REVIEW: The Congress

the-congress-movieThe only thing I’m sure about post-my viewing of chick flick woman’s film film-about-women-and-their-lives The Congress at my local arthouse cinema was that The Lady From Shanghai looks like a damned travesty. Not only is it one of those old, slow, black and white jobs I resented studying during my undergraduate, in which Orson Welles walks around being portly and grumpy while earning more than the majority of surgeons, but as this trailer ran and I waited for the definitely-awesome-feminist-epic The Congress to start, the eponymous and conspicuously caucasian Lady in question, Rita Hayworth, said literally nothing, AND was slapped three times.

 

Three! And they’re all at once, so one was a backhand. It was really gross. Old, conventional films suck. Yay for the breaking of new barriers in genre, narrative and equality!

 

Focusing on my sweary outburst at the Watershed following the Lady From Shanghai trailer allows me to ignore my ambivalence and disappointment regarding The Congress, about whose representation of the success of women in the film industry I am far more unsure. I was totally promised an aging-woman-is-unacceptable-so-they-clone-and-utilise-her-to-make-money-i.e.-LITERAL-OBJECTIFICATION-and-subsequent-feminist-win narrative, but was given only the first half of it.

 

As you can tell from my serene, offhand use of punctuation, The Congress had seemed a feminist and neoclassic industrial critique; deeply layered, achingly painful and consistently toeing the line between real and surreal, the first act was a near perfect imagining of the ever-changing yet ever-thus entertainment industries, the people who populate them, and their possible futures, through the eyes of the human, mother, and actress Robin Wright (played by actual human, mother and actress Robin Wright, who is far better respected and hopefully happier than the film’s Robin Wright, who is consistently referred to as ‘Robin Wright’, being that she is a thing rather than a person, of course.) The pain of Robin Wright’s difficult parenthood and exploitation by her agent perfectly balances the very overt satire of the film’s own industry, and sets up a story which could, at this point, potentially either excel or eat itself.

 

The film has incredible, rich and relevant themes. Pathways I couldn’t wait to travel to find out how Robin Wright (and her various manifestations) would reach their end point on The Journey. Unfortunately those many substantial themes (industrial oppression and exploitation, human agency, parenthood, the duplicity and fragility of relationships, woman as object, man as villain, etc.) become in-credible, and almost redundant in the second act amongst the gurning flying-fish, horizon-spanning rainbow-streaked roads, and butler-robots that constitute ‘The Animated Zone.’ There seems to be no fathomable purpose for the film’s ‘animated zone’, other than director Ari Folman’s notoriety for expert use of animation in his previous genre-mixing documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the fact that it allows for experimentation with reality and meaning, and the audience’s expectations (and their time.)

 

Look, I appreciate genre-bending cultural hybridity as much as the next quasi-intellectual former arts student who reviews films in their spare time (read: lonesome hipster wannabe), if only for the fact that they provide refreshment and, hopefully, challenging stories and ideas. But 45 minutes in, as an intertitle informs us that it’s ’20 Years Later’ and Robin Wright literally drives down the road from the ‘old world’ into the ‘new’ one, the sudden diversion from dystopian thriller to indecipherable blend of Mario Kart and The Justin Bieber Show is, rather than the very awesome product it ought to be, kinda distracting.

 

Once in the inexplicable land known as both the Animated Zone and Abrahamia (and act two), the narrative is only loosely relevant, now an ambiguous stream-of-consciousness venture relying on random phrases and (undeniably beautiful) animation to create connections and meaning. The only lynchpin holding this together is Wright, who we’ve become attached to, but who is then bumped from the position of protagonist to femme fatale, rendering a film about protagonist Robin Wright being cloned and owned into a confused literal manifestation of that with little reprieve.

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So. Wright goes to Abrahamia to see Jeff, the executive who organised her cloning and who is now a police officer, in the big hotel-ship Miramount (the future manifestation of Miramount Studios and now a corporation, Miramount Nagasaki, which bottles small vials of chemicals allowing people’s likenesses in to be consumed.) Wright addresses an audience of Miramount Nagasaki workers who have come to see her speak, and shouts that she is their “prophet of doom.” An assassin initially guns for her but kills the emcee of the proceedings, then blows up the building. Dylan, the love interest, appears and becomes the agent of the story, dragging Wright around to show us the trippy scenery, and partially explaining his life to us, but not really what’s going on or why we should care. Then Wright travels about in time to little purpose, then they have sex in front of a massive fireball, and then, thankfully, Dylan gives her the means to get out of the Animated Zone. The barriers to a clear narrative purpose distract us from any of the original themes – which by then are only felt via snapshots of thematic coherence in phrases:

 

“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”

“Don’t give up. Don’t fall asleep…”

“I’ll sign! Just stop fucking with my head…”

 

