Jackie (2016), dir. Pablo Larraín

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There’ll be great Presidents again–and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me–but there’ll never be another Camelot again. Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was.

Jacqueline Kennedy, 29th November 1963

Pablo Larraín has built his career exploring the darkness of Chilean history and Pinochet’s legacy: concentration camps, genocide, American intervention. As we see in Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Chile’s past exists in fragments, entire lives as faded photographs or memories. In Larraín’s film Neruda (2016), we see the power of the underground and written word to counter official narratives, whilst No (2012) offers an affirming call to democracy.

Jackie is easy to imagine as a miniseries, submerging the viewer into the four days following Kennedy’s assassination, drawing from multiple sources. We might question why these stories need to be told. Why not make a documentary, or read a monograph? Or Jackie’s original 2 page interview in Life magazine, essentially the film’s framing device? Through its fractured narrative, Jackie reconciles episodes within her life: her 1962 televised tour of the White House; the bullet’s impact; the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson; Kennedy’s funeral.

History is a constantly negotiated process, subject to available sources and the unreliability of memory. Documentaries like HyperNormalisation attempt to give coherent narrative to the immensity of history, yet only reveal biases. There are unquestionable facts – John F. Kennedy really was assassinated on 22nd November 1963 – but no innate truth. In historiography, we must grapple with multiple accounts, determining which is dominant. Jackie’s non-linear narrative confronts memory as emotional experience and living process, rewritten and redefined. As Hidden Figures shows, revisionist counter-histories exist, the women that built history often overlooked.

Kennedy’s legacy remains subject to speculation: an incomplete president, next moves forever unknown. His assassination is the centre of conspiracy debates, centrepiece to time travel paradoxes in 11/22/63 (2011), or in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Magneto becomes implicated in the bullet’s movements; JFK (1991) brought scepticism back into the public sphere. The mockumentary Death of a President (2006) invokes similar imagery, using a fictional assassination of George W. Bush to question the War on Terror and institutional Islamophobia.

Jackie and Bobby attempt to understand an unfinished legacy. Bobby laments Vietnam, NASA and Castro, whilst Jackie questions had Kennedy been assassinated for Civil Rights, would it hold greater meaning? The 60s is defined by assassinations, from MLK to Malcolm X, to Bobby himself only five years later. Fifty years on, we know where these questions lead: Vietnam will fall to communism, man will walk on the moon, Obama will create new ties with Cuba. We know the answer to whether Jack merely handled or created the Cuban Missile Crisis. But moves are never certain. Jackie’s vulnerability within the present moment is heightened, as Valenti fears for her safety as a target alongside other foreign dignitaries.

The journalist concludes Jackie’s “dignity” and “majesty” shall be remembered; we see the plaque commending the Kennedys’ place in history. But we don’t remember. John F. Kennedy is the young president who boned Marilyn Monroe, and declared we would “set sail on this new sea”. JFK’s televised debates with Nixon may have been radical at the time, celebrated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964) for his “cool” personality, but these are footnotes. Martin Luther King, despite his mixed reputation by the FBI at the time, is our titan of the Civil Rights Movement, with LBJ securing Kennedy’s bill. Jackie is just the slain president’s wife, relative to the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens (1976).

Jackie confronts another legacy: Lincoln, valorised as American icon, his face on pennies, celebrated for ending the American Civil War and slavery. Lincoln emancipated the slaves, why can’t Kennedy end segregation? Jackie is a reader of history, wanting Kennedy’s funeral to symbolically relive Lincoln’s. Physical space stands as symbol and legacy; Bobby takes pride standing in the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, as Jackie points out to her driver, nobody remembers James Garfield or William McKinley, despite their assassinations.

Speaking to the journalist, Jackie exercises power over the manuscript, removing details of the cigarette she smokes and her trauma. As she points out, just because something is written down, it doesn’t make it true. Jackie’s identity as a public figure is a construct, built through her persona in her tour of the White House and in Life. As screenwriter Noah Oppenheim explains to Vox, Jackie was mythmaking, creating an “illusion of transparency” through mass media.

Identity is a central element to Larraín’s films. In Tony Manero (2008), Travolta’s American symbol of disco from Saturday Night Fever (1977) is worn as costume. In Neruda (2016), Pablo Neruda’s identity is created by himself and others, as nom de guerre, poet, communist, traitor and polygamist, shifting between conventions of fiction: the western, noir, pulpy detective novel.

Jackie embodies the insularity of personal trauma, reconciling public and private grief. Her face tells the story of a nation, seeking to comprehend national trauma alongside her symbolic and real family: Nancy, LBJ, Bobby, her own children. Larraín shows Jackie’s vulnerable humanity, not a flawless symbol: her insecurities and uncertainties as she debates the procession, the immensity of emotion as she washes away blood. As Portman tells The Guardian:

She can be brave, and self-interested, and vulnerable, and super-tough, and sensual, and cold, and all of these things at once because that’s how human beings are.

Jacqueline Kennedy highlighted these contradictions of symbolism and grief in an unpublished part of her interview with Theodore H. White, released as part of the Camelot documents, recreated in the film as visceral imagery. 

I saw myself in the mirror; my whole face spattered with blood and hair… I wiped it off with Kleenex. History. I thought no one really wants me there. Then one second later I thought, why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done.

Literature may be built upon madwomen stricken with grief. Jackie could easily become a melodramatic caricature or Ophelia, destined to tragically drown. Yet her trauma is grounded in reality. She endures the unimaginable, required to attend the autopsy of the husband and president she loved. Jackie must detach herself from the lifelessness of the human body. In the immediate aftermath, she tells the journalist how beautiful his corpse looked, reflecting on his “most wonderful expression”. In Manchester by the Sea, we similarly confront Patrick’s inability to comprehend his late uncle as a body sitting in a freezer. Through Mica Levi’s haunting soundtrack, we sense the constant disquiet of grief, where everything feels slightly off.

Portman is often underestimated as an actress, placed as girlfriend as Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005), or Jane Foster in Thor (2011). For as much she is placed as a strong woman – as queen, senator and mother, or astrophysicist, her roles remain overshadowed by her male counterparts, destined to be a damsel in distress. Yet as we see through producer Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Portman is able to capture visceral emotion and pathos. Her Oscar victory with Black Swan and nomination with Jackie prove her capabilities. Her Mid-Atlantic accent for Jacqueline Kennedy may take some getting used to, but defines her character.

Jackie is a specifically female narrative. In a heartbreaking scene, Jackie attempts to explain to her children, Caroline and John Jr., their father’s disappearance; struggling to come with the loss of their siblings herself. She tells them he is in Heaven, keeping Patrick company, the child she knew “just long enough to fall in love”. She wants to show the nation the truth of “two heartbroken, fatherless children” in news coverage. Like Arrival, what may first appear to be a typical narrative of genre fiction, becomes a maternal narrative, inseparable from the rest of the film.

Jackie faces the reality the White House is never her own; she has no home. As she tells the journalist, “a First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It’s inevitable”. Jackie grounds her identity in the temporary and ethereal, objects that must move out of the White House, in storage ready for her incumbent to create her own legacy. Like many women, her identity is controlled by the man she married, even after death, unable to forge her own destiny. Though she forms a bond with Nancy, who insists she has her life ahead of her, she knows this is not reality. Her life shall forever be defined by the grief, unable to move fully past it.

Larraín confronts the power of music and memory as Jackie plays the record of the musical Camelot (1960), recontextualised with new meaning through time’s progression, whilst we learn of Jack’s fascination with Arthurian legends as a child. Government becomes revealed as a construct itself: Camelot is mythical. Government is an apparatus, built on policies and amendments. Ideologies become simplified to soundbites and slogans, never in-depth or complex. Sean Spicer stands behind a wall of facts and lies, controlling data filtered out through to press outlets. Donald Trump was built through his brand and the heavy editing of The Apprentice (2004-present).  As Oppenheim explains to Vox, politicians create fairy tales.

Jackie is a fashion symbol: in one of the final scenes, we see her aghast at identical models in a shop window wearing her outfit, reducing the individual to mass-produced commodity. In his desktop documentary Not Another Camelot, Kevin B. Lee contrasts Jackie’s symbolic construction with Melania Trump, one of Trump’s many wives, model, owner of a jewellery line and crusader against cyber bullying, subsuming Jackie’s iconography as her own for Trump’s inauguration. Jackie, as construct, becomes worn as performance.

Although Kennedy’s assassination acts as the inciting incident, it is never the focal point. When Jackie is interviewed by a reporter, she rejects the notion of giving a “moment-by-moment account”. As Angelica Jade Bastién describes in The Outline, we see the “unflinching gore” as Kennedy bleeds out, brain matter leaving his skull. There isn’t the distance of the Zapruder film, but a grounded, subjective “emotional terror”, confronting the viewer to the incident’s unreality. Kennedy is never presented in full, but as a ghostly “aberration haunting Jackie and the film itself”, within the unreliability of recreating the past in memory. In No, reliving the past becomes a cathartic process; using similar techniques to documentary filmmakers like Louis Theroux and Joshua Oppenheim, he allows those present in the original campaign to become a part of its fictional version.

Larraín is grounded in aesthetic, yet never superficial. Neruda is built upon its artificiality, with rear projection motorcycle chases and lens flares. Larraín shot No on a TV broadcast camera from the 80s, framing the viewer within the influence of the media in the election whilst avoiding the superficiality of found footage or digital plug-ins. Using 16mm, Larraín evokes the female instability and vulnerability of Carol (2015), whilst grounding the viewer within the archive, achieving the epistemological and emotional process Jaimie Baron terms the “archive effect”, as the viewer recognises “images of time’s inscription on human bodies and places”.

Kennedy’s assassination will forever be defined by Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, captured as an accident of history, never knowing the significance of the film he would capture, and providing vital evidence to the event’s reality. Jackie’s use of 16mm acknowledges the importance of that 8mm film. Larraín recreates Jackie’s tour of the White House shot for shot, using the same tri-tube camera from No, creating performance of performance. Jackie’s world is a world of images, witnessing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald broadcast in real time, in mass media frenzy. Scroll down Facebook today, you’ll see a similar frenzy, whilst a news notification on your phone tells you of the next terrorist attack or celebrity death.

