit as everyone told you it would be. It’s worthy of ice-cream binges and pillow-smothered ugly cries and hours lost to reverie with your hair still wrapped in a bath towel.

It’s trekking halfway up a mountain, fuelled and equipped and intent on going further, not even considering whether you’re fit for the summit and discovering they’ve turned back to base camp without you. The fucker. 

It’s constantly battling your own mind. Daring yourself to remember and see if it still hurts. Memories become a weapon in this war of attrition. 

It’s wanting them to text, just so you can reply I really don’t want to talk to you right now. Even though you do, even just to tell them how much you’re hurting, even when you think that’s the last thing you should be doing. 

It’s realising that that person does not have a duty of care. They chose to care and nurture that relationship and ask how you were and what you were up to. And now they choose not to. They release you back into the wilds of independence, that churn of solitude with its periods of calm, followed by unexpected ferocity. 

It’s loving someone, violently. And realising, perhaps for the first time, what it feels like to be angry at and disappointed in them. To realise they’re fallible and human and imperfect, despite the beliefs you’d held otherwise.

It’s learning the hard way (the only way?) that how much you love someone correlates positively (although it sure as hell feels negative) with how much it sucks when it’s over (i.e alot = alot). 

It’s not knowing where to put the accumulation of details and desires and stories and jokes and intimacies that might never again have an audience. Do they have storage lockers for that?

It’s walking past the Greek restaurant where you first vocalised that you liked liked each other and feeling as skewered as the grilled vegetables you consumed.

It’s going to a gig you’d had plans to attend together and being asked how you became a fan of the band and stuttering that a friend recommended them. The friend was him. And it was the music we fell in love to.

It’s needing him back in my life because laughter is the best medicine.

It’s the lull of an evening that beckons a loneliness that creeps up on you like winter. It’s the urge to tell you I still love you, despite everything. It’s the stab of knowing I can’t, or shouldn’t or wouldn’t hear I love you too.

It’s knowing that a future version of yourself exists whose heart is fuller, whose eyes are wider and who stands taller because of this, and that there is no shortcut to acquainting yourself with that person. You’ll meet when it’s time. 

Favourite films of 2018

It’s a testament to the power of cinema – not just the artform, but the actual theatrical experience (the physicality of holding a ticket, the anticipation as you wait to enter the cinema, the settling into your seat, the curtains opening, the darkness, the silence, the immersion) – that 10 of the 11 films I consider my favourites released this year, were seen in that setting.

This is largely due to a position of privilege I have lucked into. In working for the BFI I have access to perks, one of which is free tickets to its Southbank cinema. The sense of ‘event’ that swelled around these viewings perhaps influenced my succumbing to their powers of poetry and persuasion. Maybe I like them so much because I saw them in the cinema. Then again, many of the much-hyped films I didn’t connect with, I saw on the big-screen. So perhaps whatever resonated with me was merely amplified by the venue. 

Something else that unites these films is the experience of crying through them. I’ve always been more inclined towards ‘serious’ and sombre independent cinema than the funny-bone tickling predilection of mass entertainment. Game Night, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Black Panther were brilliant, but I didn’t ponder on them for much longer than it took for the credits to roll.

Perhaps since I declared Titanic my favourite film of all-time at the age of 12, I have placed an importance on the medium’s ability to move me. To invite my emotional investment, to encourage empathy, to demand tears – that is what good art achieves, according to my rulebook. It’s how I know I’ve fully succumbed to the world on the screen.

It appears I have a preference for darkness over levity, a disposition for difficulty and reality. And so this is how my favourites of 2018 came to be populated by stories about political conflict, the AIDs crisis, parental abuse and abandonment, brain injury, infertility, and manipulation. Which isn’t to say they left me dispirited. Another shared trait is their appreciation of humanity in all its complexities – its ugliness and illnesses, alongside its capacity for heroism, forgiveness and kindness.

