*Disclaimer*: I started writing this post before this whole lockdown thing happened and only just finished it *checks watch* today, so it contains both references to the coronavirus crisis and to physically going out to a physical cinema (now obviously outdated, sigh). That said all of these movies are available to stream on a variety of platforms, so do feel free to treat this as quarantine film viewing inspiration if you so wish!
Here is the thing about my very eclectic artistic taste (a fancy term for my various disparate and disconnected obsessions): I don’t enjoy absolutely all artforms all of the time. Instead, I go through phases: I might spend an entire summer reading compulsively, only to find myself travelling to the remotest art exhibitions I can find in the autumn and buying two theatre tickets a week in the winter (and barely – if at all – listening to music throughout, and then experiencing a music renaissance a year down the line). Tl;dr: you can’t give everything the attention it deserves at all times, and that’s okay. I found that these rabbitholes often allow for deeper (and arguably better) engagement with certain themes and artforms, so I’m not super bothered (anymore) if e.g. I struggle with a book for months after a long unbroken reading streak; I know that my literary taste is going through some much-needed hibernation and will inevitably re-emerge after a while.
But Clelia, I hear you cry, what have you been doing in the past few months, if not reading? Well, my children: I have been going to the cinema.
Quick shoutout to Warwick Student Cinema for their £3 tickets and excellent programme, which remains unmatched despite the abundance of wealthier competitors in Coventry, Birmingham and Leamington. Long live cheap independent cinema ❤ now keep reading for my Thoughts on what I watched.
Little Women (2019) dir. Greta Gerwig
I have to start with a confession: I was afraid this movie might feel anachronistic. The PR centred a lot of messaging around Little Women’s feminist preoccupations, and not without reason: it’s a movie made by women about women, and specifically about the endless struggle of being a woman, and even more specifically about being a woman who’s trying to make art in a society that constantly devalues her creativity and intellect. I am sure Jo’s struggles as an emerging author resonate both with Louisa May Alcott’s and Great Gerwig’s experiences. You guys like that stuff now, right? Feminism is in! Watch this movie! I have become a bit wary (and weary) of these messages, 1) because feminism, just like any other significant political stance, risks being diluted into meaninglessness when it crosses over into the mainstream, 2) because “diluted” feminism (or any kind of diluted activism, really) almost invariably makes for bad art. This is obviously not to say that e.g. women in the 19th century didn’t struggle with the patriarchy, and want better, and fought for themselves; but they certainly didn’t do so in the exact terms we do today, and seeing people grapple with and respond to their particular situation is much more interesting to me than seeing contemporary discourse copy-pasted onto a bunch of corsets. Anyway, this entire rant is essentially pointless because Little Women doesn’t feel anachronistic at all – the March sisters do obviously struggle with the demands and restrictions imposed on them by the society in which they live, but their responses feel sincere and energetic but commensurate to the (societal, economic, emotional, intellectual) means they have at their disposal. Perhaps the most interesting feature of both Alcott’s novel and Gerwig’s film is that the March’s world is a woman’s world – while the weight of a patriarchal society is of course felt by all the protagonists, and individual men make occasional appearances (Mr March) or are even sometimes invited in (Laurie), the rules and movements of this world are dictated by women, by their wishes, passions and thoughts. Gerwig has obviously realised that this feature feels as quietly revolutionary in the 21st century as it did in the 19th, and she fully exploits its possibilities by brilliantly fleshing out four completely different female characters and masterfully exploring the clashes between the March sisters’ little world and the (much grimmer) Civil War-era American society.
A few more disparate thoughts now that the Big Rant is over:
1) The visuals of this film, holy shit. The set design is just a joy for the eyes and the costumes seem to have single-handedly brought waistcoats back into fashion (a well-deserved Oscar for Jacqueline Durran). The cozycore vibes are real.
2) Nothing of what I mentioned above would work without the excellent cast, of which Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet are the standout performers (again no big news here). Never seen a group of young actors emote so well. The microexpressions! The subtle glances! The messy breakdowns! It all feels sincere and passionate but never overdone. My heart.
3) The nonlinear time structure might be a bit difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with the book – it wasn’t a problem for me but that’s only because I’ve read and re-read the novel about a thousand times. That said my mum (who read the novel at some point but had forgotten everything about it since) said she didn’t struggle with it at all, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal.
