“Valley Uprising”

‘YOU CAN’T JUSTIFY rock climbing,’ someone says during the preamble to Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s Valley Uprising. ‘It doesn’t pretend to be anything useful.’ This, you feel, is probably quite true of all sports before they turn professional. But rock climbing, for various reasons, still hasn’t taken that step completely, and as a result it remains a uniquely fascinating activity for study. And of course, there’s also the small fact that you might die doing it.

The subject of Valley Uprising is rock climbing, but more accurately the rock climbing tradition of Yosemite Park, with which the sport’s recent history is inextricably connected. The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world. Along the way, Mortimer and Rosen introduce the most important figures in the sport, from straight-laced climbing purist Royal Robbins and his arch-rival, the carefree Warren Harding, to the inimitable Jim ‘The Bird’ Bridwell, who was known for scaling the El Capitan rock formation while high as a kite on acid.


The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world.


Valley Uprising places its attention on personality and image rather than, say, the technical aspects of rock climbing, which widens the film’s appeal without alienating its main audience. The filmmakers repeatedly call attention to the early climbers’ tastes for drugs, alcohol and ‘dirtbag’ living, and paint the modern rock climbing tradition as having been born out of opposition to the risk-averse culture of post-World War Two America, which manifests itself in the overzealous Yosemite Park authorities; later, Mortimer and Rosen set rock climbing against the increasing commercialisation of the park.

In place of footage, Mortimer and Rosen use a mixture of photos, graphics, understated sepia-coloured reconstructions and the accounts of various talking heads during the early part of the film, which deals with the birth of the Yosemite rock climbing tradition in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. In those first scenes the directors make their subjects admirably vivid given how little they had to work with, and in the second half of the film they take advantage of the footage available to inspire enough vertigo to make your head spin.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes. It’s this nostalgic and perhaps rose-tinted remembering of days gone by that leads the final half an hour of the film to feel underwhelming by contrast. The characters Mortimer and Rosen highlight necessarily seem more ordinary and more straight-laced––though just as technically able, if not more so thanks to advancements in equipment and conditioning methods––than the pioneers of thirty and forty years ago. Nevertheless, the superhuman skills of free solo climber Alex Honnold are enough to keep a watcher interested.

Valley Uprising’s greatest achievements are in using computer graphics to bring a largely unrecorded period in the history of modern rock climbing to life, and in making a sport that to this day remains on the fringes of the mainstream an absorbing subject even to the most convinced couch potato. It’s a comprehensive look at the culture and history of modern rock climbing and as quirky and entertaining as the colourful characters at its centre.

“Particle Fever”

AT SOME POINT during Particle Fever, one of the CERN scientists involved in the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider describes the finding of the Higgs boson or ‘God’ particle as having equal importance to the first moon landing, which might strike anyone who has stared into the sky at night as something of a bold claim. This scientist suggests the reason why the experiments weren’t seen that way by the public at the time is because they were a lot less glamorous than stepping out onto a foreign celestial body and plunging a flag into the dust and then, there was the small matter of trying to explain to a public largely uninformed on the subject what the hell they were doing. There isn’t much we can do to remedy that now, of course, unless time travel is next on the to-do list at CERN. If you see Particle Fever, it’ll occur you to at some point that if director Mark Levinson and the merry band of physicists he speaks to had got together before those scientists started smashing protons into each other, the public impression might have been a little different. And maybe they would later decide that scientist was right.

There are two main narrative threads that run through the film. The first concerns the team of experimental and theoretical physicists at CERN involved in the experiments at the LHC and their attempts to get it working after the 2007 helium leak complicates things by damaging the electromagnets. In the second, Nima Arkani-Hamed and his mentor, Savas Dimopoulos––both war refugees, both brilliant, both charming, and both claiming to be able to predict the mass of the Higgs boson––offer up and argue the case for two rival theories.


The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the running, rowing, cycling postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’


Neither of these two threads sound particularly thrilling, and they aren’t; they are, however, absolutely fascinating. Particle Fever is a film in which the subject is so interesting that it simply needs to be revealed and allowed to shine, and any departure from this process––and there are departures in Particle Fever––are largely unwelcome.