So without further adieu, here are the films that gave me all the feels in 2018…

Summer, 1993

DIR. Carla Simón, Spain

I felt a profound sense of kinship with the 6-year-old female protagonist in Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. Not for the grieving process she must endure after the death of her mother, which results in one helluva emotional sucker punch, but for the navigation of a world in which she is no longer the centre. Such is the strange burden of being an only child. After moving in with her aunt, uncle and young cousin, Frida (Laia Artigas) is thrust into a bewildering rural environment and resorts to the toolbox of the very young – grandstanding, tantrums, sulking, sly manipulation, even cruelty – to beckon affection. Simon’s talent as a director, not least of which is coaxing performances of astounding naturalism from her young cast, is balancing the melancholic with the amusing. It basks in its landscape, but never dawdles and every moment of empathy feels hard-earned. Simon rewards our patience with a story that is as textured as it is tender.

Roma

DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, USA

The personal is the political in Alfonso Cuarón’s epic, monochromatic exploration of Mexico City in the early 70s. A tale of two women amid domestic and civil unrest, there is a level of intimacy on display that feels novelistic; small moments that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in another film are given full focus. It’s painstaking detail brings to mind a line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Cuarón’s microscopic and memory-infused evocation of this time and era radiates with affection.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 

DIR. Robin Campillo, France

A political and medical movement is given its due, and at times dazzling, attention with Robin Campillo’s drama. Following the activities of Act Up Paris in a procedural of-sorts that details the ups and downs of activism, particularly through the eyes of a new member as he falls in love with an HIV-positive one, Campillo imbues his edifying drama with scenes of passion, fury, sex and dance. Even as it deals with the inevitability of death, this is as enlivening a film as I saw this year.

The Favourite

DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA

Coruscating, saucy, foul-mouthed and uproariously funny. Like Marie Antoinette by way of The Thick of It, made all the merrier for the sublime ménage à trois at its expertly staged centre.

 

Cold War

DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, UK, France

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the palate and period that garnered him a golden statuette (for 2015’s Ida) with a story loosely-based on his parent’s love affair. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the gorgeous pair at the centre (he’s the composer, she’s the star) of a folkloric musical road-show, increasingly suffocated by Communism’s grip. Jazz and jealousy spike a narrative as distilled as a shot of vodka with enough substance to match its elegantly framed style. But what a style it is. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on anything as exquisite this year.

Leave No Trace

DIR. Debra Granik, USA

Debra Granik, who bequeathed us with Winter’s Bone, and did Hollywood the favour of discovering Jennifer Lawrence, does the world another solid with Leave No Trace. A film which quietly and captivatingly delves into the lives of a father and daughter existing, geographically and economically, on America’s fringes.

Private Life

DIR. Tamara Jenkins, USA

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the literary, near middle-aged couple struggling to conceive in what appear to be tailor made roles. Tamara Jenkins is the deft hand at the helm – having already proved herself a master of unflinching honesty and wit with 2007’s The Savages – documenting the trials and tribulations of IVF treatment with grimace-inducing candor. (The films opens with an ass-bound needle). Speaking of injections, theatre-kid Kayli Carter (familiar to some for her role in Netflix’s Godless, also playing a character called Sadie) is effervescent as the step-niece turned potential surrogate, mainlining charisma and chaos into the fraught (but impeccably furnished) lives of her baby-bewitched relations.

There’s a lived-in-ness to the characters, hammered home perhaps somewhat hammily by the home-movie feel of the cinematography. But this is dramedy as it should be – wry, profound and rewarding.

Also fun fact, Chris Ware, the artist behind the mind-bending graphic novel Building Stories, designed the film’s poster.

The Kindergarten Teacher

DIR. Sara Colangelo, USA

Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to prove herself one of the most intriguing, and versatile performers working today with the story of a morally dubious teacher who discovers one of her students possesses great poetic talent, and goes to boundary-pushing lengths in order to nurture it. Provocative, complex and intelligent, The Kindergarten Teacher raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps like any good educator, that is exactly the point.

