May Culture Round-Up

TV 

I Love Dick, Series 1, Amazon

Arresting and squirm-inducingly intimate, this is a defiant depiction of obsession and desire, in all its forms – ugly, unrequited, unruly. Based on Chris Krauss’ memoir of the same name, Transparent’s Jil Soloway is arguably the perfect helmer for this provocative source material and in her hands it becomes even more cerebral and transgressive.

The art world might be alienating to some audiences, but Kathryn Hahn’s aptitude for awkward charm and Kevin Bacon’s aloof roguishness are enough to keep you enthralled. (If you need more convincing there is a scene where he is shirtless and carries a sheep.) The soundtrack, cinematography and direction are also astonishingly good, with Andrea Arnold taking the ropes in a few episodes, utilising the raw-nerved, hypersensitivity on which she has made a career to sizzling effect.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Series 1, Hulu

Reed Morano has long been a favoured cinematographer of mine. Since seeing her work in Frozen River, Little Birds & For Ellen I have been enchanted by the visceral, vérité-style of her shots and her gorgeous attention to detail. It was exciting news then to hear she’d be given her biggest platform yet directing and executive producing The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu.

A damning and darkly modernised version of Margaret Atwood’s novel, there’s a spiky wit and stylishness which pulsates throughout. Its self-reflexive, pop-cultural nods are put to particularly good use in the soundtrack department, as seen in the first two episodes when Leslie Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ play towards the end. Its spine, however, never loses its morality or for that matter, its chill. Despite the hubristic sense of humour, The Handmaid’s Tale sadly remains a timely tale of female subjugation and exploitation.

The casting is also cunningly brilliant. Elisabeth Moss might just be the hottest property in television right now, what with Mad Men and Top of the Lake also on her CV, and her Offred is another bastion of strength, smarts and vulnerability. Samira Wiley and Madeleine Brewer, of Orange Is The New Black fame, also appear as fellow handmaids, whilst Alexis Bledel as the mutilated Ofglen will make you forget she ever played Rory Gilmore.

This is tense, imaginative and rousing TV. Poignantly performed and executed with exacting technical precision, it’s hard to watch but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

FILM

Berlin Syndrome (DIR. Cate Shortland, 2017)

Teresa Palmer plays a nervous solo traveller in Cate Shortland’s third and most accessible film yet. As a Berlin-based romance turns sour, and as the title alludes to, escalates into a hostage situation, what begins as moody indie fare turns into something weird, intense and cerebral. The muted performances and consistently menacing, irresistibly mounted cinematography breathe life into a somewhat spare plot. However, predictable this is not. Shortland explores the predator/prey dichotomy with a startling empathy, and eschews the cliché of villain/victim to summon something as sensitive as it can be sickening. As in her debut Somersault, and follow-up Lore, Shortland continues to prove herself a brilliantly tactile and evocative director, weaving a texture at once sensuous and suspenseful. It might be minimalist in design, but the effect is resounding, with the last 30 minutes especially thrilling.

In cinemas now.

BOOKS

The Girls – Emma Cline

I finally got around to reading the wunderkind Emma Cline’s literary sensation The Girls. A novel so talked about its pages were practically curling under the weight of expectation. And sadly, I wasn’t wowed.

The narrative concerns 13-year-old Evie Boyd and her fleeting, though formative experience of a Charles Manson-esque cult, where a ragtag group of women worship their mysterious leader Russell. Cline is especially good at evoking the sun-drenched and soporific landscape of 60s California, as well as the bewildered internal landscape of adolescence that tempt Evie into this world. However, as a reader we’re always kept at a frustrating distance. Evie’s perspective is curbed by her half-hearted initiation into the group. She experiences some, but not all of their deviant activities and in firmly sticking with Evie’s viewpoint, Cline rather limits her own ability to delve deeper into the savagery and sadomasochism of the cult.

As The New York Times so succinctly put it:

What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk…Still, it’s a spellbinding story.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

At a lithe 147 pages, Riley’s thoroughly British novel(la) is all the more intriguing when you consider its being shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction and that other such novels to have been nominated include Hanya Yangihara’s behemoth A Little Life and Donna Tartt’s equally weighty The Goldfinch. It says a lot about the particularity and potency of Riley’s writing that she’s considered among them. And not wrongly so. This lovely, if mordantly sad book, concerns Neve and her strained marriage to the ailing Edwyn. In vibrant brushstrokes Riley depicts quite how she ended up there and in doing so, proves herself an absolute fiend for tight, lucid prose. Take the following:

Back in the summer she’d had a birthday M&S voucher she said she wouldn’t use: did I want it? I did. She’d started her turn then as we crossed the floor to Hosiery: surrounded, as we were, by strange statuary. My mother blenched extravagantly at the gussied-up torsos, blinking hard like someone had flashed a torch in her eyes, saying she couldn’t understand why anyone would buy, wear, matching underwear.