The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the runner-rower-cyclist and postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’ She goes on to explain articulately how this famous seventeen-mile ring allows two beams of protons to gather speed until they almost reach the speed of light; the beams are then smashed together at four different points and voila, out tumbles the Higgs.

Monica emerges as the star of Particle Fever, but there are various scientists worth mentioning. Our guide during our little adventure into the depths of the LHC is Mark Kaplan, the witty, wild-haired film’s producer; other characters include rock-star scientist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who says, memorably, that the hype surrounding the LHC is ‘approximately accurate’, and Renaissance woman Fabiola Gianotti, a trained classical pianist who oversees one of the LHC’s main experiments. All of these figures are hugely likeable and have the sort of enthusiasm for their field that is infectious. They explain concepts like multiverse and supersymmetry theory without so much as a hint of academic snobbery, and when their words fail completely to illuminate an idea, Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Sometimes Particle Fever drags. Scenes, for instance, in which scientists sit around tables and have discussions could be axed, and though the film owes a lot to the towering talent of Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch, it never really develops into the dramatic feature that it would like to be. If there is a single glaring weakness it’s director Mark Levinson’s insistent attempts to create tension where there really isn’t much to work with or try to evoke a sense of ecstasy or awe by resorting to overused, uplifting classical staples such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which frankly hasn’t recovered from its use in the trailer for Die Hard: Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?.

But there’s a lot to like about Particle Fever, importantly, I think, the fact that it shows the world of scientific research to be as reliant on creativity and curiosity as on the hard empirical stuff.

“Mitt”

IT MAY WELL BE the case that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and one-time presidential candidate, will be remembered for his denunciation of Donald Trump as “the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss” as much as for his unsuccessful run for president in 2012.

Romney is, to the shame of his party, one of the few prominent Republicans to condemn publicly Trump’s rampant demagoguery and politics of hate. He has also called for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, to be included in the presidential debates.

Gregg Whiteley’s Mitt follows the campaigns of the man in 2008 and in 2012. In the first, Romney failed to secure the Republican Party nomination for president and in the second, he secures the nomination but lost the race to Barack Obama.

But Mitt is a film about Mitt Romney the man rather than Mitt Romney the politician, and Mitt Romney the man is really very charming. He is for the most part optimistic and self-deprecating and smiles easily. In fact, when the news breaks that Barack Obama has won the presidential election it is Romney himself who, surrounded by a group of devastated family and friends and advisors, is the first to break a smile and ask, “Hey—does anyone know how to write a concession speech?”

The main criticism levelled at Romney—and it is a fair one—is that he is robotic. On camera he is stiff and awkward, and seems even more so when he finds himself next to Barack Obama, who has that unhurried, ice-cool style of speech and movement. But off camera, or at least in his more candid moments, he’s an easygoing family man.

“Family man” is one of those journalistic descriptors that has come to mean “man who has a family”. This is not the case with Romney. Romney’s brood are his motivation and his support and his happiness. The best part of the film consists of footage of Romney with his family discussing strategy, or lamenting a poor showing in the polls, or celebrating a good debate performance. They share their victories and defeats.

For all its charm, Mitt gets a little repetitive. You can only tolerate so many scenes of the Romneys eating microwave dinners or discussing how best to attack President Obama in the latest debate. There are no real twists and turns here other than those that are a matter of political history.

Romney’s Democrat counterparts spent millions of dollars at the time of his campaign caricaturing him as an unfeeling cheerleader for the ultra-rich. But as Donald Trump closes the gap on Hillary Clinton, those same Democrats are beginning to acknowledge publicly for the first time that whatever his convictions, Romney was—is—a competent and principled and honourable man.

Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, said this week: “He truly believed in wanting to make this country better. We just differed significantly on how to do that.”

Mitt is a worthwhile watch to see what Ms Cutter and those like her are talking about. But if it is entertainment you’re after when you look for a political documentary to watch, see Weiner instead.

Vlad Yudin’s “Generation Iron” (2013

EVERY SO OFTEN, among those who care about this sort of thing, you hear someone or other describe the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron as “the best film about bodybuilding”, which is of course true but also something of an understatement. After all, George Butler and Robert Fiore’s adaptation of Charles Gaines’s book had the effect, at a stroke, of making Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, bringing bodybuilding into vogue, and inspiring the fitness craze of the 1980s. And you may even choose to go a little further. The emergence of the waxed and sweat-covered and pumped-up action hero, in more than a few cases played by the charismatic Austrian himself, had as much to do with the emergence of gym culture as it did with the macho cowboy image––and some might say cowboy diplomacy––of President Ronald Reagan.