Jackie is perhaps most moving as it tackles questions of faith, grief and absence. The past year has seen powerful explorations of faith, like Scorsese’s masterpiece Silence, speaking universal truths. Jackie’s invoking of faith invites comparison to A Quiet Passion, where Emily Dickinson’s faith not only asks questions of meaning, but gender and female identity. Jackie questions what God could take a father away from his children. In her role as mother, female identity is instantly politicised through faith.

The late John Hurt, in one of his final roles, manifests these questions as Father Richard McSorley, tinged with an Irish lilt. McSorley’s philosophical musing is universal, yet carries added resonance as a reflection of Hurt’s own thoughts around mortality in the final year of his life, offering Jackie spiritual guidance through Biblical passages as they walk through Arlington. McSorley is neither fundamentalist preacher nor radical atheist, but a realist with his own doubts around God, his life behind him. McSorley’s words continue to haunt me, and give me comfort in my own life, offering a way to move on from trauma.

There comes a time in man’s search for meaning, when one realizes — there are no answers. When you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization — you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching. I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare into the dark, I wonder… is this all there is? And then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee. Because we do. You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

In sun-tinged shots, we see Jackie’s bond with her children. In the small moments, fragments of images burned within memory, our true life really shows.

You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

Elle (2016), dir. Paul Verhoven

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2016 has seen a strong offering of female-centric narratives. But does a female-centric narrative immediately qualify as feminist? Hidden Figures and 20th Century Women empower, whilst I, Olga Hepnarova and Jackie approach trauma and mental health issues without resorting to melodrama. Some from female voices, like Baden Baden, Toni Erdmann and Raw, allow an honest approach to female sexuality and identity. Yet as Angelica Jade Bastién argues in The Outline, as much as representation should be celebrated, we should remain critical before hailing everything as feminist. At the same time, we should question what feminism means, especially among trans (and non binary) exclusionary communities.

To entrust a female-centric narrative to Paul Verhoven opens questions. Verhoven is a provocateur, eroticising female bodies and sexualities in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). Verhoven has license to tell the narratives he wants to. But he also doesn’t. His perspective, as male gaze, will never be the same as a female perspective, never knowing the everyday, subliminal manifestations of sexism. Verhoven has power to abuse. In her video essay Consent in Cinema, Ivana Brehas questions Sharon Stone’s genital exposure in Basic Instinct, filmed without consent or preparation.

To depict women in film walks a complicated tightrope. As sexualised heroine? As chick flick/rom com office worker pining over men? Sexual trophy? Victim? The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) invoke rape and trauma as both exploitation and female empowerment – fantasy for the male gaze, or feminist wish fulfilment? Fatal Attraction (1987) presents Alex, as victim of mental health issues and depression, as femme fatale and murderer to be tamed. The films of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma offer superficial critiques of femininity, whilst conforming to negative stereotypes. Serial killers becomes otherised as creepy guys in the shadows, whose actions can be excused through mental health issues.

Verhoven never depicts Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) rape as eroticised or explicit; Elle is not pornography. There may be an occasional flash of a nipple, but Verhoven doesn’t glorify. But it remains impossible to watch: how can one voyeuristically place eye on screen as a woman is victimised and abused? Verhoven still otherises the rapist: though we discover his identity later on, he becomes defined by nothingness, dressed in black leather fetish wear and ski mask; we know only his eyes. Verhoven attempts to subvert the tropes of the female rape-revenge fantasy, and question his own culpability in representing women on screen, yet his gaze does not go away. As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker:

[Verhoven] displays no imagination because he’s uninterested in Michèle except as a tool for his problem set, for his message mechanism, for his facile issue-mongering, issue-muddying provocation.

Rape is not uncommon, but institutionally and structurally common. Criminal wrongdoing becomes excused because of alcohol, or marriage, or the provocation of a dress, or lack of pushback. Rapists remain venerated as movie stars and YouTubers, their accusers met with suspicion. For male and queer victims of sexual abuse, these facts are made more invisible. Meanwhile, rapists like Brock Turner are allowed to have prison sentences reduced to 3 months, or never charged at all. The bankrupt Detroit has only begun to process a backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits dating back to the nineties.

As Margot Singer reflects in The Normal School,

Rape happens behind closed doors, between the sheets, in locker rooms, in prisons, in churches, in refugee camps, in dorms, in back alleys, in three-thousand-dollar per night luxury hotel suites. It happens between the powerful and the weak, between men and women, men and boys, husbands and wives, adults and children, strangers and lovers, between ordinary people like you and me. You might say you’re just having a little fun, horsing around, hooking up. Sometimes there’s a knife or gun. Sometimes there’s a kiss. It isn’t so easy to tell lie from truth, intention from mistake.

When I was fifteen, I was raped. I never knew it at the time. I was never assaulted, never screamed, he was never a stranger. I defended it, bragged about it to friends, accepted it as my first time. I felt no power to say no, for fear of offending him. I felt no power to speak to friends about it, fearing stirring the pot. It took me years to acknowledge it as rape; he never allowed me to consent.

Michèle responds to her assault casually, moving on with life. She is already empowered, working as CEO of a video game company in a male-dominated environment. We see her discouragement from going to police. In a restaurant, Michèle finds confidence to matter-of-factly confess to family and friends her rape. Immediately, they insist she go to police, never realising everything is stacked against the victim. Why become spectacle to media attention and tabloid headlines, investing time and energy in a futile court case? Michèle’s fears are justified, as the daughter of imprisoned serial killer Georges Leblanc: an event she maintains some responsibility for, still sensationalised in TV documentaries. Michèle becomes subject to the sins of the father, unable to escape his legacy. Yet these issues affect all women, not just sufferers of childhood trauma.

Michèle’s harassment may seem unbearable, yet women bear it every single day, from unsolicited dickpics to eroticising comments from strangers. Michèle receives threatening text messages from her neighbour, and returns home to find her house broken into, her bed covered in a stranger’s cum.

Verhoven complicates Michèle’s rape, developing a sadomasochistic relationship with her rapist, leaving open questions of empowerment. Again, this is not uncommon. Maintaining a friendship with a rapist happens. To be raped more than once happens. Verhoven argues to Little White Lies that “the moment she discovers who the rapist is, American cinema and philosophy dictates it would have to be a revenge movie.” Yet many women are never afforded the power to assert revenge.

Though Verhoven does little to indict the power of cinema in asserting negative images of women, he finds another target: video games, using it as a perfect metaphor for complicity in screen violence”. The games Michèle develop conform to the male gaze, placing the viewer inside a Cthulhu-esque rape, controlled by the (male) gamer. Michèle asks the developers to make it more orgasmic, complicit within her own oppression. Michèle is not a feminist, but acts within the parameters set by a male-dominated industry. The sequence is remixed by a male co-worker, editing her face onto the victim’s avatar, highlighting the contradiction that Michèle remains blind to. When Michèle bribes a techy co-worker to discover the culprit, she finds he was the culprit all along.

Michèle is not innocent, or even a nice character. She drives her car into a neighbouring vehicle, in lieu of an empty space. She repeatedly rejects her mother’s potential partners. Michèle weaponises her sexuality in self-defence, yet this is not enough. She trains herself at the shooting range with a gun; keeps a hammer next to her pillow; carries pepper spray; looks in a store to protect herself. Unable to escape the incident, her memories are visceral: she fantasises about what she could have done, imagining crushing his skull in. Her cat, just as the viewer, watches on, complicit in the male gaze.

But Michèle is never afforded the possibility of her fantasy. Vincent attacks him, crushing his skull in as in her fantasy, affording the heroic rape-revenge scene to a man, manifesting patriarchal power systems more deeply.

Despite the trauma, Michèle does not close into a shell, but asserts sexual autonomy. We see her pressured into jerking off a co-worker in the office out of the blue, finishing in a bin. Michèle never becomes submissive, asserting power, in spite of male presence. As she spies through her window a la Rear Window (1954), she masturbates; spends time in the bath; masturbates a guy at the dinner table with a foot; maintains an affair with a friend’s partner, meeting together at a hotel. This honesty evokes the honesty of female sexuality in Toni Erdmann, where we see Winfried take pleasure in instructing her partner to climax over a petit fours.

At points, Elle has the vibe of a 1970s sex comedy, with the mundanity and ridiculousness of the sexual lives of Michèle, her mum and her friends. But sex comedy largely privileges male voices and female objectification, disseminating problematic ideologies, than allowing feminist voices. Elle struggles to become entertainment; like with the child abuse scandal of The Hunt (2012), the viewer is left with a constant sense of unease. In spite of its efforts at female empowerment, it remains problematic. The fact Elle lost an Oscar is a promising sign.

Raw (2016), dir. Julia Ducournau

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Universal seem to be undergoing a horror renaissance, thanks to some surprising hits by Blumhouse – Split, a not terrible M Night Shyamalan film, whilst Get Out, produced on a budget of $5 million and making over $150 million at the box office, has shown issues of race and privilege can be explored to large audiences. Where other studios rely on tentpoles, Universal latches on to other voices, like Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols, and, apparently, a French film from a first-time director, shown in Cineworlds across the country. Perhaps the horror film, in light of other international hits like Ringu (1998), is best at crossing cultural boundaries.

Raw is many things – a horror film, cannibalism film, coming of age film. Cinema struggles to depict university experience, presented as continuum, identical to adult life or high school life, rarely occupying a space in-between. In Boyhood (2014), university represents optimism as an endpoint to youth, whilst in Starter for 10 (2006), the conflict of university is reduced to a TV gameshow. Meanwhile, the CW teenager exists as unrealistically hot or unrealistically sexual, having experiences most people in their 20s never have. But university is complex, a period of identity formation and personal growth. Through first year, my entire self changed: changing priorities and interests, new bonds; I came to terms with my asexuality and, unlike Justine’s journey, I stopped eating meat. But I had to go through a lot of shit to get there. Raw reveals university for what it actually is: institutionalised initiations and hazings, used to justify physical harm and sexual assault; freshers pressured with alcohol and sexuality and no choice but to conform, whilst lecturers openly favour certain students whilst disregarding others.