For her sheer powers of observation and her ability to locate humour, tenderness and melancholy in the gut-wrenchingly ordinary, Riley must be commended. It’s perhaps a bit on the scant and under-sketched side for my taste, but it’s easy to relate to her exploration of muddied relationships – whether parental, platonic or romantic.

THEATRE

Woyzeck at The Old Vic

I saw this Jack Thorne penned revival of Georg Büchner’s classic on its first night of previews, which means I had the advantage of being completely unswayed by public opinion, but the disadvantage of seeing quite a nervy and fluctuant production. John Boyega takes on the titular role of a hard-up soldier, struggling with past traumas and drug-induced paranoia, though the setting has been relocated to 1980s Cold War Berlin. He’s a charismatic actor and can more than carry himself on stage, and here he delivers a committed, if somewhat gauche performance. Surpassing Boyega in subtlety and charm is his Irish Catholic girlfriend Marie, played by Sarah Greene (Poldark’s former squeeze apparently!), whose got the tough job of being the stable axis around which Boyega erratically rattles. The supporting actors likewise, bring presence to their occasionally stereotypical characters.

Ultimately this is a fierce and robust play about poverty, masculinity and mental-health, and the set design, music and direction all do well to limn the claustrophobic environment and its increasingly malevolent protagonist. However it struggles to reach the levels of gravitas its so desperately striving for.

ART

The American Dream: Pop to Present at The British Museum

Warhol, Liechtenstein, Pollock – the greats are all on display in this exhibition that claims to chart ‘The American Dream’ in all its monolithic, prevailing and consumerist glory. And certainly its scope is extensive, and impressive: there are more than 200 works from 70 artists working between 1960 and 2014 on displays and art movements including abstract, minimalism, photorealism and portraiture are all touched upon. Ed Ruscha’s pleasingly geometric gas station prints and the orange glow of the California room were particular highlights.There are political allusions – AIDs, gender equality, civil rights, the Vietnam War – but the exhibition as a whole felt too hurried and surface to be exploratory or penetrating.

On reflection, I don’t think pop art is my thing.

MUSIC

Angel Olsen at Camden Roundhouse

Angel Olsen knows how to make an entrance. As the woozy backbeat of ‘Heart Shaped Face’ is kickstarted by her suited-and-booted band, she appears, a few bars in and lets her soaring vibrato fill the room. It’s almost better to have not listened to her latest album in a while; to have forgotten how good Angel Olsen is, because her live performance more than reminds you. The show as a whole is muted and magical, with the volume turned way down low on theatrics or distractions, and the focus solely on Olsen’s enthralling, transporting vocals. ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’ and ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ provided energetic interjections, but ultimately this show was an extension of her album: subdued, smouldering and sublime.


What is a New York movie?

An exploration of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour.

In film criticism, the term ‘a definitive [insert genre] movie’ is frequently bandied about, placing its subject on a pedestal because it exemplifies the very best of it’s type; thereafter held up as a litmus test for all its successors to borrow from and be inspired by.

New York is a city so iconic, cinematic and beloved that it has become a genre itself. To set a film there is to immediately bring to mind such classics as Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Naked City, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so on and so forth.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent example of a film that has been lauded as “a modern New York classic” (The Playlist), whilst Little White Lies called Appropriate Behaviour “an original and charismatically honest New York comedy”. But what is a New York movie? Can a city so multifarious and dynamic ever be pinned down?

I took it upon myself to explore  what it means to make a film in the most illustrious concrete jungle.

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In City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that,

New York has a hold on our imagination because it is so compact, so violent, so energetic, so full of possibilities, a place where neighbourhoods change from one street to the next and strangers can become intimate friends or deadly enemies on the slightest of whims. (p. 243)

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone. By accepting the impossibility of creating a definitive vision of New York, it becomes a place where you are free to project your own vision.

In his maker’s statement, Alex Ross Perry explains that Listen Up Philip reflects “what [his] New York looks like, and it is one I seldom see depicted with any honesty in cinema….Listen Up Philip is a summation of all I’ve observed, lived through, laughed at, narrowly avoided and absently longed for during my time in New York”.

Similarly, in a behind-the-scenes interview with her producer Cecilia Frugieule, Desiree Akhavan states that she wants her film “to reflect [her] morals and [her] tastes”, thus Appropriate Behaviour’s rendering of New York is very specific to her.

A native New Yorker herself, Akhavan argues that too many movies about the Big Apple are “like a love letter – and I feel like the love letter I want to write points out all the flaws and is like, ‘I love you, despite all those flaws’”.

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Both films are set in and around Brooklyn, using locations in Dumbo, Park Slope, Red Hook and Bushwick. Of the locations he chose, Alex Ross Perry, in the director’s commentary says he wanted to capture “a New York that isn’t identifiable or modern”, whereas Akhavan has deliberately chosen, played up to and satirised a very recognisable and hipster Brooklyn.

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone.