It was forty years and many, many squats and deadlifts and barbell curls later that a sequel of sorts to Pumping Iron finally arrived. In Generation Iron, whose producers include Pumping Iron’s Jerome Gary, the little-known director Vlad Yudin follows a new generation of bodybuilders, including Phil Heath, Kai Greene, Branch Warren, and Dennis Wolf, as they train for the upcoming Mr. Olympia event. Like its spiritual predecessor, Generation Iron is less of a story and more of a meditation. And, like its predecessor, it shows its subjects not to be the meat-heads so many assume them to be: Mickey Rourke, whose gravelly narration is almost always welcome, says as much when he describes Heath et. al as being “in a freak show, with no circus tent to hide away in.”


Like its predecessor, it shows its subjects not to be the meat-heads so many assume them to be: Mickey Rourke, whose gravelly narration is almost always welcome, says as much when he describes Heath et. al as being “in a freak show, with no circus tent to hide away in.”


A major change in the evolution of the “sport”––though arguably bodybuilding lies at the intersection between sport and performance art––is the emergence of human growth hormone as a means to cross the line separating the huge and the “freakishly” huge, which has led some commentators and former professionals, including Arnie himself, to bemoan the loss of “aesthetic” physiques in favour of ones that are merely massive. (HGH is the reason why some bodybuilders appear to have Darunia-esque bellies despite holding only single-digit body fat percentages.) The candour with which those who feature in Generation Iron discuss the use of performance- and appearance-enhancing drugs is welcome: few things will irritate a viewer more than seeing someone so heavily muscled that they can only waddle try to convince them that their Hulk-like size is attributable to their genes.


The candour with which those who feature in Generation Iron discuss the use of performance- and appearance-enhancing drugs is welcome: few things will irritate a viewer more than seeing someone so heavily muscled that they can only waddle try to convince them that their Hulk-like size is attributable to their genes.


What Yudin also does incredibly well is avoid the temptation to dwell too long on the athletes’ desires to succeed. Such a quality is not so much common as necessary to be the very best at any sport, which is why it makes a far better film to dedicate attention and time to idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, which Yudin’s subjects to a very high degree. Of those filmed, it is Kai Greene who stands out. A talented artist with ambitions to become an actor, Greene enjoys riding the New York subway, masking up, stripping down, and flexing for passersby who seem at once fascinated and shocked.

Generation Iron is, I think, a hard sell, in particular to those whose January gym membership cards are rapidly gathering dust in their wallets. But know that this is a film that isn’t so much about the iron as those that have become obsessed with “pumping” it, and that those who have become the best at the fringe pursuit of showing the physical results of their hard work are charismatic and passionate, creative and funny, and interesting in ways you might not expect.

“The Master”

THE PRESS MADE MUCH of the supposed subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. According to reports, Hollywood Scientologists even tried to prevent the film ever from being made. But though the film’s mysterious, cultish group is Scientology in all but its name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slow meditation on faith and meaning in post-war America rather than a hit-piece, and loses nothing either by failing to call a spade a spade or in its offering more questions than answers.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward and volatile Navy veteran with sex on his mind and a taste for strong drink, accidentally finds himself at sea with the members of a cult named The Cause after he boards a ship leaving port. There, he meets the enigmatic, charismatic “Master” of the film’s title, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with whom he forms an instant bond.


The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified.


It is a simple enough plot, but The Master is not so much a story as a character study with a level of depth rarely seen outside of the world of literature. Anderson divides his film into three acts, each of them beginning with an extended shot of the wake of a ship, the water alternately appearing calm and violent, and it’s an image which corresponds to the outer lives of the two central characters.

