Sunday, 17 October 2021 19:32

“We’s Who’s the Earth is For”: Storm Visions

Published in Films

Ciarán O’Rourke reviews Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild                                                                                      

A decade ago I began to form a habit that in the intervening years has evolved into a strange passion: going to the cinema, and watching movies, alone! Two films in particular, from those early days, seemed so urgent and exhilarating, so attuned to what was then (and is still) being talked about as the greatest threat to civilization, climate change, but at a human level, that I lay a good deal of the responsibility for my cinematical hermeticism at their feet.

I saw Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild in short succession, and they both taught me something about how to see, and read, and think about environmental devastation as a collective experience, from the confines of my own small life. Each picture still filters my understanding of the many dooms that are already taking shape about us, and are promised to intensify in the time ahead.

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Take Shelter (2011) begins with an apocalypse that only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see, which nevertheless threatens to envelop everything he knows. Staring at trees shaking and shimmering in the wind, Curtis watches, as in the backdrop an immense storm cloud gathers, and oleaginous rain begins to splatter his shirt and hair. The film proceeds as a close-focused portrait of a loner in crisis, as Curtis risks his job, family, financial stability, and standing in his community to build an underground bunker for his loved ones, in anticipation of an ecological and social disaster that nobody else understands, or wants to.

Jeff Nichols’s film offers (as the title suggests) an admonitory projection of an atomised America drowning in a storm of oil, a storm that only one incorrigibly reticent man, whose sanity is questioned throughout, can discern. Take Shelter was released three years before the Flint water crisis laid bare the reality of the USA’s poisoned waters, along with the social regimes ensuring that some people would suffer the effects of failed public infrastructure more than others. Likewise in 2005, six years prior to Nichols’s picture, the people of New Orleans had been left to fend for themselves by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and were then criminalised for surviving. Nichols’s cinematic parable is alert to the reality of these murder-traps, and still perturbs, mixing fantastical foreboding with the sharp, persistent tang of realism.

The downtrodden longing of dispossessed communities

Watching the movie now, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor than Shannon for the part of Curtis. Shannon, in his late thirties in the film, has the truculent, creviced features and uneasy, watchful gaze of an ageing veteran from a forgotten war. He conveys both seething anxiety and blank-eyed stolidity, and seems always to have wandered onto the screen from some Great Nowhere, that lost hinterland where America’s ghosts have been left to die. Curtis wakes from nightmares screaming, or asphyxiated in terrified paralysis. When lightning crashes in a far-off field, he flinches, and lurches instinctively to draw his young daughter (who is deaf) into the house. The lines between sight and vision, climactic crisis and personal breakdown, grow blurry, as Curtis mutters in disbelief and trepidation: “Is anyone seeing this?”

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In some respects, Shannon is comparable to Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, the “only actor” of the 1930s with whom the writer James Baldwin “identified” as a youth, just “by the way [he] walked down the road at the end of the film”. For Baldwin, Fonda’s onscreen presence was such that his whiteness was almost erased, composed not of savage entitlement but of empathic anger and downtrodden longing: he epitomised in his person those dispossessions endured by predominantly black and brown communities in the actual nation that Baldwin knew while growing up. The foreboding that we see encoded into Shannon’s permanently pained expressions is partly the face of white America turned back upon itself; he is a witness to catastrophe that none of his neighbours recognise, and against which there is no protection.

Nichols’s picture is set in America’s backlands, near Elyria, Ohio, where Walmart remains one of the city's top five employers, and (in the movie) Curtis and his friend Dewart (Shea Whigam) work in a gravel pit. Left deflated and unappeased by liberal policy-makers in Washington, within half a decade of the film’s making, places like this would embrace the demagogic populism of Donald Trump, as he began his march to the White House. The dread Curtis feels in nightmares, as friends and neighbours are driven to acts of visceral violence and desperation, accurately foreshadows the rancour and resentment stoked by Trump in reality.

In the micro-drama of Curtis’s escalating distress, which may be madness, we also glimpse the macro-epic of climate catastrophe, baring its fangs. “It rained for two hours yesterday”, his boss snaps in exasperation, “Two hours, and our entire [drilling] schedule went into the toilet.” Industrial productivity, not to mention human survival, becomes considerably more difficult and dangerous when the natural systems it depends on move with a gargantuan rhythm and momentum of their own. Take Shelter registers the pulse of a maelstrom that later films like Parasite dramatise in full-blown action.