Shoplifters

DIR. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Kore-eda’s keen eye for the fragility, and necessity, of human connection is woven into his most heartbreaking fable yet as a ragtag ‘family’ of bandits are broken apart by the authorities. 

 

The Rider

DIR. Chloé Zhao, USA

An all too real tale of an injured Bronco rider grappling with identity, masculinity and tradition, against the spectacular backdrop of a South Dakota reservation. Chloé Zhao has the same taste for downbeat Americana as Debra Granik, the same ear and eye for authenticity as Kore-eda, but a talent for blending spirituality and majesty that is all her own.

Petra

DIR. Jaime Rosales, Spain, France, Denmark

If The Favourite was the most hyped film I saw this year, this has to be the least. After watching the delightful and sensual South Korean film Little Forest at the London Film Festival, I decided to stay put at Ciné Lumière and check out the next film on the schedule – Petra. I knew next to nothing about, and ended up having one of the most riveting cinematic experiences in recent memory.

The elaborately-structured plot – non-linear vignettes are introduced with a short precis detailing twists and reveals – is matched by towering performances, particularly that of Bárbara Lennie as the titular artist in search of her biological father. Thrilling, labyrinthine and devastating, Petra is name to remember.

Honourable mentions:

Nancy, First Reformed, Mid90s, Skate Kitchen, A Star is Born, Wild Rose, If Beale Street Could Talk, United Skates, Jeune Femme, The Tale, Game Night, Phantom Thread

Things I’m chomping at the bit to see which might have made the list had I…

Zama, Burning, The Old Man & the Gun, Western, Sweet Country, Dogman, Wildlife, Minding the Gap

Things I saw but didn’t care for as much as other people…

Widows, You Were Never Really Here, Peterloo, Shirkers, BlackKklansman, Support the Girls, 

 

 

Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.

Why I Write | A Manifesto

I haven’t been writing much lately. Strike that. I have been writing. Emails. Tweets. Shopping lists. My job in social media requires that I write about 1500 words of content a day – I fire out aphorisms and axioms, trade in puns and something passing for wit, and publish reams of writing for an audience of over a million people with the click of a return key.

But it’s anonymous, and though not meaningless, it’s weightless when compared with the long-form, lyrical and lasting type of writing to which I aspire. It doesn’t carry the gravitas I crave, or the recognition that bylines and names on book spines bring with them.

Creatively, I feel spent. I’ve barely strung a sentence together in months. Good intentions have become best-laid plans and projects undertaken sit unfinished and gathering whatever the digital equivalent of dust is.

So this a reminder of why I write. Why I want to write. What I seek when I write. What I hope to accomplish with it.

The writing stalemate has occurred because I have found and erected barriers. I have found the time, but not known where to begin. I have perpetuated deceptions that writing ought to be devoured and digested and dissected or commissioned and requested to be completed. That writing without a purpose, or an endgame isn’t writing at all.

So this manifesto is an indulgence. It’s just for me. It’s going to be unapologetic and an unforgivable exercise in navel-gazing. And perhaps because I’m publishing it on my blog and promoting it on social media, it’s self-defeating and hypocritical.

But right now, in this moment, I’m writing it to write again. I’m writing it for me. 

***

For a few months now, I’ve been looking for permission and payment, rather than revelling in the process and pleasure of writing. I have been pitching and peddling. Squeezing ideas into captivating titles and condensing the sheer wilderness of writing – its limitlessness, go-anywhere-ness, its John-Cusack-holding-a-boombox-atop-his-head-say-anything-ness – into a cage, a count and the conciliation of contribution. And I have taken rejections as an excuse not to.

They’re not letting me. I don’t have anything to write.

That has put pin in pen many times.

But writing doesn’t always have to be a contribution. It shouldn’t have to make up a larger tapestry, or a thematic exploration. It can be an expression of a fleeting thought. It can exist in the here and now and be just because.

It’s thrilling to see words you have written accepted and published by someone else. You’ve been admitted to a club, you have a surpassed a gatekeeper. You are good enough. This time. I write for acceptance and accomplishment and attention. Sometimes. I write because I can. Because I can do it well. And people say so. But people also say no, so it can’t be the only reason. Writing exists well before its destination, so you have to find a reason to go on that journey.