The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified. Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the rake-thin Freddie Quell, who swings wildly between awkward odd-one-out and something approaching violent man-child, particularly after a drink of his famous paint-thinner cocktail. The outstanding success of the film is the depiction of Quell’s relationship with Dodd: in the most memorable scene of the film, the pair go to a party where Quell stands around awkwardly, with both hands placed on his lower back––an unusual, strange pose––while the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman charms the hostess and the other guests before giving an impromptu “processing” psychotherapy session, reminding us at every step what an absolutely crushing loss to cinema his early death represents. The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema: Quell finds in Dodd a father figure, sympathy, and meaning bordering on the spiritual; Dodd, in turn, finds his muse in his “brave boy” Freddie, who serves too as a form of narcissistic supply for Dodd that is addictive and incomparable, even among the doting members of his family and his followers.


The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema


The brilliance of the central pair is only made better by the supporting performances of Amy Adams, as Dodd’s quietly zealous, fearsome wife, Jesse Plemons, who play’s Dodd’s son, Val, and Rami Malek––now a household name thanks to Mr. Robot––who plays Dodd’s son-in-law, Clark. The film is also notable for its presentation in 70mm (that dog-whistle for film aficionados), which means, to cut through the whole technical explanation of the thing, that the cinema audience sees more colour and more detail, and––most importantly, perhaps, given the subject matter of The Master––sharper contrast. The events of the film largely take place indoors, but the high-resolution which comes through the use of 70mm film is nevertheless clear to see throughout, particularly during the recurring shots of the ship’s wake.

The Master is not about a cult, Anderson has said (repeatedly)––and he is, of course, correct. Rather, The Master is a study of Freddie Quell, a man physically able but purposeless, horny, drunk on homemade booze, haunted by the past; his woes are a metaphor for the strange grimness that pervaded post-World War II America. Freddie is a traumatised overgrown child whose sense of place has been worn down to dust, and into this vacuum steps Dodd, also a fugitive (albeit in a different way). The film’s success, then, rests nearly exclusively on the narrow shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix and the supporting hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they do not––do they ever?––disappoint.

“Looper”

‘THIS TIME TRAVEL shit fries your brain like an egg,’ muses Abe, the cordial crime boss of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling science-fiction thriller Looper, and you get the sense this ever-so eloquently expressed opinion reflects the writer and director’s own. Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain in his third film. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks. It’s this nonchalance which makes Looper feel less like a sci-fi and more like the hardboiled fiction on which Johnson draws so much. It isn’t quite The Big Sleep, but the elements are all there.

The film opens in rural Kansas, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) checks his watch and briefly practices his French before blowing a big bloody hole in the chest of a man who appears on the ground in front of him. Joe is a specialised hitman called a “looper”, who’s hired by gangsters to execute, no questions asked, whichever sorry soul happens to appear, bound and blindfolded, on the sheet in front of him. The film takes place in 2044, which we learn is around thirty years before the invention of time-travel. In that later time, time-travel is highly illegal but available to large criminal organisations on the black market. Due to advancements in tracking technologies, disposing of a body has become a little difficult, so these organisations slip a sack over the head of anyone they wish to get rid of, send them back in time, and have loopers kill them before they were even born. Voila.


Johnson introduces sci-fi staples like time travel and telekinesis with something approaching disdain. Time-travel, for instance, is nothing more than a convenient method of body disposal. Telekinesis––now a household word thanks to the endless exploits of the X-Men––is called “T.K.” in the Looper universe, and its use is reduced almost solely to tacky bar tricks.


This elegant cycle of time-travel and blasé murder is rudely interrupted by Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis), who arrives unbound and unblindfolded, and promptly escapes. A looper is expected to kill their future self when their employers finally decide to terminate their contract by sending them back in time, accept the handsome redundancy package and then sail off into the sunset to enjoy the next thirty years. Old Joe is on a mission to murder a child fated to become a fearsome underworld tyrant. But if Young Joe doesn’t stop his older self, and his employers catch up with him, they’ll chop him up into little pieces to slow his older self down so they can then take him out.

My primary problem with Looper is that it feels like two films stitched together: the first seems to be about Old Joe’s return from the future and Young Joe’s attempts to catch him while himself on the run from his former employers; the second is more about Old Joe’s own agenda, which really only gets underway about halfway through the film. The two plots are closely related but don’t fit together seamlessly. On the topic of two parts of one thing not quite fitting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite capturing Bruce Willis’s manner and facial expressions well, still doesn’t look a thing like the older man, and having the pair in the same frame doesn’t help matters. (The eyebrows, for instance: What were they thinking?) This isn’t so much of a problem, however, and both Gordon-Levitt and Willis serve up solid performances, as does Emily Blunt, who plays shotgun-wielding, foul-mouthed farmer Sara. Her first words are ‘Listen up, fucker! I have shot and buried three vagrants in the past year!’

