Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sweeney Todd and the spiral of violence

Tim Burton's striking and gruesome film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical 'Sweeney Todd' made me feel alternately impressed by Johnny Depp's singing talent and wince at the violence. The story of a 19th century barber who avenges the loss of his wife and daughter by providing the closest shave ever to a litany of customers including the judge who caused his pain left me preoccupied by thoughts closer to home.

If the film is trying to make a serious point, it is that Sweeney's spiral of violence never ends. The previous night I had attended a meeting of the Consultative Group on the Past – a body established by the UK Government to examine methods of helping the people of Northern Ireland to address the legacy of our own violent recent history. Two things were clear from the comments made at this meeting by members of the public: first, that the levels of genuine sorrow in this society are unfathomable – families ripped apart, minds taken to the edge of destruction, small communities shattered. This is real, and not interpretation. Second, we often lack the ability to empathise with the pain of the 'other' community. It is all too easy to see 'our' pain as exclusive, and to become blind to the suffering of the community on the other side of a political divide.
Continue reading this post on the God's Politics blog.

i'm not there

there's a degree to which there could be no other title for a bob dylan biopic than 'i'm not there', todd haynes' never less than intriguing take on the life of the man who either represents dedication to hiding greater than any other artist, or reveals all there is to know in his music.

it's a very smart idea to have six actors play characters inspired by the dylan myth; something feels entirely right about having a young black kid, a woman, and richard gere all stand in for different aspects/eras/stories from his life. the film's stunning design - image and sound - conceal a deceptively simple core: nobody knows the real dylan, so maybe there's no real dylan there at all, or, more likely, maybe he is everything we want him to be.

i found myself checking in and out of the movie - i felt it could do with a little tightening, but then again, perhaps its looseness is the point - though it's undeniably thrilling in places. when the 'real' bob shows up in the last moments of the film, in archive footage playing his harmonica, i had the strangest experience: i've never been that interested in bob dylan as a person, though of course some of the music is unrepeatably marvellous. but after a couple of hours of mining the potential pasts of this keystone cultural figure, seeing his 'real' face, hearing his 'real' music was an emotional grace note to compare with the films that make us all cry.

Monday, January 14, 2008

youth without youth

i'm returning to writing about film after j o'd's funeral, partly because there was nothing he and i enjoyed more than a rant about the movies. we would have had a long whiskey-fuelled argument about this one:

francis coppola has thankfully returned to actually directing films rather than simply paying other people to do so; he has finally sorted out his finances with a pretty magnificent vineyard business; and with his american zoetrope magazine gives a heck of a lot back to the kind of people whom i guess remind him of himself when he was younger - people who want to do nothing so much as tell stories in the cinema.

it's over ten years since his last film, and in that time he has tried and failed to mount an enormous film with an enormous name - 'megalopolis' - what would have probably been a sci-fi amazement; but in the past couple of years he turned his attention to the romanian philosopher and cultural theorist mircea eliade, and specifically his novella 'youth without youth', a story of a professor determined to find the original language of the human species, and who is led on a mysterious journey when being struck by lightning leads him to regress into his own youth.

some critics have suggested that this material would have made a great science fiction thriller, but thank god coppola decided to let his inner avant gardist out of the box. for his film of 'youth without youth' is more akin to a david lynch movie than the linear stories beloved by populist directors, and in that respect, has more to say. and while 'youth without youth' is a bit of a mess - it's alternately incredibly boring and capable of stunning beauty - it is also clearly the work of the man who made 'apocalypse now', 'the conversation', and particularly 'the godfather part 2' - its fractured narrative reminds me especially of the latter. of course, its story of a man ageing in the wrong direction, and too fast, also reminds me of 'jack', the nadir of coppola's career; but that's what you get when francis decides to put all his energy into something. you have to take the bloatedness along with the artistic amazements. (oh, and the best tim roth performance since 'planet of the apes'. i mean that as a compliment.)

what would the original human language sound like? what would it mean if we could hear it? is love the only force that transcends everything else? probably. i'm pretty sure francis coppola thinks so, and i'm glad he's back in the game that he plays best. 'youth without youth' is a strange film that manages to be monotonous and thrilling at the same time. it will leave you scratching your head in frustration at some scenes, and desperate to see some other parts of it again. if you care about cinema, you should see it.