As Shirin tries desperately to win her ex-girlfriend Maxine back, we watch her manoeuvre the absurdities of life in Brooklyn. Though her new roommates in Brooklyn are tattooed artists who met at Occupy Chelsea and she encounters a hair model named Tibet, this is a feat most notably achieved in the sequences where Shirin teaches 5 year olds (the likes of which are called Kujo and Blanche) how to make movies: “I could lock them in a room with a half-eaten apple and a tic tac and come back to The Mona Lisa”.

Speaking of this satirical tone, Akhavan says “Each neighbourhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes…I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighbourhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”

For both filmmakers then, Brooklyn is a way to film New York from an outsider’s perspective. As Perry remarks in his commentary, the only time his protagonist Philip ventures into Manhattan is to interact with his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and whilst there he marches frantically and avoids eye contact with everybody. “It is ugly. And loud. It’s always moving, and I never feel still long enough to hold a thought”. Contrary to popular depictions, New York actually seems to stifle Philip’s creativity and he feels the he needs to escape the city.

Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a vast, sometimes hostile city like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative hub, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. Conversely, though Akhavan deals in alienation, hers is more inward. Shirin feels alienated from her own culture and history because sexually she identifies with something so antithetical to it.

Perry and Akhavan are both concerned with filming a New York that depicts their own personal experience. Philip Friedman, as played with incisive wit and acidity by Jason Schwartzman, is a distinctly male, academic, middle-class and Jewish representation of New York, whereas Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is Persian, bisexual and female. These two characters embody the spectrum of lenses through which the New York experience can be filtered.

Whilst Appropriate Behaviour’s exploration of Persian bisexuality is strikingly original, there are moments that ring familiar. Akhavan herself describes the film as “a Lesbian Annie Hall from the perspective of Annie… if she’d been a closeted Persian Bisexual” and admits that she “grew up watching Woody Allen…There’s a sequence when they’re at the bookstore where we stole, or paid homage to a shot in Annie Hall. We were very aware of the references we were making and I wanted to make a real conscious reference to that film”.

Perhaps the seminal filmmaker associated with New York, Woody Allen became a zeitgeist for the pressures and peculiarities of modern living and urban romance. As seen in the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters, Allen’s films are ultimately concerned with his characters’ failure to find happiness in the metropolis.

It’s a theme both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour reference without ever succumbing to stereotype or convention, and their respective directors cite Woody Allen as having a direct, and indirect influence on the tone and texture of their respective films. It’s present in the intertextuality, self-reflexivity and intellect of their narratives, as well as their stylistic choices.

Perry admits to being inspired by – and in some cases – directly lifting certain iconic camera movements and shots from Allen’s movies. As The Playlist notes, “Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on”.

However, Perry’s New York is also more intimate and intrusive than Allen’s, predominantly using close-ups where Allen preferred long and medium range shots. As iterated in a review by The New Yorker, Perry’s is

“A big and exuberantly gaudy directorial performance that’s delivered in a modest and intimate format, and greatly aided by the remarkable images of Sean Price Williams, whose darting, agile camera work, often apparently with telephoto lenses, achieves a blend of intimacy and distance, of perception and opacity reminiscent of the camerawork in the films of John Cassavetes”.

The frenetic and spontaneous camerawork used in Listen Up Philip perfectly captures the energy of the city; at times chaotic and disorienting, but never boring, a sensibility accentuated by the use of jazz. The jazz-inflected score is something that has recently been seen in another New York set movie; Birdman, which coincidentally also explores notions of art, ego, success and sustaining relevance in an ever-changing landscape.

Shot on super 16mm film, the aesthetic of Listen Up Philip is warm, saturated and autumnal, an artistic choice that seems at odds with Philip’s caustic persona on-screen, but which creates a heightened paean for a bygone era, vividly reminiscent of the 80s classic When Harry Met Sally or indeed the muted greys and browns of Annie Hall.

Appropriate Behaviour has a much grittier feel. DoP Chris Teague, whose CV also includes the New York set Obvious Child – discussed Desiree’s influences in Filmmaker Magazine, citing the oeuvre of Noah Baumbach. “Appropriate Behaviour’s a little bit rough around the edges, [and was filmed] almost entirely handheld… it feels very loose”. This quality corresponds with the messy, ‘making it up as you go along’ aesthetic of Listen Up Philip and perhaps reflects an attitude to life so commonly observed in recent representations of New York and its millennial inhabitants.

Ultimately, New York epitomises the myth of the American Dream, and the illusion that opportunity and ambition will inevitably collide to fertilise success. Contemporary portrayals speak to an experience more cynical and fraught with anxiety than the glamour and romance oft associated with the city. One just had to look at Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Girls to see that feeling adrift is the main concern for New Yorkers in our era.

Both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour – though very different in tone and humour – navigate the tribulations of being heartbroken, aimless and frustrated, with themes of isolation, belonging, exclusion and possibility at their core. They offer us perspectives of New York that feed into these familiar themes, but in altogether original and necessary voices.

To watch Listen Up Philip, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

To watch Appropriate Behaviour, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.