Bird-murmurations swarm the skies, then vanish at a glance. When Curtis expresses his disquiet during a medical appointment, his doctor swivels his chair away from him, asking, “You been out to see your mother”, living in psychiatric care, “lately?” For Curtis, to question the seeming complacency of his peers is to be consigned to outsider status, exiled. When he does visit his mother (Kathy Baker), he wonders quietly if she can remember what happened before she was “diagnosed”. “It was a real stressful time”, she says in a soft voice, “Your father was gone a lot... there was always a panic that took hold of me.”

Nichols’s visual grammar is often so beguiling because of his parallel capacity to enter the inner (and intimate) life of his characters. Much of the power of Take Shelter, indeed, lies in its recognition that many of its central characters can’t: the precarity and many burdens of their days are such that the very idea of safety, sustainable comfort, enduring happiness is constantly endangered. “You got a good life”, says Dewart to his friend and workmate. “Well, it ain't always so easy”, Curtis replies, looking away.

This is a drama in which basic medical procedures and prescriptions are frequently out of financial reach; where people are expected to pay (somehow), or suffer. Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), sells hand-sewn curtains and quilts at the local car-boot sale for extra cash. When Curtis gets “a home-improvement loan” from the bank to build the tornado shelter in his back garden, he jeopardizes his ability to cover the expense of Hannah’s hearing implants. “How could you do that without talking to me”, Samantha almost pleads: “Tell me something that helps me understand why you're being like this.” He breathes heavily: “There's nothing to explain.”

Private calamity and collective crisis

Communication and understanding, their necessity and frustration, are organising motifs in this strangely symphonic drama of private calamity and collective crisis. We watch transfixed as Chastain’s Samantha, whose searching intelligence makes even silence eloquent, teaches Hannah “a new sign” word, and the windows of the house grow grey: “S-T-O-R-M”. When Curtis eventually tells his wife about the “dreams, I guess they're more like nightmares”, he evokes the “dark, thick rain, like fresh motor-oil.” Such terse, weighted lines could be taken from a play by Sam Shepard (an actor-writer who adds to the grounded gravitas of Nichols’s 2012 feature, Mud). “It’s not just a dream”, Curtis says, “It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right. I cannot describe it. I just need you to believe me.” The times are out of joint.

The question of belief, of human faith-in-one-another, is resolved only ambiguously in this movie, which brings us face to face with a premonition of extinction that is at once powerful and difficult to absorb in full. Curtis’s slow diffidence and physical unease nevertheless convey what we (and he) cannot quite define in verbal terms.

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The picture is in some respects comparable to Field of Dreams (1989), in which despite accusations from all sides of insanity, financial and medical, the character Ray (Kevin Costner) knows that “if he builds” a baseball field on his land, “people will come”:

They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past… Then they’ll walk off to the bleachers, sit in their shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon… and they’ll watch the [baseball] game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.

Curtis’s nightmares repeat the same parable, but in altered form. If he builds his storm shelter, the apocalypse he’s felt brewing for so long will strike: his worst fears will be vindicated..

In a vivid distillation of Curtis’s anguish and isolation, after fighting with Dewart in the mess hall, frothing at the mouth he yells: “There is a storm coming. Like nothing you've ever seen. And not one of you is prepared for it.” None of his friends and neighbours can look him in the eye. “Sleep well in your beds”, he screams, “because if this comes true there ain’t gonna be any more.” Then, turning to Samantha and Hannah, his eyes clearing as he meets their faces, he crumples into tears, in agony and shame.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius”, Emerson once wrote, urging that each “man” should “carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he”. Curtis’s actions exemplify the stubborn wildness of such a credo, while exposing the preposterous insulation of its originator. Curtis’s need to trust his convictions “in the presence of all opposition”, his will to act on the recurring, fearful visions he sees, cost him nearly all he has. Emerson’s sermon at the pulpit exacted no such toll on the eminent philosopher. 

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In similarly immersive fashion, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dramatises the experience, at an almost bodily level, of fragility in the midst of social and climactic collapse. Set on a small Louisiana island, in a forgotten town called The Bathtub, the film is narrated and led by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a decrepit portakabin, suspended by trees, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Their home is alive with rust, and roots; lit by weather and lived in by birds and (sometimes the strangest of) beasts.

The first words we hear in the film, in voiceover, are faltering, precise, and powerfully expressive of the world Hushpuppy knows and the binding laws she intuits to be true there: “All the time, everywhere, everything's hearts are beatin’ and squirtin’, and talkin’ to each other the ways I can't understand.” Hushpuppy's statement of incomprehension is deep and real with wisdom, partly because (like Curtis) she understands more, perhaps, than she can allow herself to say out loud.