Looper’s plotting is partly redeemed by its stylistically and thematically noirish elements. The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe, whose childhood ended early when Abe put a gun in his hand, and who’s desperate to redeem his failure to kill his future self. And then there’s La Belle Aurore, the loopers’ favourite nightclub, which happens to share its name with the Parisian bistro in Casablanca.


The United States of 2044 is a filthy dystopia crippled by hyperinflation and ravaged by rampant drug use and roving bands of violent vagrants. In the corrupt Kansas city in which much of the film takes place, you can be killed out of caprice without consequence: it’s the sort of seedy underworld that would make James Ellroy proud, and one fitting for a cynical junkie antihero like Joe.


For an hour or so, Looper is at once moody and exciting and interesting and then, all of a sudden, it gets dull. The last portion of the film is interminably slow and tedious, ending with a rushed and predictable conclusion that wraps up all the loose ends. It’s partly this quality that creates the impression that Looper is two films trying to be one. It seems as if Johnson, who for most of the film was happy to leave discussions about the philosophical implications of jumping through time to more traditional science-fiction films like Primer, suddenly felt the urge to give over twenty-five minutes to airing questions about free will and utilitarianism.

Looper represents an unlikely marriage of films like The Terminator and the detective films of the late Forties, and at this ambitious undertaking it’s largely successful. Its second act lets it down quite dramatically, which makes Looper something of a frustrating film. It could have been a science-fiction classic. As it is, it’s unsatisfying.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World”

IT’S BECOMING SOMETHING of a tired saying to note that people exceptional in their professional lives are exceptional in other areas of life, too, in part because it’s cliché and tends to be lazily ascribed, and in part because often its use subtly excuses any number of antisocial or immoral acts, so long as they’re committed by someone who happens to be a dab hand at playing guitar or kicking a football or painting. But that isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the saying doesn’t contain a grain or two of truth–only, that truly exceptional people are rare.

Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, might just be one of those people, and Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus, is as good an examination of his tragic and bizarre life as you’re likely to find. Like Miss Simone, Garbus’ film proceeds linearly through the life of its subject, beginning with his birth to Regina, a “homeless” Jewish Communist activist with no intention of letting her son interfere with her goals and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist who, it later transpired, wasn’t his father at all. From here, and with the contributions of prominent figures from the world of chess such as Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Asa Hoffman and others, Garbus patiently and sympathetically leads us through the events that prematurely ended Fischer’s career.

Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life. The time Garbus devotes to Fischer’s early life is an investment that pays off in the later parts of the film, and the slightly exploitative, hard-to-avoid armchair psychologising in which, consciously or unconsciously, she tempts you to engage is softened a little by the decidedly sympathetic tone she maintains throughout the film, and the kind accounts given by the diverse figures from Fischer’s life that she interviews.


Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life.


Chess is an extraordinary game. Richard Reti called it “the triumph of the intellect and genius over lack of imagination; the triumph of personality over materialism”. It is, if I can put it this way, the most purely intellectual sport, and so there’s the implication that its most accomplished players are particularly gifted in this respect. Even among these grandmasters, Fischer was exceptional, and Garbus captures this well. In an era when the Soviet Union, in an effort to show their perceived intellectual superiority, invested heavily in the promotion of chess and chess-players, Fischer, a lonely child from an unremarkable and unstable Brooklyn family, developed an interest and then a passion and then an obsession which led one commentator to say that he had dedicated more time to playing chess than all of his counterparts on the Soviet team combined. Malcolm Gladwell, who makes a welcome if brief appearance as a talking head, discusses his now-famous 10,000-hour rule, which states that in order to achieve mastery at any given pursuit, you must dedicate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that activity. It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to get a sense of how much time Fischer must have dedicated to his art.

Despite their many differences, I was reminded, as I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, of Christine, the Antonio Campos film about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself live on air. Both directors treat their subjects with not only empathy but something approaching affection, and this makes any accusation of exploitation a weak one. Garbus’ film is, first and foremost, a fair and fairly thorough examination of the life of what might have been the best chess player ever to play the game.

