Bright Lights Film Journal

Everything Is Marvellous, but without Superbeings, what does that even mean?

Boyhood

When space seems polluted with far too many Superbeings, maybe cinema is not the first place to go for relief. Yet for those who have not given up looking for something positive – in the filmic fog and/or the galactic soup – this article might still have something to offer.

To open on a bright note: last summer’s front-runners, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness, led the field by a handsome margin. Having made my own trek to a cinema, I specially noticed Jon Favreau’s contribution to IM3 – both in front of and behind the camera. Good acting is never to be sneered at, though too often overlooked where comedy is concerned. But it’s as a master of special effects that Favreau is, I think, best received critically. Adding greatly to the appeal of his movies and against a tide of hyper-conscientious Health & Safety regulations, he continues to let actors experience some of the real physical stresses of their otherwise unbelievable situations. (This doesn’t make Favreau a happy-go-lucky sadist; but to appreciate the point more fully, see Zathura, 2005.)

Guardians of the Galaxy

For me it’s no coincidence, then, that this year Mr & Mrs Moviegoer – plus kids and grandparents – have been bored with prequels/sequels where no one seems to be putting in the remotest degree of effort. Yes, The Guardians of the Galaxy (which I’ve not seen) seems to be giving joy to young and old alike, which is one of the most meaningful things meaningfulness can ever achieve. But, while it would be silly to write off fantasy just yet, we are in a fantasy-averse moment – and I doubt this is all the fault of dominant recent trends regarding safety at work.

With a perfect sense of timing, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood certainly grapples with longer-term views of reality. Enjoying a break near Lake Windermere, I also managed to see this in a cinema; and if the weather in Wordsworth country was sublimely wild, the poet’s own character-forming boyhood never once swamped my inward eye.

Or did it? I admit the deliberate archetypal “Americanness” of the film – high school prom stuff topping the list – distanced me to the point that “universal” and “provincial” became more than usually blurred terms. And despite its innate nobility, this twelve-year project does have some serious problems with focus and length: respectively, too little and too much. Even so, I did hang in long enough to share a glimpse of in-the-moment meaningfulness with young adult Mason and his girlfriend. It comes, as it must, late in the film and shows the emergence of a strong aesthetic sensibility – in this case a passion for photography.

Boyhood

It also works, I think, to offset the lingering threat of permanent adolescent angst. As a response to well-meaning advice from friends and family, Mason’s “I don’t even know what that means” is a natural enough mantra, albeit coded for a certain stage of youth. But among the issues the film’s structure can’t examine is that, in human hyperspace, “teenage” angst doesn’t suddenly cease when we reach 20 – or anywhere above.

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A total of eight years in the making, The Act of Killing (2012) has to vie with Boyhood for gravitas; and both projects have, by common consent, widened the possibilities for future filmmakers. Sticking with “old” terminology, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “documentary” is about the 1960s military takeover of Indonesia; but, more vitally, he’s showing us things that go beyond history or drama, forcing us to look again at these important but underexamined distinctions.

The Act of Killing

As for formal history: backed by huge sums of money from Lyndon Johnson’s administration, Suharto’s regime was tasked with eliminating communism, the intention being to avoid “another Vietnam.” That this might lead to embarrassing questions down the line obviously struck both Suharto and Johnson – though, just as obviously, it didn’t strike them that hard. In any case, a decision was taken to employ, as far as possible, nongovernmental forces – specifically making use of Indonesian gangsters and racketeers to do away with tens of thousands of “anti-government agents.” Such horrors have happened before and will happen again before this kind of diseased behaviour is itself eliminated. But, as the director says in interview, in Indonesia a new state was born in which “it was as though the Nazis had won.”

Though it took Oppenheimer a couple of years to gain their confidence, his chief collaborators, accustomed to extreme deference, were eventually persuaded that they controlled the entire project. Essentially, Oppenheimer’s appeal was to the vanity of men now given a chance to record their heroic deeds for all time. And some critics have seen the director’s tactics as another demonstration of postcolonial arrogance. I must say that wasn’t my impression, taking the view that the cold exposure of past sins – especially those in which “we” have been complicit – is never likely to feel cheeringly egalitarian.

