Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 10

Hello all,
Despite not posting for two weeks, it's a very slim edition of PCP this week. That's largely because I was incredibly badly organised this fortnight, so expect next week's PCP (when the Uni is on break) to be far more extensive. Until then, hope you enjoy!

Silver Screen

The Lady In The Van review
2015, UK, directed by Nicholas Hytner. In Cinemas Now.
One of those enjoyable, but largely forgettable films, The Lady In The Van is a pleasant if occasionally emotional way to spend a couple of hours. Maggie Smith stars in this true story about a homeless woman who came to live with writer Alan Bennett for 15 years, influencing his life in multiple ways. What's often been argued as a point against this film is that the writing (and much of the film itself) seems to position this as a story about Bennett and his life. The problem is that Maggie Smith is such a dynamic presence as the titular character, crotchety yet lovable, angry yet vulnerable, that Bennett sort of fades into the background. Not even the story about why she's in the van really works (coming across as a sort of Philomena knock-off), but the film is worth watching for a couple of clever formal innovations. Alan Bennett is an incredibly skilled writer (his Talking Heads series is often regarded as one of the best things ever written) and the device employed here (splitting him into two aspects; the person who writes and the person who lives) works as a wonderful way to get a little deeper into his headspace. The problem remains though, that this is Maggie Smith's film and her towering performance has the unfortunate ability of making everyone else fade into the background (except possibly Frances De La Tour who has fabulous here, as in just about everything).
Grade: B-

The Duke Of Burgundy review
2015, UK, directed by Peter Strickland. Available on DVD.
One of the things I most love about seeing critically well-regarded films is how often they manage to surprise you. Going into The Duke Of Burgundy, I had incredibly high expectations. It featured on many critics end of year list (The A.V. Club placed it 4th), the director's previous film, Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed in PCP vol. 1, no. 6), was flawed but interesting enough to get me interested in his future and the buzz from some of those in film club was great. The problem here is that usually I get myself so excited by it, that the film offers no surprises. That's not the case here. The Duke Of Burgundy is a masterpiece, undoubtedly one of the best films I've seen this year and quite possibly one of the best films ever made. And it works so well because of the way it sneaks up on you.
  The film is set in a world just slightly different from ours, where there are no female characters and the whole thing seems like one big fairy tale world, the only big difference being the level of S&M. Yes, this is a film about two women in an S&M relationship, one the dominant and one the subservient, but it's nowhere near as simplistic as something like Fifty Shades Of Grey. It's a complicated, challenging and ultimately deeply moving and beautiful film. I've often argued that I don't mind sex in cinema, as (almost) every relationship involves sex of some kind. A sex scene can be a way into the characters and the relationship they share, showing more than telling, as well as being for an erotic purpose. What's most remarkable here is that sex and the relationship these two women share act allegorically to show what relationships are all about. Evelyn, the subservient one, is soon revealed to be the mastermind behind everything that has been happening with their sex life, while Cynthia, the dominant one, just acts out Evelyn's fantasies, something that becomes more and more problematic as she yearns for a more conventional relationship (or at least one that doesn't end with Evelyn's constant punishment). As well as subtly portraying how power in relationships is forever shifting, it also argues that relationships are an exercise in compromise.
   It's this key point that makes the film relatable and weirdly valuable, turning what could be a very depressing observation into something more about the transcendent power of love to conquer differences. To use this in a less sexual context, remember when I tried to make Finn watch all those movies, in the Dial M For Movies feature? He was willing to compromise by watching these films with me, but was not willing to compromise his own values by assigning them a rating or seeing them in a positive light. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but being in a relationship is about understanding one another's needs and differences (be they sexual, emotional or in regards to entertainment) and finding a way to please them, but that doesn't compromise one's own needs. It's a difficult thing to do, but it can be rewarding. While the film could so easily show this as depressing, it makes it something far more beautiful, showing just how far each of them is willing to go for the other person, until they finally find a place where they're both comfortable. If that weren't enough, this film is also very funny and very sexy. Visually, this is a stunning film. The aforementioned setting, that of a massive townhouse, overgrown with plants and surrounded by trees and leafy greenery is gorgeous, like something out of a fairytale (I was frequently reminded of Jean Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bete. In fact, an interesting way to read this film could be as a sort of response to Beauty And The Beast or Bluebeard) and the muted but stunning colours works wonderfully. Even the framing (constant close-ups and repeated actions grow ever more significant as the film continues), costume (so much lingerie), music (a lush, romantic score by Cat's Eyes) and the actresses themselves are gorgeous. That's a point though. This is not really a lesbian film. It's just a film that features two women in a relationship. They're sexuality is not an important or contentious point and it's wonderful to see.
  In terms of structure, this is a deeply artistic, often experimental and challenging film, filled with huge symbolism (there's an obsession with butterflies that I need to look more into), especially in the deliberate collapse of the film that happens near the end (which is becoming something of a standby in Peter Strickland's movies, seeing Berberian Sound Studio did something very similar). But it remains worth the effort. The Duke Of Burgundy is an excellent film, a layered, intelligent and entertaining masterpiece.
Grade: A 
Silver Screen Classics