We see Hushpuppy holding a chick in her small hands firmly, and yet with total gentleness. Patrolling a nearby junkyard in her faded yellow wellington boots, she lays her arm across a recumbent hog, sleeping in the mud, and listens for its heartbeat, a gesture she repeats throughout the film, motivated by the nameless but palpable sickness that is increasingly depleting Wink of energy and aggravating his mood.

“I hope you die”, she shouts at Wink, after he has struck her in anger and panic. She punches his chest, and we see, on his face, a flicker of remorse and grief. He will die (soon), and he recognises that at some instinctive level Hushpuppy already knows it. When Wink collapses, in seizure, a rumble of thunder sounding in the skies, Hushpuppy quivers in open-eyed distress at this great apocalypse descending on her father, and overtaking their life together, which is grubby, precarious, and full.

The earth is for us

Hushpuppy and Wink fish in a scrap-metal boat that floats on the mud-brown river, which, as in one of Mark Twain’s quintessential (and insightful) yarns, is always “raising”. After floods, the water becomes choked, in large measure due to a forbidding levee, which separates Hushpuppy and her people from the smoke-spewing industrial landscape beyond, where the American State reigns. “Ain't that ugly over there”, Wink says, nodding in the direction of the factory towers: “We got the prettiest place on earth.” In moments like this, Benh Zeitlin’s film (his first) has truth and grit in equal measure, which may account for its overall vitality, its magnificent flavour.

“They built the wall that cut us off”, Hushpuppy proclaims, with a kind of triumph: “They think we all gonna drown down here, but we ain't goin nowhere... The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world!” In the form of The Bathtub, the commons has survived, and we see its openness and revelry, the plenteous river, and the fellowship that thrives in and around it, up-close. This is a place where people share their resources, knowledge, and company, together in nature.

“Everything is part of the buffet of the universe”, smiles the kindly Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who tells the local huddle of listening children before her of the fierce, ravenous aurochs, now extinct, which once roamed the earth. As Wink’s illness takes hold of his body, violent storms rocking and wracking their home, Hushpuppy is haunted by these creatures, looming and immense: they shadow her world. “I'm recording my story for the scientists of the future”, she says, without irony, fear or self-pity.

This is also, however, a community attuned to its own destruction. “Ice-caps gonna melt, water's gonna rise”, Miss Bethsheba says, so “y’all better learn to survive now”, an instruction Hushpuppy internalises, and converts to poetry, saying in a boat-speak vernacular:

One day, the storm's gonna blow, the ground's gonna sink, and the water's gonna rise up so high, there ain't gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water.... But me and my Daddy, we stay right here. We’s who’s the earth is for.

The radicalism of Hushpuppy’s worldview is all the more startling for her resounding trust in it. Her intent, soft, observing eyes, her mellow, thoughtful words, find truth wherever they rest. “We’s who’s the earth is for.”

Take Shelter conjures the terror of a grown man who is both lost and anchored in a world over-shadowed by mortal catastrophes; Beasts of the Southern Wild re-creates the lush and often urgent textures of childhood, a time of true magic and deep yearning, in this case imperilled by those hungry predators,  natural death, social and environmental devastation, and a coercive State. When Wink commits an act of sabotage on the dam in an attempt to clear the area of the now-stagnant waters, police and rescue teams arrive to implement an “emergency evacuation”, forcibly transferring the Bathtub community into homeless services. “It didn't look like a prison”, Hushpuppy remarks of the crowded medical centre where Wink is transferred, “It looked like a fish-bowl with no water.”  If it is stirringly humane and fluently constructed, the film remains in touch (in A.S. Hamrah’s words) with “an America that is divorced from social services and beset by environmental collapse.”

The movie holds in balance an unflinching recognition of precarious lives faced down by (sometimes lethal) inevitabilities, and a child’s experience of community and fellowship – with nature and her people. Everything Hushpuppy loves comes close to vanishing, or actually dies, as the monsters that stalk her life knock down the walls, covering her world with swampy water.

Without shirking its responsibility to these sureties and circumstances, the final act dares to imagine some of the ways in which lost children may find warmth and protection nonetheless: in the arms of outcasts, or in the companionship of one another. Hushpuppy can walk back to the “raising” river and call it home. As we look into a future defined by certain loss and potential planetary ruin, the tenderness and fierce courage of this film quickens the heart.

Further Reading

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976).

A. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002-2018 (2019).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841). 