4) I’ve always hated the Jo/Professor Bhaer pairing, but I have to confess I’m not mad about it in this version, both because Louis Garrel is a longstanding personal crush of mine (ahem) and because of a certain clever narrative trick Gerwig pulls towards the end wink wink. But mostly because Louis Garrel is so hot. Apologies.
Burning (2018) dir. Lee Chang-dong
You can tell this is (loosely) based on a Murakami short story on account of how weird the sex scenes are. Not weird as in creepy/rapey, just weird. Why are you wanking out of a window, son.
Jokes aside, this was probably the standout film of the bunch for me – pensive and melancholic at certain times, mysterious and tense at others. Here’s the obligatory plot summary: deliveryman Jongsu runs into childhood neighbour Haemi, who is about to leave for a trip to Africa. She asks him to take care of her cat. Jongsu’s father is also temporarily absent from his farm; he has to look after the farm too. When Haemi returns, she reveals that she has struck up a friendship with a fellow traveller, the rich, friendly, enigmatic Ben. The trio start spending time together and soon a chain of mysterious events starts to unfold.
Like Parasite (see below), Burning paints an interesting picture of class dynamics in the 21st century, but in a way that feels slightly more subtle. The characters (except for one) don’t seem to think that their story is about class, at least not initially: Jongsu wants to become a writer, Haemi wants to travel to Africa to discover the meaning of hunger, and Ben’s expensive eating and drinking habits are just a novel addition to a conversation between (seemingly) equals. But certain stark details appear every once in a while to punch you in the gut: repeated references to credit card debt, Haemi’s assertion that her precarious job “gives her a lot of freedom”, a pathetic attempt to dress up a shit deal in nice words which I’m sure many of us can identify with. Yet the film is not just trying to get you to feel bad for its characters; it has a peculiar oblique way of looking at reality, which is really the way in which its characters look at reality: contemplative, abstract at times, constantly reaching for some scrap of meaning beyond the mundanity and harshness of everyday life. Which obviously makes their entrapment even more heartbreaking.
Of course shit must at some point hit the fan, and this being such a richly symbolic movie it does so in a spectacular way that ties together (without necessarily resolving) a number of mysterious details the spectator had been wondering about for a while – a series of strange occurrences that had grated slightly but decisively against the smooth surface of a seemingly normal friendship. The three lead actors all do a fantastic job – Steven Yeun as Ben is quiet and polite without being stereotypically creepy, Jeon Jong-seo as Haemi is whimsical and impulsive without falling into the loathsome Manic Pixie Dream Girl trap, and Yoo Ah-in does a splendid job of conveying main character Jongsu’s inner life in very few words. The ending feels like an appropriate climax for the tension that has been building up throughout the film, but it also leaves us with many unanswered questions – I should expect nothing less.
In the end I think what will really stick with me about this film is the way in which it portrays the current historical moment, and my generation in particular – not as mindless idiots consumed by technology, but as the inheritors of a messed up complicated world desperately trying to make sense of it and ourselves in the midst of constant economic and political crises (a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal from a director who’s technically a Baby Boomer). The way in which Chang-dong’s camera surveys the rural Korean landscape – the way in which Jongsu takes stock of his father’s property – reminds me of how I look at the hills of my native Northeastern Italy, how the people of my generation look at what was left to us by our parents: with almost unbearable nostalgia, and fear of not being able to do what’s right with it, and a non-negligible amount of hostility. What can we do with this strange old world we’ve inherited? We can try to preserve it; we can build weird uncanny new things from it; or (without giving too much of the plot away) we can set it on fire.
Parasite (2019) dir. Bong Joon-ho
Yes of course I watched Parasite, the hype was too real. Where to even start with this, honestly, when so much ink has already been spilled (warning: I don’t think I have anything particularly original to say). Yes, it is completely bonkers; yes, it is brutal; yes, it is very good. Among other things, Bong Joon-ho is a master of tone – he has to be, with a film that goes from reflective to suspenseful to humorous to dark to tender in headspinning succession. He also does an excellent job of sympathetically portraying the Kims’ condition without patronising them, dispelling many of the pious myths the higher/middle classes tell themselves about poverty: no, a lack of fancy degrees and accolades doesn’t imply a lack of talent and skill; no, being poor doesn’t lead to some kind of ascetic moral revelation (“Not ‘rich but still nice’; ‘nice because she’s rich’, you know? If I had all this money, I’d be nice too!”). And the wealthy Parks are not sadistic cartoon villains; they have tender moments and personal quirks and feelings; they just want to get on with their comfortable lives in a world that is clearly in their favour, which is arguably worse. Who is the real parasite? (I know, I know – an Intro to Film class argument if I’ve ever seen one, but opinions appear to be surprisingly split on the meaning on the film’s title!)