The veterinary school of Raw is a construct: as she tells Little White Lies, Ducournau sought the concrete, brutalist image of the major campuses of American universities than French campuses. The film seeps of style: bloodbaths, paint-drenched sex, parties in abandoned buildings, neon clubbing, an electro soundtrack. Ducournau uses long takes, throwing the audience into a car crash on a road or the campus’ students walking around early in their PJs with little prior context. Yet Raw carries a degree of authenticity: Ducournau is a young, first time director, not someone twice her age looking back nostalgically. Garance Marillier brings youth to Justine: cast into the unknown, about to graduate high school and go to college herself, unable to invoke personal experience.

Ducournau speaks to a specific experience: a female perspective, reclaiming the dudebro masculinity of films like Animal House (1978). For Ducournau, to invoke the female gaze is an “instant reflex”; unlike the rape scenes of Elle, where female sexuality is presented through male perspective. Raw is filled with naked bodies: Justine’s underwear, her naked chest as her body is under attack by a rash, showering, pissing on the roof with Alexia; the casual freedom of clubbing, as bodies become more exposed. But Ducournau refuses to titillate, avoiding the eroticism of Brian De Palma. In one scene, Justine, adorned with dress and lipstick, makes out with her own reflection, as we hear the lyrics:

First seduction lesson:

Be an educated slut

Make fun of boys

Ride ‘em like horses

Find oral sex amusing

Just don’t call it

But when it comes down to it:

Be the best at it!

As Ducournau points out in a Q&A with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the song is by feminist sisters Orties, taking clichés of rap and “mak[ing] it their own”, treating men the way “men talk about women”. In a broader sense, Raw does the same. Justine undergoes rites of passage, entering the film virginal and innocent, having never eaten flesh, or tasted human flesh; she’s even smoking cigarettes by the end. As Ducournau acknowledges to Little White Lies, “losing your virginity is unfortunately always associated with something very sacred, very important.” Sexuality never becomes romantic, grounded in friendships and needs, animalistic as extension of cannibalistic desire. When Justine is pressured to fuck a stranger during a party, we see her hesitation. Ducournau abstracts this sexuality, bathing both in yellow and green paint as though it were an experimental art piece, yet speaks to the reality of our culture of coercion.

Justine’s cannibalistic relationship with her sister Alexia feels like a trope, evoking the vampiric sisterhood of Byzantium (2013), the lesbianism of Carmilla (1872), or as Ducournau points out in a Q&A, the classical sibling rivalries of Biblical stories and Grecian myths. We don’t learn their relationship immediately: we’re introduced to Justine in the car with her parents, deploying information gradually before learning of Alexia’s cannibalism. Indeed, Alexia wasn’t Justine’s sister within early drafts, yet sisterhood brings an unconditional blood bond beyond expositional friendship conflicts, with a lifelong history to a time before.

Alexia, as older student and sibling, pressures Justine to conform: follow hazing rituals, go clubbing, drink heavily, have sex. Alexia encourages Justine to perform to the male gaze: she can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt, must wear a dress, bathe herself in make-up, “Brazilian” any sign of vaginal hair. In the process of transformation to cannibalism, Justine asserts her sexual autonomy: it’s her vagina, not to be circumcised, slicing off Alexia’s finger with a pair of scissors in the process.

Justine’s relationship with her roommate Adrien is more complex, complicated by his friendship with Alexia. Adrien introduces himself to Justine with his homosexuality, using university as his sexual liberation after twenty years in the closet; within minutes of his introduction, he’s making out with a dude whilst clubbing. Later, Justine returns home at night, walking in on Adrien receiving oral. But this isn’t treated as a joke; Justine closes the door, as he whimpers on, still tempted to listen in.

Ducournau invokes Adrien as an identifying character that refuses a heteronormative male gaze, disallowing us a proxy for sexual gaze to Justine’s sexuality. As she points out in the Q&A, were Adrien presented as heterosexual, the viewer would perceive a sexual tension within their relationship. Justine and Adrien do have sex, highlighting the complicated nature of their relationship and perceptions around homosexuality: flexible, or as though it doesn’t “count” because he lacks attraction. But needs and desires transcend genders, identities and labels, just as asexuals can have sex without attraction. Adrien jerks off to porn, then makes a mistake to satisfy her needs over his own. Where does friendship begin and sexuality end? Justine becomes enraptured by sex, whilst Adrien repeatedly tells her to stop, explaining his issues to her the next morning in class.

To have sexuality this complicated is refreshing. My sexual identity in first year seems completely apart from my identity now: questioning my homosexuality and attraction to other genders; feeling obligated to have sex, whilst dismissed for not wanting to when everyone around me seemed to be screwing; drunkenly sleeping with people I should never have seen in the first place. Adrien and Justine eventually go back to each other, because sexuality is never simple.

Using cannibalism to explore issues of female identity and sexuality draws parallels to The Neon Demon, where cannibalism acts as metaphor for how ideals of beauty (literally) eats one alive. But cannibalism inescapably ends up asking questions; in The Lost City of Z, cannibalism becomes associated with the primitivism, whilst The Hills Have Eyes (1977) invokes similar imagery. Cannibalism asks questions of where we set our socially accepted rules. If it’s okay to eat chicken eggs, why isn’t it acceptable to eat human uteruses? If animal flesh is okay, why isn’t human? Are we truly ordained by God with dominion? Justine asks similar questions based on her vegetarianism, before the upbringing constructed by her parents unravels. Her conversion is gradual: pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney during initiation; stealing a burger from the lunch counter; eating shawarma with Adrien, as though it were the postcredits scene to The Avengers (2012).

Raw reveals the horror of life as a veterinary student, and, by extension, ethical questions of animal testing and the meat industry. Is Justine eating a human cadaver in the morgue at a party or finger food as though it were a chicken leg the real horror? Ducournau is confrontational, using long takes to reveal cows and horses treated as objects to be killed and dissected; taxidermied animals displayed in basements; the family dog put down for fear of developing a taste for human flesh.

Justine’s journey is inversion, using conversion to carnivorism as metaphor. The first time my revulsion to meat manifested, I was drunk. Sat in an unreputable fast food place past midnight with raving socialists, some film about communism in an Eastern European country playing in the background on late night television. A visceral moment and memory: eating meat without any semblance of sustenance, for the sake of eating. This was my shawarma scene, though it took me many months to decide completely.

Raw may have its share of horror tropes, like the creepy old guy in hospital the night after Alexia’s accident, yet the greatest horror comes from our own reality. Raw speaks to our realities of sexuality, university life and the animal industry where it exists within the echelons of the greatest of coming-of-age films.

The General (1926), dir. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton

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Screening at Cinema City, with a Q&A with UEA film scholar Peter Kramer

 The General is a film everyone knows. Every time we see a train depart off its intended course, it owes at least something to The General. The General has lodged itself into popular consciousness: yet when it was released, much like Citizen Kane (1941), or The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or Blade Runner (1982), it received mixed reviews, met as a commercial failure. Harold Lloyd remained the most popular silent comedian in the United States; Keaton’s career at United Artists was at an end. But The General underwent reappraisal: Kramer notes that during the last years of Keaton’s life, he witnessed the film’s revival, finally recognised as the masterpiece he believed it to be.

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The film’s imagery has become a part of the popular consciousness

I didn’t laugh at a single gag in The General.

This should perhaps be a problem, but the film remains a sight to behold for its scale. Lloyd may have been just as daring with the spectacle of his films, hanging from a clock above a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923), or caught between crowds in Speedy (1928), but Keaton shows a true mastery of visual composition and the movement of gags: bridges collapse, dams flood, battles rage amongst trees. The film may be constrained to a railroad (filmed on the Eastern Railway in Oregon), but there is an expansiveness few could achieve; Keaton pays close attention to the geometry of the frame, framing his character as an outsider. We become in awe of the immensity of the landscape as the train cuts across it; Keaton’s framing of the battle scenes, men reduced to mere pinpricks or illuminated in silhouette, can only bring to mind later war epics.

Dziga Vertov avoided using intertitles to profess cinema as a new medium distinct from bourgeois forms, with documentary realism, but Keaton’s sparse reliance (besides brief exposition or dialogue) on the intertitle draws the viewer’s attention to the visual.

As Tony Zhou explains in his video essay Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag, Keaton, with his roots in vaudeville, kept his focus on what could be achieved in camera, rather than relying on editing techniques or camera effects. The General’s sole visual effect appears in one shot, as Keaton’s protagonist Johnnie peers through a peephole cut into a tablecloth to view the capture of his fiancée Annabelle, superimposed upon the frame.

But my audience seemed split: The General is a funny movie. It’s something to laugh at, enjoy, have a good time with. Enjoy the spectacle – why apply pretentious intellectualism to every frame that passes the eye?

But The General is a film about the American Civil War. A silent comedy telling a historical narrative isn’t uncommon: though Lloyd and Chaplin drew much focus to the present day, films like The Gold Rush (1925) looked back to the 1890s, a period best remembered today as a breakfast cereal. The railroad is a new frontier, the train a symbol of modernity: one of many important inventions of the 19th century that rapidly reshaped life as we knew it in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, creating a new sense of connectedness in a country on the verge of war. Even one of the earliest silent films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), perhaps the first Western, focused on the railroad.

Just as with other comedians who grew out of the silent era, The General draws a duality between modernity and change against established tradition. In Speedy, Lloyd’s protagonist must fight to preserve New York City’s heritage, ensuring the last horse-drawn carriage in Greenwich Village is not dismantled by bully boys or business tycoons, in a city fast adapting to automobiles and the subway; in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s Tramp tries to keep up with the mechanical pace of modern industrial life, when all he wants in life is the woman he loves.

But then what about the Civil War? The American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, seems to have faded from memory: cinema focuses on different wars, celebrating heroism yet advocating pacifism in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), or reducing Vietnam to a mere backdrop to cinematic franchises for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017).

Cinema focuses on the Before through the slave narratives of 12 Years a Slave (2013), or the After, stripping the Western to a set of codes and conventions, celebrating a heroic dualism whilst reinforcing problematic images of Native Americans.