“Black Swan” (2011)

THE AUTHOR WALTER Dean Myers noted after seeing a production of Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn how significant a part the ever-present threat of violence played in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, and in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which dancer Nina Sayers struggles to embody the qualities of both dimensions of the lead part, the same thing might said to be true.

An angelic Natalie Portman plays Nina, a fiercely dedicated but shy and passive ballerina at the New York City Ballet. Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the current prima ballerina and darling of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to “retire”––that’s to say, not-so-politely asked to move on––which means there is a vacancy, and one that Nina and her fellow dancers would like to fill. Thomas, however, has reservations about Nina: she is, he says, the perfect White Swan; it’s her ability to play the White Swan’s evil counterpart, the Black Swan, that he has doubts about. Meanwhile, a new dancer has joined the corps. Lily (Mila Kunis), straight off the plane, so to speak, from San Francisco, is cheerful and reckless and fun––perfect, in other words, to play the Black Swan.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other. What Aronofsky and writer Andres Heinz do so well is create conditions and characterise Nina in such a way as to allow these two things this to be the case. Nina is beautiful, artistic and athletic, but her commitment to the ballet is an inheritance from her overbearing mother Erica––played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, incidentally––who at one stage makes a point of saying that if “I hadn’t taken you to each of your classes you would have been completely lost”. It’s a line that betrays Erica’s belief that she is to credit for Nina’s success, but one that also carries a grain of truth. The role of Erica in Nina’s life allows Nina to be at the same time as an élite ballet dancer sexually naive, vulnerable and susceptible (if not prone) to mental illness. In Beth and Veronica (Ksenia Solo) we see all the envy and aggression we might ordinarily expect of an artist and athlete with Nina’s level of ability and dedication.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. And you wouldn’t blame her either: every shot of Nina’s reflection in a mirror or pane of glass or water is a reminder that her very sense of identity is under attack. As much as the film belongs to Portman’s Nina, it is the kittenish Mila Kunis as Lily, determined, so to say, to unshackle Nina, and a brilliantly sinister, sexually aggressive and aristocratic-looking Vincent Cassel who play large parts in inducing this crisis. And that’s not to include the above-mentioned Barbara Hershey’s Erica, whose determination to infantilise her daughter (Nina’s room is a baby-pink nightmare of dolls and music boxes) can only end on way.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on The Fountain and Pi, creates an intimate and even claustrophobic sort of atmosphere that reflects Nina’s utter inability to get out of her own head, while the loud refrain from Tchaikovsky’s ballet threatens at all times to make your ears bleed, (which would, in fairness, be in keeping with the film’s abundant body horror.) As Thomas introduces his new production of Swan Lake in the opening ten minutes of the film, he acknowledges that the ballet has been “done to death, I know––but not like this.” Black Swan is somehow passionate, deranged and emphatic. It meditates on the obsessive nature of perfection while portraits scream at you from the walls. Like it’s main character, it’s nothing if not ambitious, and the result is spectacular.

Juan José Campanella’s “Los Secretos en Sus Ojos” (2010)

AT THE RISK of sounding glib, Argentina in the nineteen-seventies wasn’t a particularly fun place to be. This was the era of the so-called Dirty War, when the Argentine Military Government and the right-wing death squads of the Triple A “disappeared”, in the language of the time, about thirty thousand suspected left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, journalists, and anyone else believed to be associated with the socialist cause. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were among los desaparecidos, still march in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday in public defiance of state terrorism and in pursuit of the truth.

It is in that swirling vortex of paranoia and violence that Juan José Campanella’s thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos is set, and you do wonder why more films have not been placed in a time and setting that seems almost impossibly well suited to film noir. The film begins in nineteen-ninety-nine, when retired deputy prosecutor Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is brooding over a life of disappointments and having difficulty writing his first novel, which concerns a brutal rape and murder case that took place twenty-five years before. After a meeting with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), with whom he originally worked on the case (and with whom he’s hopelessly in love), he decides to begin his book with the crime itself. In all this Espósito has a sidekick of sorts in the figure of his bespectacled clerk, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), who prefers to spend his evenings getting blind drunk with the local low-lives rather than with his frustrated wife.