Parasite, winner of the Palme d'Or
Sunday, 17 October 2021 19:32

Cannes 2019: Asian cinema triumphs, despite Trump

Published in Films

Dennis Broe wraps up Cannes 2019, which witnessed tthe continued rise of Asian cinema

It’s official. Cannes 2019 is in the books and the biggest story is perhaps the continuing rise of Asian cinema not only in its popular form – in the Korean violence epic The Cop, The Gangster and The Devil – but more importantly in its independent cinema. This year there was a marked social and critical aspect in three films in particular: South Korea’s examination of contemporary class struggle Parasite, winner of the Palme d'Or for best film; China’s laying bare of a poor people’s economy in the guise of a cop and gangster film in Wild Goose Lake; and Taiwan’s examination of the film industry’s exploitation and fracturing of the consciousness of a young actress in Nina Wu.

During the festival, Trump upped the ante in his now all-out economic war against China by banning Huawei – for the sin of outstripping US technology in both innovation and price – from laying the infrastructure for the development of the 5G network, pegged as essential for future expansion of the streaming industry in its coming attempt to incorporate film viewing under its wing. China is less of a presence in the market here, also because of Trump’s embargo. Meanwhile, however, Chinese audiences are advancing in their level of sophistication. They are largely rejecting fluff aimed at them by Hollywood such as Crazy Rich Asians which took in only $1.7 million in what is soon to be the largest film market in the world. Instead those audiences have been clamouring to see films like last year’s Cannes winner Shoplifters, about a quasi-family of scammers whose compassion is greater than the bourgeois family next door, and Capernaum, a film set in Lebanon about life on the streets.

Less of a presence this year also is Saudi Arabia, being more cautious, after the Khashoggi killing than last year’s spreading of money around the Croisette which saw AMC Theatres sign a deal to open cinemas in the kingdom which they did not relinquish, though the Endeavor agency did give $400 million dollars. French investigative reporters broke stories about French arms sales to the Mohammad Bin Salman dictatorship which they implied were used in the war in Yemen, potentially to kill women and children, which no one in the film industry seems to be upset about as this year the Saudi deals were done more quietly. Khashoggi’s Washington Post editor described this slinking around as evidence, if any is needed, that “Hollywood is putting profits over everything.” That was the view from the much improved Hollywood Reporter. The more mercenary Variety just described the situation as still posing “a risk for business ventures.”

Parasite

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, starts with a hilarious opening of its first segment as a family living in a basement and feeding off a neighbor’s internet loses the connection, and attempts to find another Wi-Fi network they can latch onto. They live in a poor section of Seoul, with one neighbour often urinating near their house. All of which contrasts sharply with the verdant lawns of a modern mansion where the son, Ki-woo, is hired at as a tutor. This first segment, as he cannily smuggles his whole family into the service of the rich corporate magnate, recalls last year’s Japanese film Shoplifters. The next segment, with the family celebrating when the rich family leaves for the weekend but then being trapped when they return unexpectedly, is an absurdist farce along the lines of Home Alone. But the final segment overturns the mood of the first two as the poor family’s house is flooded and they must accept clothes from a gym which is contrasted to the splendor and extravagance of the rich parents’ closet.

The mood here, as the class struggle worsens, turns grim – moving from a Hollywood feelgood comedy where class tensions are concealed, to more of a Claude Chabrol-type confrontation of the two lifestyles a la La Ceremonie. And indeed there is nothing feelgood about the fact that one family suffers while the other has it all. The rich family is not evil, simply rich, but their walled-off position in contrast to the utter misery of those around them makes them a target, with the husband continually displaying his indignation at anyone who, as he says, “crosses the line.” This is marvellous social filmmaking from director Bong Joon Ho, who here and in such films as The Host, Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer and Okja proves himself to be the contemporary director today who best combines a social conscience with a popular appeal, which makes him in my opinion the best director in the world.

wild goose lake 

Wild Goose Lake, by Diao Yinan, whose previous Black Coal/Thin Ice used the sleaziest of thriller clichés – the serial killer – as an excuse to portray the desperateness of a region in Northeast China whose coal economy had deadened its souls. Here the spotlight is on central China, with Diao employing the tropes of the film noir – the cop and the femme fatale – to again deliver a survey of contemporary rural sprawl in China and to comment on a situation where every move made by the gangsters is matched by the cops, who seem not to be their opposites but their sideshadows. The film is about how relations have fractured in this new money economy but in a last turn, the emphasis is instead on how people care about each other and the desperate lengths one must go to, including multiple betrayals, to assert human kindness.