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Perhaps one of the film’s most interesting aspects is its focus on the American Civil War, an era easily presented through problematic portrayals

Where we invoke the American Civil War, it is almost always racial: in Lincoln (2012), Spielberg valorises Lincoln’s efforts to control the House and pass the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, Free State of Jones (2016) drew most of its attention for its focus on a white saviour narrative.

Silent cinema carries an uneasy heritage. The Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the first blockbuster, based on Griffith’s memories of his own father, drew sympathy to Southern slave owners, was met with protests by the NAACP and sparked the resurgence of the KKK. The Civil War may feel an eternity ago, yet cinema began less than two decades after the end of the war; by the 1920s, it remained in living memory. In Speedy, we become acquainted with a group of elderly veterans, recounting their stories of the war in a bar.

It still carries implications today.

The Civil War, as one of the earliest wars to carry a photographic record (alongside the Crimean War), seems the earliest war to carry a degree of cinematic accuracy, creating a moving record of the period impossible at the time, before even World War I, World War II or Vietnam could become truly visual wars through news coverage.

The General seems largely apolitical: the farthest acknowledgement of slavery is through a Cotton Growers Exchange amongst the storefronts in the background of a shot. Chaplin was more political, satirising Hitler’s fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), eventually branding him as un-American. Yet the film’s paradoxical approach to war raises something of interest.

As Kramer emphasised, the film’s title doesn’t refer to Keaton’s character: it refers to his engine. The film draws a duality between deserter and soldier: in the opening scene, Johnnie is rejected at enlistment, displaying an apathetic rage, retorting “if you lose the war, don’t blame me.” Unlike the slave owners, he becomes regarded as a disgrace to the South.

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Johnnie is dissuaded from joining the war at the recruitment office; his role as a train driver is considered too important to sacrifice

Johnnie tries to avoid the war – he’s a train driver, first and foremost, holding onto his existing way of life amidst the chaos of war, yet no longer able to even spend a comfortable night in bed. In one sequence, the train passes by a battlefield emerged out of nowhere; Johnnie is a side character to a historical epic, placed as protagonist. Later, he stands aside from a group of marching soldiers, almost flattened as he tries to cross the road alongside Annabelle.

As the opening intertitle informs us, there are two loves in Johnnie’s life: his fiancée Annabelle, and the General. The film is on the verge of creating a screwball comedy love triangle; Johnnie brings home a framed photograph to Annabelle of him and the train.

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One of Johnnie’s two loves – the General herself

Unavoidably, Johnnie becomes caught up in war: he must facilitate it, carrying soldiers and cargo upon his train. The narrative arc proves Johnnie’s worth as a soldier, unwittingly appointing him as lieutenant in the closing scenes. Johnnie adopts the role of soldier as performance, taking neither side, adopting the uniform of both North and South, creating a patchwork identity. He must rescue his fiancée  from the deliberating North, soldiers who are implicitly rapists, stealing a uniform to escape. He becomes regarded as a Union spy and a saboteur, knocking down power lines, disrupting train tracks. Whether intentionally or not, Johnnie must determine the outcome of the battle on Rock River Bridge; he can’t even swing a lance, yet he must fight – and create chaos.

He adopts his identity wholeheartedly: Johnnie waves the Confederate flag, before swiftly being knocked down. Where today the flag must be removed from South Carolina flagpoles, erased from the bonnet of The Dukes of Hazard (1978-85), or unwittingly worn by Radar in Paper Towns (2015), here it is a symbol of the war. Yet as Johnnie embraces Annabelle, kissing her whilst leading men to battle with his lance, he will never commit fully to this identity.

Yet what of the role of women? The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s seemed to present men and women in equity and romantic harmony; or, still to this day, women as housewife and sex object. Some female filmmakers, like Alice Guy Blaché, were able to make a living in early cinema, but this was an exception. Annabelle may be Johnnie’s love, and she may be able to drive a train, yet she is regularly excluded from the film’s narrative. She conforms to the trope of the damsel in distress, captured by the North; becoming literally faceless as Johnnie places her in a sack for storing boots, throwing her into a train’s cargo, allowing her body to be crushed and trampled; later, he pelts her with water.

Kramer questions whether she holds more agency than we suspect: Annabelle controls Johnnie’s destiny, wanting him to be an ideal man, pushing him towards being a soldier. Yet these readings should not excuse the fact that the films of the 1920s were largely far from feminist.

But can we really declare The General as one of the greatest films ever made? As the cinematic library has expanded, its ranking in Sight & Sound has declined. The position of films in the popular consciousness is, as ever, in flux. The power of the silent, or indeed of the American Civil War, is always changing.

The General is an essential of silent cinema: but it is not a masterpiece, nor is it even necessarily a comedy as we understand it today. Chaplin and Lloyd may perhaps even be a greater watch. But The General still demands to be seen, if only ever once.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), dir. Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ filmography splits between two themes: a deep connection to a musical artist and their hidden backstory, or a destructive suburban life, presented from a feminist perspective. Superstar, long suppressed, reliant on bootleg copies, brings all these themes into focus in its short 40 minute runtime.

In an interview around the release of I’m Not There. (2007), Haynes spoke of the process of acquiring consent of the artist for his projects – received from Bob Dylan for I’m Not There., rejected by David Bowie for Velvet Goldmine (1998), and sued by Richard Carpenter for Superstar. Though these films are about real historical figures, they were never about the real figures themselves, but something larger: a mythology; a reflection of time and culture, that could be expressed through an analogue, but not the person themselves.

Haynes both speculates and projects: in I’m Not There., Haynes reaches the ultimate level of subversion, embodying different Dylans reflecting different eras, repurposing artistic influences as analogues. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), poet under interrogation; Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), black kid blues singer travelling across the Midwest in the back of train carriages; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), documentary subject and gospel singer; Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), James Dean-esque rebel without a cause; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), moving across the London art scene a la Dont Look Back (1967); and Billy McCarty (Richard Gere), rural, turn-of-the-century outlaw.

In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes folds multiple 1970s music personalities into one to create an analogous portrait of David Bowie through Brian Slade (John Rhys Meyers), and his relationship with musician Curt (Ewan McGregor), combining the soundtrack with the music of Brian Eno and shifting through musical eras from mods and rockers to glam rock. Beyond the image of the static artist, Haynes’ artist becomes fluid: a performative identity. Haynes never seeks to create the authentic biopic: only the sense of one.

To Haynes, the musician is central to the construction of his identity: in Velvet Goldmine, Arthur (Christian Bale) becomes analogous to Haynes, embracing his sexuality through Slade’s music. Haynes never directed Superstar through sinister intentions: first and foremost, it is grounded in an appreciation of the music itself. Superstar could never exist without the Carpenters’ music, recreated in stage performances. Haynes speaks of his appreciation of Karen Carpenter himself in a documentary segment, credited as DJ Todd Donovan, expressing what was so radical about her work.

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Haynes as ‘Todd Donovan’

As listeners to an artist’s work, we are never aware of their authentic lives: only the sense, represented within lyrics, newspaper headlines, interviews and speculation. In Velvet Goldmine, the private persona reveals Slade’s queer identity; here, Karen’s private persona reveals her struggle with anorexia. Objectively, Superstar is a biopic about Karen Carpenter. Yet where Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. acted as a retrospective celebration of the musical scene of the 1960s and 70s, Superstar is more the story of a woman’s struggle with anorexia, though embodied through the persona of Carpenter.

Karen Carpenter’s name may not carry the same cultural recognition today as it had in 1988, but the narrative of the vulnerable female celebrity recurs throughout culture, from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse, whose struggle with drug addiction became posthumously represented in Amy (2015) through archival footage. Yet we do not understand their personal struggles through a reality, we understand it through a constructed image. As Lindsay Ellis explains in her Loose Canon analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s representation within culture, Monroe became more a symbol than a person: a brand and a piece of intellectual property.

Haynes juxtaposes Karen’s musical performances with her personal struggle. As a cultural icon celebrated by Nixon, Karen feels the weight of representing positive American values. Singing about being “on top of the world” becomes ironic: she is in her depths. In the final scene, Karen’s music coalesces together as collage, removed from comprehension as her bodily self degrades.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Haynes is able to communicate emotion through dolls. Haynes simultaneously saves his budget whilst presenting a heavily cited influence on body image – the slender, impossible body perpetuated by Barbie. As the film progresses, we see Karen’s body become slenderer and slenderer – just as the ideal body size decreases as the years and decades pass.

Haynes accepts the limitation of low-budget filmmaking and uses it to his advantage, never losing anything in the process: he understands composition, uses period-appropriate sets, understands how to use colour (as so beautifully shown in Far from Heaven (2002)), lights every scene perfectly, understands editing. Haynes is no amateur: he isn’t a 15 year old directing an Action Figure Adventure. Haynes recreates Karen’s musical performances, depicting her in the recording studio, or in a black TV studio draped in colourful lights. Haynes doesn’t need to show a studio audience; the performance conveys enough. Yet in bootleg VHS form, Superstar becomes defined by its lo-fi nature.

In part, the film takes on the form an essay film, presenting historical context (the TV plays in the background of the family home, with news reports about the riots and revolutions of the 1960s and the Nixon administration) alongside propositions and arguments, examining the Carpenters’ place in American society and the rise of anorexia, illustrated through scenes. Haynes places information around anorexia in the form of expositional title cards, whilst his documentary-style footage acts as a source to be analysed.

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The film’s title cards lend an essayistic structure

When we were taught about anorexia and bulimia in high school, it never felt like it was going to achieve much. Eating disorders were as badly taught as sex education was in the same classes, unable to communicate how widespread rape is and how consent is misunderstood, exempted from queer narratives in favour of the dominant heterosexual one. Anorexia was taught in a collection of testimonials presented on a page, never presented as a real, tangible thing, treating male anorexia as uncommon and an afterthought. Its sufferers were never living, breathing humans, not acknowledging that many of the people in the room may also come to suffer, or have suffered, from it.