And with these resonances, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the film is a piece of Lynchian genius, from which we are actually poorly prepared for by the traditional setup of act one… It made me think of Mulholland Drive – you never really know what’s going on, though you are kept fascinated by the drip of tiny, frustrating clues. One of the biggest keys came in the form of Dylan’s animated-bull-man sequence. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemical substance allows you to create yourself in whatever animated likeness you want – Dylan imagines himself as a bull; he is shown stampeding a young girl, whom he throws onto his back and then up into the stars, where she evaporates. What seems to be a referral to aggressive but ultimately benign masculinity ends with the phrase “it’s about feeling…” If The Congress is about simply feeling the feels of this strange potential virtual world of ‘the future’ in which little makes sense, and we are so detached from ‘reality’ that we can’t even work ourselves out, then it could be argued that it is going someway to a radical reflection of the current status and trajectory of the dynamics of western public and private life.

 

Particular phrases and archetypal characters did resonate with some very general concepts about love, pain, agency etc., but without the robust story within which to fully brew those themes, they remained as abstract as they are. I felt them, but they did not make any more sense to me than they do at work in my own life, only in my own life I tend not to wonder why Tom Cruise has just appeared or Michael Jackson is serving me dinner. Octopuses also do not talk, in the main.

 

Ultimately, The Congress seems to be two films; the long-ish first act containing the power play between Robin Wright and the industry was fantastic, and felt frustratingly unfinished. As soon as it became an addled exploration into the psyche of someone under the influence of an unknown drug, in an uncertain and abstract representation of a place, with unrecognisable characters, it lost me. I spent more time trying to decipher what and why than feeling and understanding them. But I still felt enough of it that I wanted it to work.

 

Saying all this, I did see the film on a day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I dashed out of the cinema, and straight into the loos for a right old cry – the catharsis was far greater than that of any other film I have seen lately, as I had expected. For its lack of grip on a narrative, its pinballing themes and creation of meaning was only frustrating in the shadow of how fascinating I feel it should have been considering the rich emotion and desperation that were consistently. If the message of the film is to pay more attention to ourselves, our lives, and what is ‘real’ for us – our relationships, our values, our agency – all of that meaning was there, we just need to work harder (or less hard?) to make sense of it. I just don’t think that the Yellow SubmaTitanic was the ship to float these ideas on; it would have worked better had it been a predictable Hero’s Journey, minus all the rainbows and flying and maypole dancing and poppers that turned people into White Jesus and British Ronald Reagan (even B-Ro could not redeem this for me.)

 

The film made me feel weaker rather than stronger in my understanding of its consciousness about consciousness, in refusing to shape its transmission of meaning and values. As Kermode has noted (most famously regarding Blue Velvet, of which a repeat watching transformed his cynical experience to one of being “vibrantly thrilled”) sometimes you need to watch a film twice or more to fully absorb and ‘get’ it. I will likely do this – but I wouldn’t pay to see it again. The Congress made me feel, but what it made me feel was a bit angry, confused, and sad.

NB: All of this bit was, as the nuclear warhead confirms, BADASS.
NB: All of this bit was, as the nuclear warhead confirms, BADASS.
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REVIEW: Joe

Joe joe_us_posterhas been described as a ‘return to form’ for Nicolas Cage. Though most critics are praising his acting chops, it can also be understood as an acknowledgement of his ability to ‘do crazy’ terrifyingly well. Cage’s latest foray into crazy is certainly one of substance, and, luckily, every one of the leading performances here follows suit. With equally skilled direction, much of this unique and rattling picture hits the mark dead on; perhaps, then, it’s the basis of the novel that predated it that stunts this otherwise complex story of masculinity in crisis.

 

The film can confidently claim its success as a mainstream picture, carefully toeing a line between box-office thriller and arthouse meditation, allowing for widely appreciable receipt which I don’t doubt it will get. It is more complex than its trailer betrays; though its the spine that allows for wider exploration, at its centre it is not about Joe being a father figure to an abused boy (Gary, played by an exceptional Tye Sheridan,) and/or very occasionally shot at, which is what lured most people in. The essence of the film is an examination of whether vices and violence preclude one from being a ‘good person’. Joe’s tendency to violence is the focus of this conflict between good-or-not, and his vices facilitate both his restraint and his violence. The foregrounding of prostitution, alcoholism and smoking, however, present ambiguous messages to the audience, and a series of morality-chicken-and-morality-egg considerations.

 

The big question at its heart is one of good, evil and human nature; how and why, and indeed, is Joe a good man? Will Gary be?