Unfortunately, all the hype around Parasitemeant that I was kind of expecting what would happen in the second half of the film – the general gist of it if not the actual plot. It’s a bit of a shame because it truly is a brilliant twist which turns a pretty standard observation of class dynamics into something much more jagged, feral and urgent. It was still thrilling to watch and it definitely places Parasite among the best examples of a genre I have dubbed Things Start Out Pretty Normal Then Some Crazy Shit Happens Completely Out of Nowhere Leaving You Dumbfounded but Electrified; tl;dr Capitalism Is the Enemy. Check out Sorry to Bother You and Happy as Lazzaro if you think this is something you might be into. And excuse the mouthful.
I want to end on a completely trivial note by mentioning a detail that is driving me completely insane. Apparently the set of Parasite was built completely from scratch following Bong Joon-ho’s specifications – the Parks’ house specifically had to be structured in a way that would allow characters to see, hear, do specific things in specific locations etc. Then why, why do we still get the old character-hiding-under-a-table-where-we-don’t-see-them-but-they’re-realistically-perfectly-visible-by-the-other-character-in-the-scene trope? Do filmmakers think we don’t realise that someone in a different position from the camera might see things the spectator doesn’t? That tables are terrible hiding places because they by and large have completely exposed sides?? This kind of stuff annoys me all the time but it’s especially frustrating in a film whose dynamics rely so heavily on set design. Come on, people. Okay I’m done.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
A film I had been meaning to watch for years! It’s been making the alternative-movie-club-circuit rounds for ages, and how could it not, given its enticing description as “the first Iranian vampire Western”. Set in the (fictional, but perhaps not entirely) Iranian ghost-town Bad City, the film follows a varied cast of characters as they are stalked by a chador-wearing, music-loving, skateboarding vampire. The premise of the film is something I’ve been (perhaps morbidly) been interested in for a while – what if women had no reason to fear men, on the street or elsewhere? What if it was the opposite? (See also Naomi Alderman’s riveting The Power.) I feel like I’m getting a taste of this dynamic because of the coronavirus crisis – I walk down the street and men cower away from me, fearfully making sure they’re respecting the mandated two-metre gap between us. I’m not going to lie, it feels kind of great. Amirpour’s vampire probably entertains similar thoughts, and uses her supernatural curse to fix (some) of the city’s wrongs: she kills exploitative pimps, rescues prostitutes, terrifies young children into hopefully becoming non-terrible men. Yet, like all vampires, she’s also lonely and melancholy: she is unable to truly share her life with anyone, and she falls for a handsome human boy but is sure that revealing the terrible things she had done will make him recoil in horror. She has a brooding, Byronic-hero/lonesome-cowboy charm which is usually reserved for male characters; it’s thrilling to watch.
A quick note on two aspects which have been mentioned in pretty much every single review of this movie so I won’t drag this on too much: 1) Amirpour’s masterful genre-and-tone-bending, which swiftly cycles through reflection-mystery-tension-anger-tenderness-levity-melancholy and almost miraculously binds together the tropes of various genres – spaghetti Westerns, classic horrors, black-and-white auteur films. One moment we’re holding our breath waiting for a monstrous creature to kill an important character, then we’re looking at the mass graves of a country ravaged by war, and immediately after we’re in a college dorm room watching two teenagers bond over their favourite bands. And somehow it all makes sense. Chapeau. Speaking of music: 2) the soundtrack, man. I feel like this film was at least in part an excuse for the director to showcase her favourite cool Iranian bands, and I’m super not mad at it. The dialogue is sparse, but Amirpour’s (excellent) music choices are an excellent auditory commentary on what the characters are feeling, what the mood of each scene is, what weshould be feeling. I’ve been listening to White Lies’ Death ever since – a strange mix of chilling and dreamy, much like the film itself.