Through the character of Karen, Haynes presents scenes that may feel familiar. Karen feels the pressures of being a public media personality, encouraged to experiment with diets, like the Stillman diet, in order to lose weight, because a columnist described her as “chubby”. These pressures are only amplified today, through constant comment from sexist Daily Mail paparazzi shoots and social media, or the edited instincts of Photoshop. Karen finds restaurant and family meals difficult, refusing to eat from her plate as Richard asks her to just take a bite. Karen’s revulsion to food becomes the enemy; in a disjuncture edit, food is shot in stark monochrome as though it were a 1950s horror film. Haynes’ editing is subversive and experimental, showing the constantly decreasing weight on the scales, lips moving, plates being replaced and taken away, to depict a indescribable relationship with anorexia.

Haynes implicates a number of pressures: the Ex-Lax pills promise an easy fix and obsession, only servicing consumer culture in a culture of overabundance. Similarly, when Karen reaches 108 pounds, her family toasts her progress – only making Karen feel like the process will be easy; recovery becomes just as dangerous as the condition alone. When Karen confides in her dietician over the telephone, she feels unable to progress through a “long, hard battle” that will last several years.

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The Ex-Lax pills become a source of dependency for Karen

Haynes grounds these pressures within the suburban home of the latter half of the 20th century. In the opening sequence, the camera pans through a suburban neighborhood, until focusing upon the Carpenter household. Through the production design, Haynes recreates an authentic image of the 1970s household. The suburban home as a constructed self-destructive prison within society to a female protagonist saw Carol develop chemical sensitivity in Safe (1995), Cathy’s socially taboo relationship with Raymond and her husband Richard’s queer sexuality in Far from Heaven, and Carol’s secret relationship with Therese in Carol (2015). Here, Haynes implicates the overprotective family: Karen’s mother, Agnes, believes she must be protected by living at home, away from a lifestyle of drugs, though Karen is in her 20s. She becomes imprisoned by her own family, only to develop a dependence on an entirely legal drug.

Yet this suburban lifestyle exists because of the era it exists within. Through exposition, Haynes links the post-war end of rationing, bringing about the plentiful availability of food, to the rise of anorexia. Karen experiences the pressures of femininity – as a woman with a career, she feels the pressures to look good that many men do not experience. In exposition, Haynes describes anorexia as a rejection of the “doctrines of femininity”, in line with how Susan Bordo described anorexia as a resistance to cultural norms and a rebellion against femininity in Unbearable Weight (1993).

Karen wants agency over her music career, social circles and her body, yet encounters continual obstacles. She declares she will move away from home to undergo her treatment, yet encounters resistance from her parents. Undergoing the treatment, she feels “more in control than ever”, yet still does not have full agency.

Haynes’ editing adopts the structure of a music documentary, combining montages of remixed archival footage, animated newspaper headlines, news reports on anorexia’s effects, and vox pop interviews with people on the street. In I’m Not There., documentary became a central part of the narrative: we learn of Jack Rollins’ life through documentary extracts, interviewing family and past collaborators, with archival footage of Rollins receiving an award and performing at a church presented with the benefit of hindsight. In the sections focusing on Jude Quinn, we become aware of the unseen observer, D.A. Pennebaker, documenting the events seen in Dont Look Back (though the timeframe of events is rearranged), reinforced through cinéma-vérité-esque monochrome cinematography. Haynes becomes interested in telling multiple narratives, rather than relying upon a single source.

Superstar should not officially exist, buried through lawsuits intended to protect Karen’s legacy. The film never seeks to present the official narrative of Karen’s career or relationship with anorexia. Taken as a precursor to Haynes’ later film work, Superstar is an essential watch, often uneasy and depressing, yet no less powerful.

Hidden Figures (2016), dir. Theodore Melfi

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Around the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a Twitter debate seemed to rage around the right over the politicising of Star Wars. #DumpStarWars seemed slightly ridiculous, but I wonder how the same people might respond to Hidden Figures. The very existence of the film’s protagonists is a political act. Though I’m slightly disappointed the Screen Unseen wasn’t Jackie, Hidden Figures has similarities: it creates a new narrative of the 1960s, recontextualising the dominant male narrative as a female narrative.

Nearly five decades after Apollo 11, space cinema continues to inspire. The fact we sent man to the moon in a vessel is remarkable. NASA’s funding may be a struggle; we may not be on Mars yet; but the arc of history is slow.

We sent man to the moon because of the calculations of black women working at the Langley Research Center in a segregated state. That itself is perhaps more remarkable.

Katherine Johnson.

Dorothy Vaughn.

Mary Jackson.

Like Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) attempting to comprehend the heavily redacted document given to her, we must navigate between the lines in history to find forgotten voices. Alongside 12 Years a Slave (2013), Moonlight and Fences, more African American-led narratives are being brought to the screen, often led by black producers, cutting across white cultural hegemony.

Hidden Figures feels like progress.

The Help (2011) may have created a strong portrait of African-American segregation in Mississippi, but it was ultimately a white narrative, filtered through the perspectives of Skeeter (Emma Stone) and a white writer and director. The Dish (2000) illuminated the unheard voices of Apollo 11, but those unheard voices were white Australian men. Often, mainstream black narratives have a tendency to sanitise themselves; in Red Tails (2012), we learn of the Tuskegee Airmen’s involvement in WWII, yet the film exempts itself from depicting strong racial resentment and controversial politics of the period.

In the backdrop of a Trump administration so vitriolic to the existence of minorities and women, this is exactly the narrative we need. The Help still clung onto a post-racial present where we have cured racism, decades after the demise of segregation. Hidden Figures has sympathetic white characters – but as the minority, not the rule, in a world dominated by entrenched racism and segregation. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gives leniency and the benefit of the doubt to Katherine, but she is still granted agency within her own narrative. The late John Glenn (Glen Powell) stages an unintentional war against the minimisation of black women in NASA, shaking our protagonists’ hands amid press coverage on the runway against the instincts of everyone else, whilst granting Katherine a new job to double check the stats before he launches off into space. Harrison and Glenn never overshadow the narrative: it is not theirs to have; Glenn’s story was already told in The Right Stuff (1983).

Working as human computers in NASA, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) are never seen as people – they’re the disembodied voice of Siri, able to fit in your pocket, attending to one’s every need, stripping them of any personality or humanity. As women, they may never be considered fit for the workplace. As black women, they may never be considered as fully people. They become trash, equal to a stack of their work stuck in the trashcan by Al.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), humanity only launched into space because the first ape threw the first bone in combat; here, the agent of progress is a stick of chalk, transitioning between bone and spacecraft as Al hands Katherine the chalk as though from God to Adam in The Creation of Adam (1512). Our protagonists are not just black women – they’re mathematicians. Culturally, we celebrate the male genius, hailing the efforts of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). That is not to say we shouldn’t hail the efforts of a schizophrenic, or a gay man screwed over by his country – but to tell young black girls that they can change history, and be launched off in a rocket ship to outer space, is very powerful indeed.

Like the technological scepticism of an Adam Curtis documentary, the enemy of the film is IBM, attempting to murder our protagonists just as HAL did in 2001. Hidden Figures, set in 1961, exists in a transitory window between human computers and digital ones: yet as the film makes clear, the digital computer can never be depended upon in isolation. The women under the tutorage of Dorothy Vaughn must cannibalise themselves in service of the machine, working overtime to facilitate the launch of the IBMs, eliminating their own job security. Where in The Help black narratives were only allowed to be told because Skeeter was ‘generous’ enough to publish them, Katherine is constantly split between crediting herself as co-author on documents only to have them rejected, or erasing her own existence from history.

Looking back on the 1960s, its easy to focus attention on one paradigm over another: on one side, social reforms, NASA, culture, fashion and LSD; on another, nuclear annihilation, systemic racism, Vietnam and assassinations. NASA is defined by astronauts, flags, the dream of Kennedy and the war against Russia, removed from the context of segregation. High school never taught us how segregation played out, only a century after emancipation, as a handful of states refused to follow the Supreme Court’s mandate.

Here, we see the fringes of wider battles of the Civil Rights Movement – on television, we see coverage of a racist bus bombing; Katherine feels distraught at her kids seeing this, but her partner Jim insists that they must watch, and understand what it means to be black in the United States. Our protagonists walk past a race riot as police intervene, batons in hand. We never see the beatings play out; we never see any lynchings. The N-word is never spoken. But this is not the film’s focus: it’s a PG rated film about NASA.

Racism manifests in subtle ways: where The Help presented going to a segregated bathroom as painful, deemed an ‘unclean’ act, here it is amplified, as Katherine takes a 40 minute walk across the NASA campus, folders of calculations in hand, to go to the solitary colored bathroom. Elevated to working in the office, Katherine becomes subject to the disbelief of white male co-workers, defined as a spectacle, her colourful dress drowning out an office of white shirts and black ties. It is a joy that, unlike The Help, Hidden Figures devotes so much of its runtime to making white people uncomfortable. Even when Katherine is granted the privilege to attend a board meeting, treated with some level of respect, her calculations are met not with applause but jokes. The frame minimises Katherine’s role, blocked out of view by Al, impossible to be seen.

It persists through complacency: Katherine, Dorothy and Mary may be the best of the best working in NASA, but to the average white man, there is no material benefit nor payrise to showing basic respect and human decency. Paul (Jim Parsons) refuses to ever go against protocol in a workplace which has never employed women in major roles, leading to consternation with Al and a refusal to enact change. Yet as Katherine makes abundantly clear to him, “there’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth.”

As a woman in the workplace, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) shows how deeply the status quo penetrates. Gender equality acts as a form of politeness when objections to black women working in NASA are raised, softened to being because of their gender, even perpetuated within the black community by Jim. Vivian, blind to the systemic racism within herself, never embraces femininity nor treats Katherine as an equal or friend; becoming an extension of the white patriarchy, complicit within their injustices, never advocating for her own struggle for gender equality.

Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish veteran of the Holocaust working on the project, having survived pogroms and extermination, symbolises the hope of the future for African Americans. Jewish Americans rewrote American culture and politics: Stan Lee created a superhero empire; Robert Oppenheimer cracked open the atom and gave birth to the nuclear bomb; Mel Brooks made icons of American cinema. If Zielinski, in 20 years, has come this far, why can’t African Americans?