***

I write because I think. I write to exist. Because it matters to me, perhaps more than it should, to be remembered. I write because sometimes it pours out of me like hot coffee from a cafetiere and because in those moments I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Writing is both salve and chasm.

In this wearisome and whelming age, writing is curative. It is a slowing down and pausing to think. It’s the breath you take between each stroke swam.

I was reading an article in The Times written by Laura Freeman on literature as meditation. She writes,

We live in a mindful age where meditation is promised as the cure to all our Insta-ills….The problem is not that we are exhausted by a rushing world. Many of us are under-stimulated by days spent poring over emails and Excel, and then over-stimulated by nights full of twittering screens. What we lack isn’t silence, it’s sustenance. Something for starved imaginations to feast on.”

To read good writing is a joy unparalleled. It is an Eden. A quieting of aches and afflictions. A broadening of mind. A burrow of warmth and safety. A sublime expanse of scenery from the comfort of a sofa. It’s shaking your head in astonishment and nodding in agreement.  

I write to be that good. To give back what I’ve taken.

I write because writers are my heroes. (Call that a God-complex or ‘big dick energy’ but it’s the truth). I write because its my aspiration to be an inspiration.

I write because on the invite list to my fantasy dinner party there would be Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, Maggie Nelson, Richard Yates, Sarah Manguso, Nora Ephron, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Simone De Beauvoir, Daniel Woodrell, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Moss.

I write to be invited to fantasy dinner parties.

I write to be seen and heard.

My writing says, in between all its jammed in adjectives and compound sentences,  I am here, I am alive.

***

But within writing lies the possibility to be misunderstood. To be heard and not listened to. To be seen, but ill-framed. To be judged. And harshly so. To be rendered more invisible by having written in the first place. Writing can create a fissure, a cleft, a canyon. It can put colour to an idea, but if you think something is blue and someone else reads it as green, writing can be divisive.

There is beauty in that. Writing is chromatic and contradictory and if we all saw things the same way wouldn’t life be boring? Etc etc.

But there is risk in writing. It’s like saying I love you for the first time. It’s a feeling inside of you that needs to come out, that only in verbalising and iterating and claiming can it feel true and only in the saying of it can you expect reciprocation. Silent I love yous are always regretted. There is joy in being declarative and decisive. Only then can you hear the words I feel that too. I think that too. I love you too. And yet…

And yet and yet and yet and yet

This is a chorus that threatens to drown out many dreams. In between every verse of victory, in doing something you feel proud of, there is this.

And yet, it could go wrong. And yet, they might not feel the same.

The I love you can linger in the air, unreturned and the silence of being unloved in that moment is bruising, deafening, squalid.

Writing that is misread feels the same.

In many academic essays I had the phrase I’m not sure what you are trying to say here scrawled in red next to a brutally dense and ambitious paragraph that contained so much but probably said very little. And yet every time I saw it I felt sick. I felt like crying.

I write for clarity. And I had been ambiguous. Or at least, and I often felt this at university, I had expressed something in the way I wanted to, but not in the way it was meant to be written. Meant as in according to marking guidelines and academic architecture. Rubrics and frameworks and and fretworks I had failed to exist within and comply with.

There is a profile in The New York Times that recently came out, written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the frankly, phenomenal Jonathan Franzen.

“He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world…Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.

And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five….people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. “

Writing can skate a thin line. Writing is both salve and chasm.

***

I write to give purpose and structure to a day. To put reins on an imagination that has only ever known how to run wild. It soothes the sensation that a wordless day, albeit a lived one, is a wasted day.

“How was your day?”, my housemate (and so much more, this label is a callous précis of her true function to my sanity) always remembers to ask.

“Good. I got some writing done” comes the all too scarce reply.

But that’s my definition of good. Of productive. Of fulfilling. I am content with a day that produces a handful of sentences, a cluster of prose that contains within in it the power to placate. I write to humour myself. To be able to tell myself I did something honest and worthwhile. Whether it becomes that remains to be seen.