Magnificent Obsession review
1954, US, directed by Douglas Sirk. Available on DVD.
The melodramas of Douglas Sirk are some of the most divisive films in the history of cinema. To some, his 50s films are overly soapy and silly, while to others, he's a storyteller that uses melodrama to discuss political points in a deeply subversive manner. In regards to where I fall in this camp is hard to tell seeing Magnificent Obsession is the first of his film's that I've seen. But even in this early (somewhat lesser work), the melodrama is clear. Bob Merrick is a reckless man, prone to doing dangerous stunts and generally being a selfish ass. When one of his antics causes the death of well-regarded Dr. Phillips, Bob falls in love with the widow, Helen, and realises that he needs to change his ways. Over the course of their tumultuous love affair, Bob and Helen will be faced with increasingly strange tests and trials. In a lot of ways, this film plays out as a particularly soapy religious parable (especially with the weird interjections by Phillips' friend which plays the religious card with as much subtlety as throwing a brick at someone's head) and this works to provide a decidedly odd film experience. When watching it, one is easily captured in the romance of the situation and Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman do wonderful work as the two lovers, especially Wyman in a complicated role. Her late in the piece reveal is a master stroke of combining plot and character and it enriches the story no end. However, later when you look back and think about it, that one realises just how bonkers this all is. It's romantic, melodramatic and ludicrous in regards to plot, but there's also no denying it's incredibly entertaining.
Grade: B
Yellow Submarine review
1968, US, directed by George Dunning. Available on DVD.
Yellow Submarine is an important film for a number of reasons. One of a handful of the Beatles' forays into cinema, the story sees a man from the fantastical world of Pepperland calling on the band to help free his country from the grips of the Blue Meanies. The narrative, however, isn't important. What makes this film worthwhile is the jaw-dropping, bonkers animation. This was one of the very first films to really open up the field of animation, expanding what was possible in ways that are trippy, surreal and absolutely gorgeous. Every frame in this film could fit quite easily into an art gallery, especially considering the sheer number of visual inventiveness and animation styles that the film plays with. From the menacing monsters under the sea to the wide open white spaces where the Beatles' meet the nowhere man, each scene sticks in the mind, and also represents the essential feel of the certain Beatles' song. So 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' is this beautiful, surreal sequence with blurred, constantly shifting lines, 'Eleanor Rigby' shows a set of photos constantly repeating the same monotonous action, 'Nowhere Man' is set in a blank world and 'When I'm Sixty-Four' features a memorable counting motif. It's ingeniously clever, especially in the first hour. In the concluding half-an-hour, when the Yellow Submarine actually gets to Pepperland, the visual inventiveness starts sticking to one style and the story tends to take over, which is a little disappointing. However, there's no denying that this is a brilliant film, combining animation and pop culture to make art.
Grade: A- 
Sawdust And Tinsel review
1953, Sweden, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Available on DVD.
Ingmar Bergman is arguably Sweden's most famous director and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. In 1957, his film The Seventh Seal brought his name to an international audience, but even in his earlier films there is a sense of his skill as a filmmaker. Sawdust And Tinsel centres around a group of circus performers, many of whom are faced with difficulties in their romantic relationships. It's a grotesque, moving and intelligent film, examining in detail how relationships shift and fall apart, and filled with beautiful, symbolic imagery. The most notable of these occurs early in the film, as the troupe is driving to a new location. The cab driver tells the Ringmaster of a recent incident between the Clown and his wife. The wife is in her mid 40s, not that attractive, has gone down to the local beach to swim naked with the soldiers who train there. We presume it's to remain attractive, but the act humiliates her husband. While he goes into the sea retrieve her, a youth steals their clothes. To keep his wife's dignity intact, he carries her along the beach which is filled with sharp stones. Unable to carry her any further, he collapses and the wife becomes protective over him. It's an awe-inspiring scene simply because it says so much with so little; the wife's need to be seen as attractive, the Clown's wounded masculinity and the love they must still share with one another, despite their differences. It's incredibly beautiful, but filmed in such a way as to seem nightmarish as cannons rhythmically go off in the background and the scene is bright and overexposed. It's one of the most incredible pieces of cinema I've ever seen and deserves to be celebrated. After such an incredible scene, the rest of the film doesn't quite retain the standard, but I can't stop thinking about it. As one of those films that would probably do well with a re-watch, I think my opinion of this will continue to grow. In the meantime, this remains a thought-provoking and fascinating piece of cinema.
Grade: B+ 