Espósito’s research into the murder case, which took place in nineteen-seventy-four when Argentina was just collapsing into its dirty war and subsequent dictatorship, runs in tandem with the investigation he undertook at the time as a junior policeman. Campanella does this with great skill: the scenes depicted take place in the past, in the present and in the imagination, and in each one there is the suggestion of secrets alluded to in the title. Similarly some credit is due to the hair and makeup team who “age” Benjamin and Irene in a way that isn’t jarring. (See J. Edgar or, for an example in reverse, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). An interesting dynamic between Benjamin and Ricardo (Pablo Rago), the widower of the raped and murdered schoolteacher, develops in the early narrative and continues to exist a quarter of a century later. Both Benjamin and Ricardo are obsessed with bringing the killer that has evaded them to justice, albeit for different reasons.

Campanella’s pacing and direction is particularly impressive. His crowning achievement is a travelling shot that begins above a football stadium and goes into the stands, where Benjamin and Pablo are searching out a suspect, before ending on the pitch itself. But the film belongs, if I can put it like that, to Ricard Darín and the obsessive Benjamin Espósito, who seems to hope that he can drown, or at least choke, his remorse over what could have been with Irene by concentrating his attention on a particularly savage killing and empathising with the heartbroken widower it created.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop”

‘I DON’T REALLY know what the moral is,’ says the reclusive, elusive street artist Banksy at the end of his entertaining and cheerful documentary debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tells the bizarre story of how a voyeuristic Frenchman armed with a video camera became the multimillionaire artist Mister Brainwash almost overnight.

The film opens to the tones of Richard Hawley’s ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ and a montage of various street artists at work in cities around the world. Banksy, his face and voice obscured, explains how the film is a sort of counter-documentary before saying, with typical self-deprecation, that ‘it’s not Gone with the Wind.’ The subject of the film is an energetic and obsessive Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, who passes off old clothes as expensive vintage items to gullible Angelinos. Thierry is obsessed with his video camera, and says as much. In fact he says the thrill filming gives him is ‘more than drugs’. His daily routine of marching around L.A. hassling celebrities like Jay Leno and Noel Gallagher is interrupted by a visit from his cousin, the urban artist Invader, who leads him into the emerging and counter-cultural world of street art.


Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming.


The mood for this bizarre story is markedly light-hearted and mocking, and this is reflected in the derisive narration of Rhys Ifans, whose casting is something of a masterstroke. Underpinning this, however, is something slightly sinister. Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming. The Dickie Greenleaf to Guetta’s Ripley is of course Banksy himself, the most famous and elusive of all street artists, and in an ironic twist, it’s Banksy who extends his hand. Guetta had been telling people that he was making a documentary about street art; he wasn’t, but it got him access to the biggest names in the movement, and the anonymous Banksy was convinced that Guetta’s filming might have some value.

Banksy pushes Guetta to make his film and the shambolic result (‘It was at this point that I realised that he maybe wasn’t a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.’) makes him decide to re-edit the footage himself, the result of which is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Guetta, meanwhile, is sent back to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the art scene and try to put on a show and weeks later, and now calling himself ‘Mister Brainwash’, unveils ‘Life is Beautiful’. MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and Banksy seems to have been his main source of ‘inspiration’. And, in part thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


Banksy pitches what he perceives as Guetta’s cynicism and commercialism against the undoubtedly mischievous and playful but largely idealistic world of street art, which, despite its polarising, is-it-art-or-vandalism? character, involves mainly serious artists who have spent their lives developing their own unique style. But Banksy stops short of moralising, opting instead, in his characteristic style, to approach the subject with humour and irony. The documentary also offers an interesting insider’s look into the world of street art with all its midnight outings and building-scaling and thrills of hiding in plain sight. But it isn’t so much about street art as it is about Thierry Guetta.

Since its release in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject have been accused of being an elaborate Banksy prank. The best argument for this that I can see is that Guetta’s wife is impossibly tolerant of his peculiar, eight-year obsession. Overall it seems unlikely that Exit is a hoax, but people more interested than I am have done their own investigating, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s funny, occasionally sinister and an illuminating glimpse at the world of street art. And if there is something approaching the ‘moral’ that eluded Banksy, it seems to be the statement ‘I am not for sale’.