 

I’m assuming it was purposeful that the eponymous character was constantly in conflict with the audience; Joe’s behaviour bounces between repulsive, parental and adolescent. Without any comic relief it was difficult to feel identification with someone so inconsistent; though, of course, it rang true. The parallel between Joe and Gary was made explicit initially, but generally left alone throughout to allow for an assumed connection between them, and a comment on neglect, abuse and the cause and effect of both in adulthood. The ties to class here were interesting; the film is centered entirely on working and under-class characters, and very much focused on the ravages of alcoholism and poverty within their lives. The characters who did not drink (at least on-screen) were happy and friendly in the main, with a great sense of camaraderie, compassion and connection as a community. These were incredibly interesting characters, who could certainly have given the film even more depth. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at a wider comment on the economic situation or history of anyone; this was not a radically-minded film, but one which, as usual, seemed to leave most of the characters’ traits, behaviours and habitats to be assumed as an innate part of their ‘bad’ character.

 

Ultimately, the film is about what it means to ‘be a man’, and it’s as layered, frustrating and contradictory as that sounds. Thematically, Joe is intriguing; an archetypal story of good and evil, implicitly reflecting on class and identity and surreptitiously providing insight into the human self and our beliefs about those selves. Though, once again, an essentialist ideology about ‘being a man’ pervades this work; Joe does not challenge prevailing stereotypes about masculinity, but rather resigns itself to them. It provides more insight into the chronic clichés of classical characterization than it does into humanity or our potential to challenge the failures of those clichés.

 

For all the complexity and nuance, stereotypes of masculinity are glaringly present. Though the connection between them is implied, it is unclear whether we are supposed to understand Joe as having an abusive upbringing similar to Gary’s. Without allusion to it, Joe’s obsession with violence and protection of the innocent (which, naturally, includes women, as long as they will have sex with him) appears to come from his oh-so-manliness; one so tied to his base desires as a human that in order not to kill someone a brothel pit-stop, facilitated by his dog killing their guard dog so he can get in for a quick blow-job, is necessary, before he can finally soothe his roaring male-ness under the weight of a tank of whiskey and a few beers.

 

He then proceeds to let a first-time-drunk Gary drive him around. Granted, there is a mild comedy and a deep tenderness to the boys’ road trip to find Joe’s dog (who, incidentally, is female…) and in the context of their connection as damaged children, it works. The derailment of Joe as a father figure is successfully implied, and in addition he loses his endearing nature and it almost signals his end; not only in the narrative but also as a champion-able protagonist.

 

This also provides insight into whether or not the film really provides a critical edge when it comes to power relations that aren’t between men. The exploration of masculine violence is constant, but reads as more of a fascination than a critical examination of how violence is used. Desperate attempts at retaining unequal power imbalance, an unstable ego, and a facilitation of greed at others’ expense are all present in the film; all complex portrayals of the roots of violence. These subtle hints at the nature of violent relationships are commendable, and remain foregrounded throughout, but the focus of the narrative, and thus its power, remains with the enacters of violence, and not those abused. There is no unease in Joe’s visits to the brothel and the general use of prostitutes, and his relationship with Connie, while illuminating both his gentleness and his rejection of intimacy, results in a pretty flat plot strand. There were numerous females present throughout, though none were developed and all were passive (except the wonderful woman whose birthday it was – we never found out if anyone made her a cake.) All of these gender dynamics could have allowed for a greater determination of what exactly is meant and felt by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and the power relations between the two. The opportunities having been lost, they left only underwritten female characters in their wake and yet another cinematic foregrounding of woman-as-commodity.

 

The character of Gary was a blank slate, and rightly so; lost but full and played perfectly by Sheridan, his rescue of his sister was a triumphant and satisfying end to his arc, but not hers. It was yet another conflict in message, mired in imbalances that were perhaps lost in favour of the exciting climax shootout. For a film that was so tender, well-played and -directed, the shortcomings of Joe in its themes about masculinity, class and violence were frustrating. Joe’s final showdown with his nemesis could perhaps be read as a comment on the futility of violence, and that if ‘good’ men succumb to it, they will be destroyed, but it also provided a conveniently quick and neat ending. As a comment on masculinity, Joe is not a radically transformative one, and while insightful in many ways regarding the expectations and pressures on young boys to be stereotypically (destructively) masculine, it speaks more about vice and its relationship with violence.

 

As a meditation on abuse and an exploration of what it means to be a good person, especially what it means to misunderstand and abuse oneself whilst attempting to heal, it is full of contradictory but fascinating messages. And ultimately, these contradictions may ring true as a reflection of the complexity involved in human desire, and the lottery of life. The last line of the film is “Joe was a good man…”. People are not as simple as good and evil, and I hope that audience will come away understanding that; I have faith that this was Joe’s aim.

My First Link!

I’m fucking delighted to announce to whoever is reading this that I have had my first externally published article today, on the (hilarious and fantastic in equal measure) Vagenda. Extra awesomeness comes in the form of it being a film review, which means I’m actually putting my degrees to use now. (It could….it could even earn me money…..nah let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Do have a gander and let me know how it makes you feel. Probably bitter.

http://vagendamag.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/djangos-remaining-chains.html