When we narrativise the Civil Rights Movement, we often focus on individual, extraordinary figures, like Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whilst forgetting smaller, forgotten voices, who played just as instrumental a part. Rosa Parks was far from the only black woman. Small acts of rebellion are central to the struggle. The film’s protagonists may be exceptions rather than the rule, but there were still thousands of black women working for NASA in the 1960s, each with their own narrative.

In retroactive joy, the opening scene introduces Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, their broken-down car on the side of the road as they drive to work, pulled over by a white cop. Today, we might expect to see the three beaten and shot, but the film twists this, as he escorts them to the NASA facility, chasing after his vehicle at breakneck speed as they revel in the miracle of being three black women chasing a cop in 1961.

Change is only able to come when one demands change; just as with man’s footsteps on the Moon, it requires “one small step” to make a “giant leap for mankind”. But as with Cathy’s involvement with the NAACP in Far from Heaven (2002), change depends upon the willingness of white people. In her courtroom case for the right to an education, Mary makes a personal plea to the white judge to allow her to study night classes in a segregated school that refuses to even acknowledge the existence of women, for him to be the first and go down in history. It may never express the same emotional power as a similar scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but it’s still important. In response to Katherine’s powerful, rain-soaked demand for respect and sympathy from her male co-workers, Al makes fighting segregation a personal issue, removing “COLORED” labels from coffee machines and removing the sign from the women’s bathroom with a wrench.

The tragedy is, this feels like fantasy. Al would receive a talking to. Other southern NASA institutions wouldn’t follow suit. Someone would go back in there with a screwdriver and reinstate the sign. Yet in the midst of transgender bathroom debates, the question over whether bathrooms need a race or a gender for the most basic of human acts still speaks a power.

All the film’s protagonists desire is parity. To learn programming, Dorothy must venture outside the Colored section of the library to find a book on FORTEAN, be shouted at by a librarian, pulled outside by an aggressive white guard, and hide the book in her bag which she bought with her taxes anyway. In doing so, she appears to turn the first IBM on ever. Our protagonists must work above and beyond their male coworkers, finding as many loopholes as possible, in order to just keep up with them. To rise above, Mary must apply to a degree that isn’t open to her.

Hidden Figures is a story of both regression and progression: each small step forward only brings our protagonists one step back. In the most illuminating example of this, Katherine demands the unaffordable pearls that are an essential part of her uniform she’s meant to have on day one; she only ever gets them when she leaves the job, out of the kindness of white people. Even when she attends, she is marginalised, unable to watch the mission that she ensured happened.

We understand our protagonists as fully formed characters, with their own personalities; Katherine is embedded within black culture, attending church sermons preaching of the struggle, living as a mother yet as far more than just that, with the same struggles of finding time between work and family as any other adult, with her own developing relationships. The soundtrack refuses to evoke white music of the period, instead opting for new songs by Pharrell Williams.

Yet directed by the white guy who did St. Vincent (2014), Hidden Figures will never carry the intensity and anger of a Spike Lee joint, or of Beyonce’s unapologetic Lemonade (2016). It may not do anything remarkably new either: it is not the definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement, nor is it the definitive film of the Space Race. The film never has the budget to recreate rocket launch-offs or shuttles recovered from the ocean, instead relying upon an uneasy mix between CGI and archival footage, relaying historical information through awkward expositional text. Mid-way through the film, as with how For All Mankind (1989) opens, we see JFK’s iconic speech:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […] We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Maybe ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) already explored the struggle of women amidst the Space Race. Timeless (2016) already invoked Katherine Johnson’s role within NASA just a few months ago.

Not every scene works perfectly, nor is every line of dialogue perfectly written. But that is besides the point. Hidden Figures never strives to be a masterpiece of American cinema.

But it is heartwarming. It is essential.

Silence (2016), dir. Martin Scorsese

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This review contains spoilers

Martin Scorsese has been attempting to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence (1966) for over two decades. Though Endō’s perspective was a Catholic one, it was still a Japanese one – in a country where being Christian remains an insignificant minority (Scorsese dedicates the film to them in the closing credits). Masahiro Shinoda directed an adaptation in 1971, but Scorsese’s adaptation offers the possibility of a new perspective – rather than associate with the Japanese locals, we associate with the Portuguese Jesuit padres and the Dutch traders, attempting to spread European knowledge and the word of the gospel.

Had the film been produced in the 90s or 00s, it might have looked quite different: never having the lush, digital cinematography which jumps off the screen, or led by Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro and Gael García Bernal, rather than the underestimated talents of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Taking on other projects, Scorsese had the time to reflect, and refine the film to perfection, knowing the book inside and out, intrinsically linked to his spirituality. This isn’t just a misguided attempt by a studio to make a cheap cash-in of a popular book.

Before watching this film with my parents for my 20th birthday, I ended up in an extended discussion with my mum about colonialism and empires, and how that very ideology becomes normalised. The world is built upon the colonial brutality of Christianity, spreading the faith as European settlers into America, Australia and Africa, eradicating cultural traditions in the process, regarding other customs as those of savages. Understanding 17th century Japan might be difficult for western viewers to comprehend outside of bill wurtz’s history of japan (2016), split between local warlords under the Tokugawa shogunate, closed off from other nations outside of the Netherlands.

As wurtz summarises in relation to the emergence of Buddhism:

knock knock. get the door, it’s Religion

“please try the religion,” he said

“no,” said everybody

“try it”

“no,” said everybody again, quieter this time

Silence could have become a mere critique of imperialism, but it remains a deeply spiritual narrative. Not since The Passion of the Christ (2005) has a spiritual film this major appeared on the big screen: Silence premiered in Rome, screened in Vatican City, with Andrew Garfield’s performance of Rodrigues praised by Pope Francis.

That is not to say that spiritual films aren’t all around us. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) was one of the most critically lauded films of last year, relying heavily on a spiritual, natural environment, whilst Mel Gibson is returning to cinema with Hacksaw Ridge (2016) alongside Garfield. As Andrew Saladino acknowledges in his video essay The Rise (or Return?) of Christian Films, spiritual films make up a large percentage of the American box office, often produced by major studios, yet are largely overlooked in box office analyses.

Scorsese has explored explicitly spiritual themes before: in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), he embellished and humanised the life of Jesus, leading to furore from the Catholic Church; in Kundun (1997), he explored the childhood of the Dalai Lama; whilst in Living in the Material World (2011), he depicted George Harrison’s spirituality through interviews and archive footage. Yet much of Scorsese’s most ardent fans have been raised on DiCaprio snorting coke and screwing women, or DeNiro with a gun. Though one can find traces of Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing in Taxi Driver (1976) if you look for it, it never is the focus: Paul Schrader’s screenplay posits a lost man in the existentialist darkness, roaming the streets of New York, within a city of sinners.

How Silence performs at the box office depends largely on not only if Scorsese’s followers pick up on it, but also on how it is read by both faith and non-faith audiences.

Are non-faith audiences willing to devote two and a half hours to a film about Christianity in Japan?

Are faith audiences prepared for an open debate about Christianity, where the answers are not clear cut?

My mum was shocked I was even so interested in this film. When I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) a few years ago, I was bored to tears at its pointless though beautiful cinematography of the world. Yet in the years since, I have felt a growing sense of agnosticism, and a greater sense of faith. Christianity has come to be known as backwards, defined by the homophobia and transphobia of the Westboro Baptist Church, or comprised entirely of Trump voters, typified as unintelligent, racist white men unable to deal with loss of industry and shifts towards diversity – yet Christianity remains a majority, in spite of shifting demographics and a modern acceptance of atheism.

If Silence is then a narrative of religion surviving through adversity, it is perhaps a reflection of faith today – as the two Christian padres in Japan attempt to survive in a world where Christianity is outlawed at the punishment of death, it becomes a private act – representing the myth that Christianity has now become a minority. Imprisoned by the Inquisitor Masashige (Issei Ogata), days stretch on as a test of faith; the icon of Mary becomes used against them, a means of apotheosising the faith. The physical task has no real meaning – yet in the symbolic, spiritual dimension, it carries enormous weight – a reverence. A simple act becomes the backbone of the film, yet this does not diminish its value.

It’s easy to draw parallels to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ: Rodrigues undergoes his own version of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as his faith is tested, leading him to question whether God is really there, or if it is just silence. As he looks in a pool of water, he sees his face manifest as the face of Jesus. Scorsese does not attempt to present a physical representation of Jesus, refusing to project the face of Willem Dafoe. Rodrigues sees Jesus as he as always seen Jesus: as a painting in the Church, finding representational form within the landscape. Jesus appears as a subjective image; later, when Rodrigues hears the voice of God, this many not be His actual voice – it is how Rodrigues subjectively interprets God (and, by extension, how Scorsese interprets Him). As Rodrigues’ bedraggled brown beard grows out, and his hair goes down to his shoulders, he cannot help but be read as analogous to the humanised Jesus, with the fears and anxieties of any other man.

Though Scorsese presents a strong portrait of Japanese Christians who are committed to their faith, Scorsese still calls into question the ethics of Christianity through the criticisms raised by Masashige. Garupe (Adam Driver) witnesses his fellow Christians drown and burn, avoiding intervention until he allows himself to become a martyr for the cause. Ferreira asks Rodrigues how much longer he will allow people to be tortured by Masashige, hanging them upside down in ‘the pit’. As a Jesuit padre, Rodrigues’ faith to God rarely falters; he cannot allow himself to stop believing.

Yet the film does not centre its argument around Christianity; Scorsese devotes a significant amount of time to Buddhism, as he had done so in Kundun. Silence is perhaps the greatest examples of international filmmaking and the benefits of co-production. Shot in Taiwan, the film uses significant Japanese actors as major characters – Yôsuke Kubozuka, playing devoted peasant fisherman Kichijiro, guiding our protagonists’ illegal passage into Japan from the Chinese coast; Issei Ogata as the sympathetic Inquisitor. Had this been shot when the book was published, the filmic version could have relied on exoticised women, or yellowface villains. Asian culture has been interacting with American cinema for a long time – Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) with Akira Kurosawa and Kinji Fukasaku, or more recent attempts to enter the Chinese market – but as Ghost in the Shell (2017)’s casting of Scarlett Johansson shows, these lessons have not been learned.