My writing is a work in a progress. Just as I am. But it’s the only construction I want to devote myself to (right now). It is my Sagrada Família.

I write to learn. I write to self-improve.

Therein lies the issue with writing – it’s a lonely pursuit. And a selfish one. You can write to be read and you can write for an audience – therein lies its nobility and magnanimity – but its presumptive to be writing that way.

I currently do not have the privilege (though I possess a lot of others) of assuming that my work will be read, so to write for those reasons is futile.

I write for myself. I have to.

And so it’s self-centred. An exercise in narcissism. I spend hours a day forming thoughts and thinking they’re special enough to be documented. What a life the writer’s life is! You lock yourself away, retreat, scarper from family suppers and make excuses not attend social gatherings because you have to write. And it’s a discipline. To commit to it is to turn down other adventures and pleasures. To devote yourself to you and the words you want to say. You can’t be a writer without having written something.

This is a quandary that plagues me. I can’t call myself a writer. Perhaps I should. But it feels disingenuous.

What have you written? People would ask.

I wouldn’t be able to name something they had read. So although I don’t write to be read, you have to be read to be a writer. At least that’s how it feels. Those are the rules of the game.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t write to be writer. That’s the ambition. But in the meantime, whilst it doesn’t compel a salary and serves only as a side-hustle, I write to tell stories. In order to live. I write to live my best life.

***

I write because it’s my jam. And bread and butter (though we established not in the monetary meaning; it brings all the insides together.) It’s chicken soup in the miserable midst of a cold or a cup of tea on the top of a snow-capped mountain. It’s the first robin spotted on the cusp of winter. It’s a pair of jeans that slide on like a dream and caress your hips but don’t gape at the waist. It’s getting a text back you’ve been pining for. It’s a new kitten. It’s blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the symphony of gathered friends commemorating you. It’s feeling the sun on your back as if thawing your spine. It’s falling asleep in a park and having nowhere to be. It’s waking up in the morning to absence of alarm. It’s a bowling strike. It’s a penalty scored. It’s a home run. It’s an impetuous, top-of-your-lungs-windows-down-sing-song in the car. It’s the first lick of an ice cream, the smoothness a surprise for your tongue. It’s making the last train home, panting with irrepressible relief that your legs had the strength to see you through. It’s the cat with the hearts in his eyes emoji. It’s a gifted book with a note written on the first page.

It’s being told I love you too.

It is nourishment and reprieve. It is both palliative and restorative.

I write because it’s hard and they say anything worth doing is.

I write because it makes me happy.

***

“I write to give my life a form, a narrative, a chronology; and, for good measure, I seal loose ends with cadenced prose and add glitter where I know things were quite lusterless. I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still too real and never as provisional or ambivalent as I’d like it to be.”

55772ac69399217d87faa2de3222ae39.jpg– André Aciman, The New York Times

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. “

– Susan Sontag, The New York Times

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

– Joan Didion, The New York Times

“Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging. Letting form ferment. Letting form pass through you…Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.”

– Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood

Review: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

120 BPM (Beats per Minute) plays like an exercise in memory more than it does pedagogy, pulsating with the vividness and vigour of lived experience. Upon learning that writer-director Robin Campillo was a “rank and file member of ACT UP Paris” throughout the 90s, the activist group whose enterprises the film documents, you can understand why.

“There tends to be a collective amnesia” surrounding the attitudes, negligence and obstruction that the AIDS community faced, “homophobia was the standard”, Campillo remarks in the film’s production notes. His third outing as a director operates as a shot of stimulation to the synapses, a sharp jolt of remembrance that the fight for rights was laborious and contentious, marked by many more losses than wins.

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Based on the model initiated by ACT UP New York, which was formed in 1987 and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”, the audience are inducted to the Parisian division alongside 4 of its newest members. The last to be introduced, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is the closest we get to a protagonist in what is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger, anguish and urgency. One of the most vocal and rule-breaking members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who captures ours as well as Nathan’s attention, is who we’ll come to care about most.