Finally, there was the very remarkable Nina Wu, which in the age of Me Too is a kind of Harvey Weinstein meets Mulholland Drive. Torture the woman, Hitchcock proclaimed, as a key to his films and this film, with screenplay co-authored by its director Midi Z and lead actress Wu Ke-xi, is that dictum from the point of view of the tortured actress. Humiliated in her film audition, almost killed on the set in order to get her to properly emote in the last scene of the film, and witness to her dog – named Oscar in a nod to her industry ambitions – being annihilated. The film uses fantasy sequences to depict the schizophrenia this treatment induces, but ends with the sexual manipulation that is the ultimate key to a madness brought on by the male power structure of the industry. The film references Uma Thurman, who had complained of rough treatment by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill and Tarantino was in the audience, coming to support its Taiwanese director, but in so doing perhaps confronted with his own valued position in what was the house of Weinstein, with Pulp Fiction, lauded at Cannes, having secured Harvey’s career.

 once upon a time in hollywood

Tarantino’s own film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is reactionary, though narratively brilliant in its time leaps, in its incorporation of his memories from growing up in the Hollywood of the late 1960s, on the cusp of a change that would be announced with 1969’s Easy Rider lauded that year at Cannes, and in the way it blends a fictional world with our own knowledge of the Manson murders. Once singles out women and hippies, and particularly liberated women, as participating in the demise of an entirely masculinist studio system that had utterly lost touch with reality.

At the same time Tarantino premiered his film on the red carpet, the biggest budget film at the festival, an old partner of his, Robert Rodriquez, about ten minutes further down the beach, demonstrated how a film could be made for 7000 dollars similar to the film that secured his place in the industry – El Mariachi. Rodriquez shot Red 11 in the downtime as he waited for the rushes to be edited in his big budget Alita Battle Angel. His film is about a big pharma company experimenting on subjects who become guinea pigs because they are too poor to pay their debts. Based on Rodriquez’ own experience when he became a test subject to finance his first film, Red 11 looks credible and has in the end a more distinguished and relevant subject matter than Tarantino’s.

 Ice on Fire

Also on hand at Cannes was Once Upon a Time star Leonardo DiCaprio. On the day after the premiere he introduced a climate film produced and narrated by himself called Ice On Fire, which usefully details the effect of climate destruction – to call it climate change at this point is simply to obscure the issue – on the polar ice caps and the equally harmful and less discussed effects of releasing methane, stored in the earth for millennia, into the atmosphere. What is not so useful is its position that climate destruction can be stopped by technology and by the goodwill of capitalists. A German scientist explains, with a straight face, that one need only build 300,000 of his giant balloon-like sucking structures and spread them across the globe to capture 1% of the carbon released by fossil fuels. Later, a New Mexico rancher who notes the leaks inherent in a fracking device near his ranch suggests that if the CEOs of the fracking companies could come look at the leaks, they would immediately stop them. The authors of this film need to read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything about the actual steps it will take to change the situation the film adequately and with gorgeous photography describes.

A Hidden Life Cannes 2 825 

Finally, there was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, about a conscientious objector in Austria who refuses to go to Hitler’s war. The early scenes in the Austrian countryside recall the wheat fields of Days of Heaven, and the squalor in the pacifist Franz’s prison cell likewise conjures up a sequence in The New World where the Indians visit the settlers who have degenerated over the winter. The film itself depicts not the sprawling physical combat of The Thin Red Line, but instead the psychological battle between the Nazis and the Austrian peasants favouring the war and the stolid courage of Franz and his wife Fani in the face of his moral decision which everyone tells him will change nothing but which we see having an effect in the anger it unleashes in those around him who are suppressing their own moral qualms.

In the opening documentary sequence of Hitler parading in his motorcade to cheering throngs, one cannot help but think that this is not just a film about World War II. It is also about the way a thinking, caring director like Malick is experiencing Trump and John Bolton’s Axis of Oil, er, Evil in attempting to provoke wars with Iran, Venezuela and North Korea while at the same time sparking big power confrontations with China and Russia. The world must seem mad to Malick and indeed it may be, though the character in his film has the courage to oppose this madness.

My Cannes Prizes:
Best Film: Parasite
Best Actor: Willem Defoe in Lighthouse
Best Actress: Valerie Packner (Fani) in A Hidden Life
(both actor and actress will resurface at Oscar time.)
Best Screenplay: Paul Laverty for Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You
and Midi Z and Wu Ke-xi for Nina Wu
Best Direction: Terrence Malick for A Hidden Life

Top 5 films at the fest, in competition or out:
Parasite
Nina Wu
Capital in the 21st Century
Sorry We Missed You
Bacurau