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Scorsese never presents the film’s villains as one-sided, or place dramatic music behind them. Their methods of torture may seem excessive, crucifying followers of the faith and leaving their bodies to be battered and bruised by the sea – appropriating the cross, they become as bad as the Romans who crucified Jesus. We see heretics wrapped in straw and set on fire – yet accused witches received the same treatment across Europe around the same time, by Christians. There may be beheadings, but Christians brought the Crusades to the Middle East.

Despite Rodrigues’ dogmatic acceptance of the universal truth of Christianity, Christianity and Buddhism are not presented as absolute opposites – though they have major differences, there is connective tissue. Masashige is open to learning – he has studied the Bible, only to find it incompatible with Japanese culture. Religion is not just faith, it is a cultural system – as we see through Masashige’s approach towards monogamy and celibacy. In a world of divided politics and divided faith, Silence advocates a dialogue, outside of the binaries of black and white – Masashige treats Rodrigues as a guest, serving tea in his palace, and allowing padres to convert to Buddhism, taking on a new Japanese name, a wife, and a family.

Japan is a swamp to Christianity, where a tree’s roots has no soil to prosper in. But this is just as true today – yet Christian cultural traditions still find ways of implanting themselves, as KFC has transformed Christmas, long a secular holiday, into a national event in the Japanese market through a marketing push.

As we learn that Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been forced to convert to Buddhism at the threat of death, we become sympathetic to his faith – he speaks of the pursuit of knowledge and astronomy, finding faith within nature and in the sun (not the son of God) – outside of the accepted knowledge of a centuries old book. Yet Ferreira and Rodrigues hold on to a silent Christianity, becoming a mythical spectacle to the Dutch traders who visit the country in the film’s conclusion. The values of Buddhism do not exempt them from their Lord. Through Neeson’s body language, mannerisms and dialogue, it becomes clear his relationship to Buddhism is conflicted. Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues, begging for confession. In the film’s revelatory final shot, we see the elderly corpse of Rodrigues, aged by the decades, moving across to reveal him holding a hidden icon of Jesus, still maintaining the faith as his body becomes enveloped in flame in cremation.

Yet Silence still remains open – it has no real answers, only silence. As Rodrigues attempts to comfort a woman before being put to death, speaking of paradiso, we become aware that these concepts are not set in stone, interpreted through human perception. Though the film attempts to communicate the message that God is always there, even in the most desperate of times, it avoids the heavy handed approach of other faith films like War Room (2015), with no grand declarations or miracles to reinforce a viewer’s faith. It remains a transformative experience – in an interview, Andrew Garfield spoke of how working on the film, preparing for over a year, has ignited his own spirituality. But it has more questions than answers, and leaves open the possibility of there being no God behind the silence for faithless audiences, letting the viewer decide.

If there is one true miracle to come from the death of Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012-14) franchise, it is this film. Andrew Garfield is worlds apart from the awkward, gawkish teenage American skater kid, communicating an authenticity and intensity that shows a devotion to the part. Garfield may have given a fair enough shot to English teenager Tommy in Never Let Me Go (2010), or to computer programmer Eduardo in The Social Network (2010) – but Silence is his defining moment, and should promise a brighter future ahead. Adam Driver’s role is minimized here, never allowing him to be as insightful or as meditative as he in Paterson (2016), yet for as much as he is in the film, he shines.

Neeson’s presence as the spiritual mentor feels almost obligatory – Jedi Master as Qui-Gon Jinn, communicating through the force; training Bruce Wayne in martial arts as Ra’s al Ghul. Silence’s narrative feels as though it could have been the story of the Star Wars prequels – Neeson as the rogue Jedi, drifted apart from the force whilst still with a connection to the light side in private, tasked to find him by two knights who still feel his presence.

Scorsese still employs some intense scenes a viewer might expect, as we see a man beheaded, his head rolling down the sand as a trail of blood is left behind him. Yet Silence never attempts to conform to the expectations a viewer might have towards Japanese cinema, never giving us samurai action nor gripping battle scenes. Silence is restrained, it is minimalistic – it is silent. Even the title sequence remains silent, placing white sans serif text against a black screen, never becoming bombastic or exciting, opening slowly to the sounds of nature. The only music within the film are hymns; even the trailer, with its rapid editing and exciting music, feels more exciting than the film itself. Scorsese could have opted for an orchestral score, but it would never lend the film the authenticity to the period it carries, and diminished its weight. Though the film’s priests never speak Spanish nor Latin, Scorsese still allows his Japanese characters to speak in their native tongue when appropriate.

Scorsese still punches the silence with narration, allowing reflectivity and mirroring the literary devices of the original novel. From the film’s brutal opening, as we see Ferreira tortured in the hot springs, to Rodrigues witnessing an execution, expressed through a subjective camera, or as Rodrigues and Garupe are spied on through the grass, Scorsese becomes reliant on long takes, playing scenes slow. Had Scorsese relied largely on dialogue, the film could have been told in ninety minutes, yet the film needs its 160 minutes to allow the viewer to meditate upon its events, and experience the film properly.

It may last three hours, yet it never becomes uninteresting; through some incredible cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the viewer becomes fully immersed within the film’s environment. Silence may not be for everyone, yet it is an accomplishment that Scorsese may never be able to follow up on.

My 2016 in Film: The 1980s

The 1980s are my decade. Which feels odd to say, given I was born in the late 90s. Politically, the period is interesting, juxtaposing commerce and capitalism and giving rise to neoliberalism (see: every Adam Curtis film ever), alongside nuclear paranoia and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Comic books became darker, bringing interesting and meditative new takes to superheroes through V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-7), Batman: Year One (1987) and The Sandman (1989-96). Music became what Donnie Darko (2001) would go on to celebrate. Meanwhile, the decade was populated with directors like Joe Dante, Oliver Stone and Walter Hill.

This list will never be complete: by my count, I watched 40 films from the decade over the course of the year. There’s simply too many to devote enough space to Blow Out (1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) or From Beyond (1986). But hopefully this will give a good overview of a decade whose cinema was populated by a diverse set of worlds.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), dir. Lou Adler

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains feels like how a model for how a Jem and the Holograms (2015) movie should be done. Rather than a surface level message around embracing individual identity and a modernised narrative of the social media popstar, the Fabulous Stains tells a story of teenage musicians from a genuine place, implicating the role of the media in promoting artists (and demonising its young followers) and its effects on the artists themselves. Where the punk aesthetic saw youth disenfranchisement and nuclear obliteration in Repo Man (1984), here we see how a cult emerges around an artist. Through the mantra of “never put out”, it grounds itself within the punk ideology of not selling out – but how tenable is that position? Incorporating faux news footage, Fabulous Stains settles more for ambivalence than anything else.

Lou Adler’s name may seem familiar – Adler has spent his entire career producing musical artists and launching Cheech & Chong as known artists. Adler knows the industry, so is able to use that experience to build an authentic narrative.

This type of empowering, feminist film feels particularly 80s; in The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), the commercialised, media cult of personality is again called into question, as Billie tries to defend herself against her rapist. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Paper Girls (2016-present), the suburban young teenage narratives of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently Stranger Things (2016) is subverted, applying those same coming-of-age struggles to female protagonists.

Starman (1984), dir. John Carpenter

No other decade is as good at science fiction as the 1980s: from the acceptance of mortality in a Floridian retirement home in Cocoon (1985), to the nautical first contact of The Abyss (1989), to the apocalyptic, reality TV visions of The Running Man (1987). I have a soft spot for John Carpenter, and that’s not just because I spent the year blazing through his filmography with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Christine (1983), or saw him perform live in ManchesterStarman is far from one of Carpenter’s best efforts, and frequently transcends credibility, yet Starman is such a heartfelt story of a man from another world that it hardly matters.

The Starman’s appearance on Earth is Christ-like, visiting for a handful of days to bring peace until he must return home. Though he may seem creepy as he stalks Jenny and initiates a relationship with her in the form of her dead husband Scott, his only malice emerges from outside influences: government operatives, or a fight in the bar. In some ways, Starman is a road movie, as the Starman must travel from Wisconsin to Arizona in Jenny’s car before time runs out. Though Starman will never reach the cult appreciation levelled towards Escape from New York (1981) or They Live (1988), it still carries a special place in Carpenter’s filmography. Hopefully, with Indicator releasing ChristineVampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) from Sony’s catalogue on Blu-ray, we’ll be able to see a UK release of this very soon.

Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch

I’m unable to deal with the fact it took me five years to lose my David Lynch virginity. Back in 2011, when my friend Zach was introducing me to the Criterion Collection and other incredible films, I never thought to pick up the David Lynch DVD boxset I was eyeing up. I’ve still not watched Eraserhead (1977) or Mulholland Drive (2001), whilst I’ve still yet to complete my journey through Twin Peaks (1990-91) that I began in June amongst every other film or TV series, like Class (2016) or Black Mirror (2011-present) that is on my radar.

Rarely do I give a film 5 stars, unable to determine whether something is truly perfect, or the difference between 4.5 and 5. Yet Blue Velvet is as unquestionably perfect as a Stanley Kubrick film. Lynch stared into the frame and created a film with a true vision. As with the musical sequences within Twin Peaks, music takes on a performative female identity. Within the noir genre, aided by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch creates a gripping portrait of sexual power, dominance, masculinity and femininity, with shades of some of his later works.

Miracle Mile (1988), dir. Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile opens in a nighttime coffee shop in Los Angeles; it ends in a helicopter. Over the course of the film, Harry tries to outrun the inevitable, moving between the Mutual Life Benefit Building and gymnasiums, rescuing family in the process. Miracle Mile‘s nihilistic approach to the end of the world seems to have shades of how the Death Star’s power is treated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Yet it fits with an entire genre of 1980s cinematic nuclear apocalypses, from The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) to When the Wind Blows (1988).