What becomes immediately apparent in the lecture hall where ACT UP has its weekly meetings is the plurality of voices that have a stake in the movement. Moments after a demonstration has taken an unplanned direction, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), Sean and several others debate whether the violence of their actions will be condemned. The matter isn’t resolved, its merely aired and you sense for all their common ground, this is also a coalition of disparate individuals with their own agendas.  

Indeed, as we return to this venue many times throughout the film, a series of different issues are given visibility. It’s not just young, white, cis, gay men that are affected, but gay women, men of colour, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion, and as a result there are many different experiences and perspectives to incorporate. It’s a credit to Campillo that one voice is never favoured. Their conversations – though sometimes heated and always lively –  weave in the many concerns and conflicts that face the AIDS community and how difficult it is to organise effective and sustained militancy.

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There are several moments of punctuation that serve as reminder of the personal cost that fuels this political action. Whilst the scientific language around AIDS is left largely unexplained, mirroring the medical unfamiliarity the general public and indeed sufferers had during the epidemic, and were often left to their own device to obtain, something that is raised time and time again is the CD4 count of HIV-positive (poz) members. Below 200 and the diagnosis is full-blown AIDS. The lower the count, the worse the fate. As meetings and marches continue, there’s relative stagnation in terms of tangible treatment progress and the drug company’s willingness to be transparent about the results of their trials. Sean’s repeated statement of his declining CD4 count is a stark and quantitative expression of how imperative change is, and how slow it is to come.  

What this also does is reframe the epidemic as a medical crisis, where it had previously being stigmatised and politicised, or mounted as the predicament for the ostracised gay community as opposed to society as whole. Campillo is upfront about maligning the two treatment options available to poz’s at the time, and the injurious medical trials that only the “desperate” would subject themselves to. More than just a snapshot of the past, it’s a necessary reconfiguration of history. And perhaps because it’s still such a recent history – it feels strange to call its a period-piece when the characters all have clothes and hairstyles and vernaculars that would slot rights into a contemporary context – there’s something all the more powerful to its telling.

For all the intimacies explored, Campillo is aware that this story belong to its collective, to the nuances and intensity of his characters (to which he is astutely attuned). His brilliant ensemble cast more than deliver that sense of immediacy, and the spectrum of their experience.

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Equally important is the depiction of its sufferers as more than their suffering. After each major protest – at pharmaceutical labs, schools and gay pride marches, where issues such as treatment, prevention, awareness, morale and stigma are addressed – the group descends upon a nightclub to sweat away their stresses. It’s an emphatic reminder of the youth and vitality of ACT UP’s members, as well as those most affected, and infected by AIDS at large. Indeed, one particularly intimate moment recalls Sean’s loss of virginity and the encounter which transmitted the disease at the age of 16. Later, these dance club scenes, at which Sean is a coquettish, careening and central presence, become all the more poignant for his absence as his body, and the state, continues to fail him.

And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, the group are seen to dance, cheerlead, kiss, cavort and copulate in innumerable scenes. There is none of the skittishness or sterility surrounding homosexuality that has plagued previous depictions of the AIDS crisis (particularly mainstream American outputs), and Campillo’s film is well-served by a particularly French sensibility to prioritise sensuality. The central romantic relationship that develops alongside the group’s demonstrations and debates brims with vim and desire, defiant in the face of a debilitating disease. It’s also touchingly sensitive to the various strains through which HIV manifests, and as Sean reveals ailments such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that externalises itself in purplish skin lesions) and mouth thrush, Nathan’s want and need for him never declines.

What’s more, there are comedic moments flecked throughout.  An awkward revolving door that somewhat subdues the impact of a pharmaceutical building being stormed; an over-zealous throwing of a pouch containing fake blood (used to smear and splatter across the walls/faces of perpetrators) that subsequently douses one of its members; the ridicule of lacklustre slogans being suggested at meetings. A cornucopia of emotions are explored, from grief to gaiety and back again.

