film criticism

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

EL AURA (THE AURA)

ARGENTINA, 2005

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Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished.   The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street.  He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.

In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges.   The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.

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It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures.   He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience.   Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals.   Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.

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Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy.   How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances.  At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith.   El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.

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At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist.  The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her.   To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions.   Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure.   Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout.  In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.

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El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons.  She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine.  The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity.   The dog forages for food and is a searcher.  He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour.  This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog.   Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures.   Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.

The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.

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Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action.   Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves.   The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist.  The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie.  In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.

In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week.   If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men.   Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump.   Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded.   Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational.  If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records.   In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

UK, 2017

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The phrase mixed reception is a cliché that suits the polite English. The Limehouse Golem, though, really has had a mixed reception. English film critics have been friendly and positive. Across the Atlantic the Americans have dismissed the movie as nothing more than routine TV fare. As the more objective Americans have realised, the film is not great. Peter Ackroyd writes novels, non-fiction and produces articles and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Ackroyd has influence, and his British friends have been obliged to overpraise a film that was based on his novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The book feels like something written by an intellectual slumming in genre fiction.   Bad things can happen when literary pretensions are added to basic thrillers. The dreadful Night Train by Martin Amis is a good example of a talented and serious writer underestimating the demands of popular fiction.  Something similar happens in The Limehouse Golem. The film begins with Dan Leno telling us that this particular story will begin at its end. This is more than a tedious affectation. It is incorrect because the film begins half way through its narrative. Not only do we have the slumming of Ackroyd but Jane Goldman, who confuses violence with horror, has also added her thick-eared sensibility to the script. Anachronisms are avoided, and the actors make an effort but the dialogue never feels like real conversation.   No one ever says ‘did you know that’ but there are too many moments of explanation and opinion.

The mystery element in the movie is basic, and that is being kind.   God help us if Theresa May sees the film. Despite rising crime rates in the UK, increased violence and the mysterious disappearance of policemen from British streets the Prime Minister remains convinced that the police force can withstand even more cuts in its budget. By 2020 the budget will have been reduced by £700m.  Without wishing to be fair to Theresa May, it has to be said that the police in The Limehouse Golem do dawdle.

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After seeing a scrawled phrase on a wall next to a Jack the Ripper style victim Inspector Kildare visits the reading room of the British Museum to check out the helpful reference left on the wall by the killer. Kildare finds a book on the original golem that happens to have across a couple of its pages a description of the recent murders. We can ignore that an awful lot has somehow been written in the margins of the pages. The book has been signed out of the Library by four people. All Inspector Kildare needs to do is check the handwriting of the four book borrowers and bingo he will have his killer. In a normal world the case would have been sorted by lunchtime and Kildare could have gone for a beer to celebrate. Instead the investigation is dragged out over several days and across various CGI assisted locations. Kildare and his assistant Constable George Flood even manage to somehow debate this nonsense as if it contains a complicated mystery.  Note that the names inspired by the supposedly fertile imagination of Peter Ackroyd are awful. Kildare is bad enough but a playwright who is also one of the four suspects is writing something called Misery Junction.   The idea is that the playwright lacks talent and misunderstands what qualifies as entertainment.   This is not subtle, and neither is the rest of the film.

Women are the victims in The Limehouse Golem or are supposed to be. There are two women in the movie who qualify as sadistic monsters, and none of the rest would you introduce to Mother. The heroes that do exist are both male, and the denouement buries the feminist concerns in less time than it takes Inspector Kildare to ask for a sample of handwriting.

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Nothing is suggested in The Limehouse Golem.  The themes that do exist are suppression of women, the relationship of existence to performance and our vicarious relationship to violence.  We do need drama and we spend too much time imagining our lives as the spectacle that they are clearly not. If all our work and effort is mainly performance then it has serious implications for what we think is ambition.   The Limehouse Golem has several references to Jack The Ripper and it suggests that his mayhem was soon transformed by our imaginations and desires into a continuing spectacle that has had little concern for the suffering of his five female victims.  All of this is interesting and valid but we only become aware of these ideas because someone is always on hand to tell us what to think.

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Peter Ackroyd lives in London and he likes the place. His non-fiction includes biographies of Dickens and other famous natives.   Most of the time Ackroyd is attracted to supposed genius but in Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem there is much about working class life in a music hall.  Ackroyd creates a sympathetic role for music hall star and comic Dan Leno. In the movie the music hall scenes are well staged but none equal what Hitchcock achieved on a small budget in The Thirty Nine Steps eighty years ago.   If the jokes by the performers in The Limehouse Golem are authentic, they are evidence that human beings have made more progress than we realised. If the jokes were created by Ackroyd and Goldman then they should be ashamed of themselves.   The fusion between the Jack The Ripper legend and the artistic ambition of music hall performers ensures that The Limehouse Golem is different.   But All About Eve combined with the savage slayings of a serial killer feels like a daft rather than an inspired idea, especially as the rivalry between the two women performers in The Limehouse Golem is thin cheese when compared to what happens in All About Eve.

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Elizabeth Cree and Aveline Ortega are the two female performers and rivals.   Aveline is a meaningless reference to Inspector Abbeline, the policeman who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders.  It is the kind of pun that can only be invented by the self-indulgent and self-regarding.  Actress Olivia Cooke plays the waif who wanders into the music hall and dreams of becoming a comic. The actress is fine and she has important moments including one in front of a mirror that has a real effect and helps us remember what Cree sought in the attention of an audience.   Cooke, though, does have to endure an awful lot of unbelievable silliness.  Bill Nighy plays Inspector Kildare. His remote style keeps him at a distance from the melodrama, and on two occasions he redeems previously bad dialogue. It feels like ad-libs from an actor who has more wit than the scriptwriters. Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan are reliable English actors and provide good cameos. The decision, though, to choose Douglas Booth to play Dan Leno is bizarre. Presumably someone in one of the many production companies who financed the film insisted upon a handsome male in the cast.   Booth is a tall man who has the bearing of someone who has had a private education. This may sound unfair but Booth looks like a toff.  He also has impressive cheekbones.  Dan Leno was a short plain man ravaged by alcohol.   His looks helped him play female caricatures.  Booth in drag looks absurd. A film is not obliged to attempt reality but neither can we be expected to ignore cynical disregard for what defines a key character, especially as Ackroyd is good at identifying important aspects of Leno. The comic had a charitable nature and aspired to be a serious actor.

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Alfred Hitchcock was criticised for including a lying flashback in his unexciting 1950 movie Stage Fright.   Because each of the suspects has to write down what Kildare found in the book in the Library, there are four flashbacks that refer to murders. Each of these untrue flashbacks is defined by violent gore. For those who want a definition of gratuitous violence it does not get much better or more stupid than this.   Anyone who remains engaged after such repetition deserves credit for staying the course. One of the book borrowers is Karl Marx, so he becomes one of the suspects.   Not sure why but there is something very unsettling in seeing a key architect of left wing thinking decapitate a London prostitute.  No doubt it will make many smile but there is no need for ideological objections for it to feel like adolescent humour.

The episode with George Gissing is better but that becomes less interesting when the violence begins. Kildare, though, appears to have time to waste and he listens with patience.  Although Bill Nighy is watchable as Inspector Kildare he is too old for the role. But with all those cuts in the numbers of British police that Theresa May has demanded Kildare may have a future as an unpaid pensioner volunteer.   Efficiency targets will mean he will need to move at a faster pace than he does in The Limehouse Golem but from what we hear there are some desperate Chief Constables out there.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.