The Act of Killing

Meanwhile, among four or five male “leads,” Oppenheimer found his best actor and production assistant in Anwar Congo. The first name reminds us that Indonesia is predominantly an Islamic society. The surname – never commented on – sounds rather odd, but not if you enter Anwar’s worldview and, albeit at the risk of political incorrectness, take the hint of fearsomely “dark forces.” In fact, it’s one of many unsettling revelations that, after visiting the local picture palace, Anwar & Co went to work garrotting enemies of the state in offices situated just across the street. Hollywood – albeit unintentionally – was providing fresh ideas for torturers and killers whose methods could easily become stale from so much repetition.

At one level, however, Anwar’s surreal personal history turns out to be horribly accessible. This is because Anwar himself happens to be a disarmingly charismatic septuagenarian – an Everyman among photogenic grandpas. That he’s superbly coiffed and dressed might mean something only to those who share the same notions of “superb.” But, on this evidence, it’s a universal truth of gangsterdom that these guys know what looks right – both on themselves and their colleagues.

If Oppenheimer’s “arrogance” has offended, The Look of Silence (2014) is a follow-up said to be “closer to its subject.” In which case one hopes – no doubt forlornly – that the subject this time will be less appalling. About The Act of Killing, I’ll just add that, for anyone interested in victim role-play – especially as a means to self-reform for even the most violent offenders – this is a deeply encouraging film.

* * *

The head of special effects on Locke, in the “Making Of …” DVD bonus item, describes the eponymous hero as an Everyman. Enlightened by Jon Favreau and his special effects department, I’m more alert than ever to yet another underacknowledged group of film contributors. Here I’m speaking not of the people who digitalise images and whose work is usually cited. I’m thinking of hands-on engineers who – in this case – have enabled the collection of camera images then used to persuade us that we really are always in a car on a nighttime motorway, doing what cars do at more or less normal speeds. This is important because, for the entire movie, the scenario places us either inside or very close to the car, with its one ordinary driver as he experiences a pile-up of, in themselves, far from implausible work and family stresses.

Locke

This isn’t a mid-twentieth-century piece of avant-garde theatre; so the hands-free car phone lets us feel the presence of several other key players and – for all the potentially deadening normality – we still have rock-solid, interactive human drama. For me the most impressive achievement here is that – without slipping into second-hand mysticism or preposterous coincidence or dazzling shifts of scene and scenery, the filmmakers take the mundanely “real” and, for an hour and a half, create something always multilayered and meaningful. Not particularly hypersensitive to the spoiler tradition, here I prefer to let would-be viewers make their own judgements on this very good, very recent film.

Neanderthal cave painting found in northern Spain

In fact, such an unusual achievement has led to my briefly musing on that very ill-understood ancient human talent: to find marvels in the Everyday – which, of course, leads straight back into Everyman/Every Womanness. I think art generally does better than philosophy in this area – though typically both traditions strive for more than they can realise. At any rate, I think of prehistoric cave paintings, with their buffaloes and sprayed-on outstretched hand prints; then – thank you, Boyhood – I zoom through to, say, Wordsworth’s Prelude and its ordinary/extraordinary encounters with lakes and hills. Among American poets I remember the place of little things in Whitman’s instantaneously perceived multilayered human universe; then with no trouble at all I can go via Emily Dickinson to, say, Wallace Stevens.

So I’m saying that Locke has unlocked my sense of the numinous – the poetry of common experience. And just to reiterate, I’m remembering to thank everyone – especially those least often remembered – for doing their everyday jobs so well. Last but not least I remember the “star,” Tom Hardy, whose onscreen loneliness never once falters into some phony outtake of Sartre or Sam Beckett. His performance is clean as a whistle of preconceived aesthetic gloom, yet, when required, as serious as hell.

Only one quibble then: that “Welsh” accent! A few quick searches showed that, in America, none of the critics pay any heed to this, presumably because they didn’t notice. Here, a lot of reviewers have pointed out that this “working class” accent wanders weirdly through Southern Irish, Estuary English, and – just occasionally – there is a perfectly rendered South West Walian lilt. No one, though – including me – minds the iterative imprecision in an otherwise wonderfully realised script. In fact, for me this is one of those in-the-moment projects that Linklater’s young Mason would definitely appreciate. It’s also a quick low-budgeter, one of whose first great high-water marks was High Noon – another film that punches above its weight, albeit as an apotheosis of genre. Locke, by comparison, is – if not the nemesis of all lazy followers of fashion – surely a harbinger of more bright-and-neighbourly wonders to come.