On The Tube

Season Eight review:
Seinfeld didn't end when Larry David left at the end of season 7. Whether it should've or not is open to debate, but there's no denying that something was lost when show star and co-creator, Jerry Seinfeld, took over. There's nothing wrong with Seinfeld's style of comedy, it's just that it's more heavily focussed on bizarre detours and over the top incidents. Whereas the show had once been a clever and insightful look at social mores and behaviours, here becomes something completely different. I've read that very few other shows on TV have ever done broad quite so well as Seinfeld's later seasons, and if it were a different show, I may be inclined to agree, but it isn't. Seinfeld was one of the most consistently well-written, funny and entertaining shows on television, but if this season is any indication, the show has dropped the ball. There are still classics to be found here and there ('The Bizarro Jerry', 'The Chicken Roaster' and 'The Susie' being the most effective), but the hit rate has decreased substantially. Don't get me wrong, it's still fun to spend time with these characters, but if that's all there is, something has gone very, very wrong.
Best Episodes – s8e1: The Foundation. s8e3: The Bizarro Jerry. s8e4: The Little Kicks. s8e6: The Fatigues. s8e8: The Chicken Roaster. s8e9: The Abstinence. s8e10: The Andrea Doria. s8e15: The Susie. s8e16: The Pothole. s8e18: The Nap. s8e19: The Yada Yada.
Season Grade: B- 

Season Five review Watching two ostensibly very different shows at the same time can throw up some interesting stuff. For example, I realised that One Foot In The Grave is actually quite similar to Seinfeld. Both feature intricate plots, clever observations of social behaviour and are formally inventive, but the big difference is soul. In Seinfeld, the characters are anti-social at best and just plain sociopaths at worst, but here the characters are nice, likable people who have terrible things thrown at them and have to cope. Few comedies are as black as One Foot In The Grave, but it makes up for it with nice, well-earned moments of heart. In this season, one character asks "why does it matter? It's only a story." The point is that it matters a lot. The incidents in this show could so easily be over the top and broad, but they are grounded in the emotional reality of the situation. In this season's stand-out episode, our married main couple, Margaret and Victor, spend what looks like an eternity in a waiting room. It plays out in real-time and is filled with very funny bits as well as insightful observations about the characters and the history they share. Few shows fill quite as 'lived in' as One Foot In The Grave, and even fewer shows are as excellent as this one. Outstanding comedy.
Best Episodes – s5e1: The Man Who Blew Away. s5e2: Only A Story. s5e4: Rearranging The Dust. 1995 Christmas Special: The Wisdom Of The Witch.
Season Grade: A-

Playlist can be found here.
Faded (Alan Walker)
Requiem For The Duke Of Burgundy (Cat's Eyes) [The Duke Of Burgundy]
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles) [Yellow Submarine]
The Ecstasy Of Gold (Ennio Morricone) [The Good, The Bad & The Ugly]

In next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic, I will be reviewing The Daughter, Eye In The Sky, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Tangerine, All That Heaven Allows, the miniseries Show Me A Hero, season six of The Simpsons, season two of Inside Amy Schumer and more. See you then!
David Gumball-Watson

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