Yet Miracle Mile embeds lightness within its darkness: Night of the Comet (1984) may have dealt with the death of almost everybody in Los Angeles, but it still had Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Here, we open in a diner defined by caricatures, from drunks to clerks to drag queens; later, we meet body builders, or old women going on dates. Unlike the soul-crushing Threads, the strength of Miracle Mile is how it oscillates between these two tones, only amplifying the power of the desperation of the film’s ending.

For All Mankind (1989), dir. Al Reinert

Brian Eno’s music can help make any film moving and incredible, from Rachel’s struggle with cancer in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) to Todd Haynes‘ portrait of 1970s London in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Here, Eno’s music almost becomes a transcendental experience, as beautifully linked to the visuals as Philip Glass’ was in Koyaanisqatsi (1984). Rather than leave archival footage of the moon landings in a vault, ready to be used in extract form in every TV special or documentary, alongside assorted talking heads of variable value, allows this footage to be played in full, in the best quality available. For All Mankind is one of very few films which can truly attest to being largely filmed in outer space.

Space may be just as inspiring within fictional narratives, but For All Mankind is something special. We never doubt the science, or the dubious CGI, or if this is what a spacecraft is actually like. Yet it still feels like science fiction, never our reality. Though many voices have tried to retell their experiences of the Apollo missions, here their voices become a collective – a collective experiences of multiple missions – told within one story. For All Mankind never reaches the narrative suspense of what one expects from a fiction film or a documentary – but it remains a spectacle, that needs to be seen. Not in some 480p YouTube version – but on the Criterion or MOC Blu-ray. Looking out at the universe, this film deserves to be seen in all its glory.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), dir. Steven Soderbergh

Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s meant to. Often, there’s a recent tendency with films examining the emotional impact of sexuality to rely upon explicit sex scenes, whether simulated or real. Think of recent examples like Shortbus (2006), Nymphomaniac (2013) or Love (2015), even outside of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). These films seem split in critical opinion: are they porn, or are they art? I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, something I’ve really had to confront over the past year, embracing my asexuality.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is uncomfortable, yet it is uncomfortable in its characters and scenarios, from Graham’s VHS library to Ann’s actions within the film, instead resorting to confessional style monologues; never does it use sex itself to make the viewer uncomfortable. It is not about the sex act itself – but the impact of it. Videotape carries a universality around its taboo – whether one is poly, ace, mono, straight, queer, everyone has their own relationship to sexuality. Soderbergh deconstructs sexuality – just as he does with masculinity in Magic Mike (2012).

My 2016 in Film: The 1970s

The 1970s as a decade are perhaps most notable for coinciding with my parents’ coming-of-age. My dad’s CD collection has basically ensured that I’m enamoured with any and all progressive rock released in the early 1970s. Whenever I’m watching a film from the 70s, I end up thinking in the back of my mind that my parents have probably watched it at some point.

The Last Detail (1973), dir. Hal Ashby

Released by Indicator later this year, The Last Detail is something to get excited for. Although Hal Ashby is better known for Harold and Maude (1971) and Being There (1979), The Last Detail is one of the greats. Jack Nicholson’s performance as a foul mouthed naval signalman is one of his best, as we see him and Mulhall (Otis Young) moving a teenage sailor (Randy Quaid), through Washington, Philadelphia and Boston over to a naval prison in Portsmouth. Part of the film’s appeal are the locations, giving a fly-by tour of the East Coast of America. But more than that, the film is just genuinely hilarious.

In its evoking of radical new spirituality, and a city populated by brothels, the film might feel somewhat dated, still lingering from the radical late-60s LSD trips of Easy Rider (1969). Yet it never loses any of its interest; its datedness still reveals a timeless narrative about three men in an uneasy situation.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), dir. Joseph Sargent

Tony Scott’s 2009 remake may be better known today, and though I’ve not seen it, Sargent’s film feels like the definitive version. There’s something unquestionably claustrophobic about the Subway. The Subway is an icon of New York City. With daily commutes and tourist travel, we may become complacent with it – but it’s still an underground tunnel, cut-off from the outside, descending into the unknown. The Tube is one of my biggest fears – it becomes almost suffocating, though I can just about deal with it. Projecting these anxieties into a fear of the unknown creates a gripping negotiation thriller. Though our focus remains on a contained space, the film never feels slow and never loses any tension, occasionally cutting to other parts of the city as the mayor decides to negotiate, assigning the police to shift the money over at near-fatal speeds.

Within the George W. Bush rhetoric of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, the film feels distinctly 1970s. Yet danger is still inherent with the Subway. In the short documentary Man Under (2015), we become aware of how suicides can affect the psychology of drivers working for the MTA.

Rather than merely an everyday space, the Subway is a multidimensional space, connecting people from all walks of life, run by many different people. The film remains thrilling to the very end, as we close on an in media res ending. We never get a truly developed insight into the motivations of the film’s trenchcoat-wearing terrorists, yet as we see their disorder and squabbling, they become far more interesting than what could have been characterised as a caricature of a street thug or a Muslim (or Russian) terrorist.

The Day of the Locust (1975), dir. John Schlesinger

The Day of the Locust‘s biggest problem is that it runs too long. Yet in spite of this, its incredible exploration of life in 1930s Hollywood forgives its overlong length. At times, the film is difficult to get through, but in the end it’s worth it. Adapted from Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel, written on the brink of World War II, the film shifts from contemporary to reflective, approaching the 1930s 35 years later. If told today, the film might feel too romanticised, or detached from the era it’s meant to represent. Yet here, there is still a sense of attachment to a period much of the film’s crew would have lived through.

Donald Sutherland excels in his portrayal of the alcoholic and angry Homer Simpson, whose namesake was reportedly borrowed for The Simpsons (1989-present) itself, becoming far more iconic than West’s character (or Sutherland’s portrayal) ever was. Sutherland is terrifying, and justifies watching the film alone. The film’s most powerful scene is in its final act, as we see a riot break out outside the famed Chinese Theater, and chaos descend in the streets. The film forces the viewer to look away because of the scene’s power. It has the power to make everything feel sinister: even nursery rhymes.

Jeepers creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers?

Deep Red (1975), dir. Dario Argento

Dario Argento is perhaps the greatest example of a filmmaker whose focus is on style over substance. The cinematic image in itself carries primacy to Argento. Mastering the giallo, every frame is seeped in colour. Visuals evoke other visuals, as the nighttime bar in Rome, still lit up in the darkness, alludes back to Nighthawks (1942). The mystery which frames the film may carry with it a narrative, but this is never the focus – Argento prefers the image and the setpiece.

Just as important is Goblin, who, as with Tangerine Dream in American cinema, became soundtrack giants of Italian cinema, scoring Zombi (1978), Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Contamination (1980), among many others. Argento’s film simply would not be the same without Goblin; their progressive rock score becomes so entwined with the film that it never leaves one’s mind.

Deep Red has some theoretical underpinnings – like with Brian De Palma, Argento becomes interested in the psychology of the female killer. Having explored similar themes with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Argento examines the notion of femininity through numerous characters, including in how he codes the androgynous drunkard Carlo as queer through feminine conventions.Yet, though the film opens in a lecture theatre, it never aims to be complex – and nor should it.

Network (1976), dir. Sidney Lumet

In my review of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), I wrote about how that film carries a new relevance in 2016 in how it handles transgender issues, in the light of reports of trans women being sent to men’s prisons and Kayden Clarke being shot by police. Since I watched it back in April, Network has been heralded as messianic, predicting the rise of the modern news media, Donald Trump and fake news. I’m always dubious about these sorts of claims, just as I’m dubious about how Marshall McLuhan is heralded as predicting the rise of the internet. All narratives emerge from a particular cultural context.

Network is a film about prophecy masquerading as news; it should not be taken as a prophecy in itself. As with Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network frames it as a satire. But Howard Beale’s bullshitting deconstructionist news anchor doesn’t come across as Donald Trump to me, but as Russell Brand, using a platform earned over many years and shifting towards manic outbursts accepted as part of his character, a newfound spirituality (Beale delivers his speeches to large audiences in a studio framed by stained glass church windows) and a rambling, politicised assault on the mainstream media. The irony being, the assault on the mainstream media occurs within its very doors, critiquing itself yet changing nothing, repackaged as entertainment.

Network has its strong moments, yet its focus on secondary and tertiary characters, like network president Max Schumacher (William Holden)’s affair which his colleague Diana (Faye Dunaway), detracts from the film’s focus on Beale and his quotable, still relevant speeches.

Black Sunday (1977), dir. John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer is perhaps his most interesting at his most conspiratorial and political. Like the Korean War communist brainwashing of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the paranoid visions of Seconds (1966) and the political dealings of Seven Days in May (1964), Frankenheimer interests himself in the figure of the political assassin, focusing on Palestinian terrorists planning to create as much damage as possible at an NFL game – a game the President is attending. Though the film is inspired by the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics by Black September, it isn’t difficult to trace these very same tactics to the same ones employed by ISIS in tragedies like the Bastille Day attack on Nice last year. But the film also has some tissue with the post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers of the mid-70s, as the film implicates the disillusionment of a Vietnam veteran and we move between many layers.

The film is an epic in proportions, shifting between multiple countries in its 143 minute runtime, as we see explosive statues of Holy Marys shipped overseas. John Williams’ score, in the wake of Jaws (1975) and just prior to Star Wars (1977) will never be his most iconic, nor his strongest, yet it is recognisably his and lends some tension to proceedings – though it’s somewhat odd to hear his music played over terrorist attacks.

The film is at its most iconic as we shift towards the attack on the Superbowl – an event which today seems to have more to do with advertising than sports. The proportions of the attack are immense, and we are given the sense of human culpability within events (the NFL determine they won’t cancel the event even with the possibility of an attack identified), but the scale never really fulfils its potential. Nolan may have realised such an attack better when emulating it in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), juxtaposed by The Star-Spangled Banner (1814) as in this film. In its conclusion, the gravitas (yet sheer joy) of seeing thousands of spectators killed by a rogue blimp is never communicated, resolved too easily by a disappointing conclusion that undermines the terror of the situation.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.