As with sexuality, Robin Campillo also doesn’t shy away from death and the final handful of scenes are at once notable and devastating for the visibility of a dead body. It’s not ushered away or shrouded in a blanket, rather it remains in the bedroom next door as the group gathers and discusses how best to proceed. Another life might be over, but the struggle is unequivocally not.  

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Ultimately Campillo’s film is a living, breathing, writhing embodiment of ACT UP’s slogan ‘Silence = Death (Mort)’. From the clicking of its members in concord and the rising indignation of those speaking up to the foghorn sound that indicates a demonstration and the house music that pulsates throughout, this is invigorating and confrontational cinema at its most enlivening and eye-opening.

Top 17 Films Of 2017

#17. Landline

#16. Wind River

#15. The Florida Project

#14. I Am Not Your Negro

#13. Kedi

#12. The Work

#11. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki

#10. Beach Rats

DIR. Eliza Hittman. Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge

A moody and soulful portrait of teenage sexuality, world’s away from the lavish sultriness of Call Me By Your Name, and yet just as vital in its depiction of the tempestuous waters of adolescence. Set in the machismo world of Brooklyn, a young man (British newcomer Dickinson) grapples with urges of a more prohibited nature one somnolent summer. Whilst the plot might seem similar to and outdone by Moonlight, the gauzy, grainy visuals and penetrating sense of melancholy and menace will have you gripped from the off, and leave you haunted.

#9. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

DIR. Macon Blair. Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood

This under-hyped Netflix release from Macon Blair (best known for his bug-eyed and blunderingly brutal performance in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) was a winning combination of suspense, absurdity and snakes. Like 40s era screwball comedy mashed up with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

#8. A Ghost Story

DIR. David Lowery. Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

 

David Lowery serves up big metaphysical themes and existential plight in this intimate and melancholic tale of love lost too soon. With its mesmeric cinematography (shot in a 1:33 ratio), muted performances and entrancing soundtrack, this is pensive, lyrical, plaintive and audacious cinema.

#7. Good Time

DIR. Josh & Benny Safdie. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Robert Pattinson transforms as a twitchy criminal on-the-run in this heady, propulsive, bad-feeling-brewing thriller from the Safdie brothers that keeps the unexpected twists coming whilst never losing its sense of pathos and heart.

#6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

DIR. Martin McDonagh. Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Has Frances McDormand ever not been good? Irrespective of your opinion, she’s abrasively brilliant in Martin McDonagh’s third and best feature as a short-tempered small-town mother squaring up to the hapless authorities that have yet to convict her daughter’s murderer. With a raft of idiosyncratic characters (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage among them) of varying moral dubiety and common sense, it is by turns tragic, brutal and uproariously funny (if you like your comedy carbon black). Also makes a case for Caleb Landry-Jones as 2017’s MVP (see also The Florida Project and Get Out).

#5. Raw

DIR. Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

A potent coming-of-ager that depicts its female protagonist’s burgeoning hungers with such an unwavering, carnal intensity that you might mistake your desire to look away for distaste. But savour the subtext and there’s a lot to feast upon.

#4. God Own’s Country

DIR. Francis Lee. Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones

A salty, muddy, bloody and extremely sexy love story set on a Yorkshire farm. Inevitably its been compared to Brokeback Mountain, but this is less anguished than Ang Lee’s decades-sprawling affair. The love between these young farmer Johnny and Romanian farm hand Gheorghe is allowed its moments of tenderness, domesticity and hope.

#3. The Handmaiden

DIR. Park Chan-wook. Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee

Spell-binding to behold, this labyrinthine erotic thriller is a return to form for South Korean director Park Chan-wook.  One third of the way through this triptych structured maze of desire, deceit and despotism, a twist announced itself so gobsmackingly and so brilliantly, I was literally shunted to the edge of my seat, where I remained for the next two thirds of the film. Rarely is a film so long, so tightly-coiled and exacting in its execution. A work of artistic genius.

#2. Lady Bird

DIR. Greta Gerwig. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts, Lucas Hedges

Greta Gerwig has made a film as kind-hearted, insightful, hilarious and offbeat as the woman herself. Lady Bird might announce herself on screen with the wallop of body hitting road as she exits her mother’s car in transit to escape a heated conversation, but this is a quieter and more astute film than this initial, almost slapstick moment suggests. It’s uproariously funny and wickedly wry, poignantly wise in ways that Lady Bird just isn’t yet and about the pains of growing up and fleeing the nest, it gets so much so very right. (The moment after Lady Bird loses her virginity is of particular, and spectacular sagacity).

#1. Call Me By Your Name

DIR. Luca Guadagnino. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg

An undulating, irrepressibly romantic film that brought heat and jouissance to a bleak midwinter reality. I was swept up by the sunshine, soaring music and sensitivity to the ecstasy and turmoil of young love. As gorgeous to look at as it is to experience. Chalamet is a big discovery for Hollywood, long may they give him roles as peachy as Elio. Full review here.

Everything I Watched In 2017

Ok, so not everything. Like most millennials I’m prone to hyperbole and a click-bait headline. These are all the drama/fictional shows I consumed – hence why I haven’t included Blue Planet II, The Great British Bake-Off or Strictly Come Dancing and the hours of SNL sketches and US chat show interviews enjoyed on YouTube.

And before you ask about my priorities, yes I still need to see Season 2 of The Crown and Godless and Season 2 of Search Party and no I don’t care for Twin Peaks (I’ll eat my words later when I become obsessed). I never fell foul to the Doctor Foster hype and have a dozen other things on my ‘To-Watch’ list that I’ll get around to eventually (Black Mirror, Born To Kill, the rest of Halt and Catch Fire. Hell maybe I’ll eventually finish The Sopranos and Breaking Bad whilst I am it).

Other things to note: I gave up on Fargo and Rellik this year after the first two episodes, and also lost interest in This Is Us (too much schmaltz for me). I watched the first episode of Ozark and Mindhunter respectively, but found them too dour and have been intending to resume watching The Americans  for over a year, but alas the TV shows below are the only ones I found time for.

The stars denote my favourites!

 

  1. Search Party | Channel 4 (Season 1) 
  2. Girls | HBO (Season 6)
  3. Big Little Lies | HBO (Season 1) ★
  4. Love | Netflix (Season 2)
  5. Broadchurch | ITV (Season 3)
  6. I Love Dick | Amazon Prime (Season 1) ★
  7. Orange Is The New Black | Netflix (Season 5)
  8. House of Cards | Netflix (Season 5)
  9. Paula | BBC
  10. The Handmaid’s Tale | Hulu (Season 1) 
  11. Glow | Netflix (Season 1)
  12. Master of None | Netflix (Season 1 & 2) ★
  13. The Leftovers | HBO (Season 1 & 2)
  14. Game Of Thrones | HBO (Season 7)
  15. Top of the Lake: China Girl | BBC 2
  16. Insecure | HBO (Season 1 & 2) ★
  17. Atlanta | FX (Season 1) 
  18. Trust Me | ITV
  19. Strike: Cuckoo’s Calling | BBC
  20. Room 104 | HBO (Season 1)
  21. Riviera | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  22. The Deuce | HBO (Season 1) 
  23. Transparent | Amazon Prime (Season 4)
  24. Liar | ITV (Season 1)
  25. Tin Star | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  26. Halt and Catch Fire | AMC/Amazon Prime (Season 1-2) ★
  27. The Child In Time | BBC One
  28. Stranger Things | Netflix (Season 2)
  29. Peaky Blinders | BBC 2 (Season 2-4) 
  30. The Girlfriend Experience | Amazon Prime (Season 2)
  31. Babylon Berlin | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  32. The Trip to Spain | Sky Atlantic
  33. Easy | Netflix (Season 2) ★
  34. Howard’s End | BBC One
  35. Witnesses: A Frozen Death | BBC 4
  36. Feud | FX