Kapadia: Amy (2015)

Crafting a documentary about Amy Winehouse presents something of a challenge, since one of the main things that drove her over the edge was excessive, obsessive media scrutiny. It’s even harder in that much of the so-called liberal media, media that was initially quite sympathetic and respectful, turned on her in the end as well, with a viciousness and cruelty that is partly the subject of Amy, Asif Kapadia’s incredible documentary. From that perspective, the most appropriate way to make a film about the late great soul singer – short of not making a film at all – would seem to be to divest it of images entirely, perhaps focusing exclusively upon conversations with her friends, family and colleagues. So it’s a bit surprising, initially, when Kapadia goes in the opposite direction, compiling a film out of almost nothing but footage of Winehouse. Although the film is narrated by a vast ensemble of friends, family and colleagues, they’re relegated to voiceovers – we never see them in the present, and don’t even see some of them in the archival footage – which means that the focus, visually, is squarely on Winehouse, with barely a frame going by that doesn’t have her in it. As might be expected, a great deal of the footage is taken from concerts, live appearances, interviews and, occasionally, what appears to be paparazzi sources. However, the overall feel and tone of the film manages to be quite anti-paparazzi, even as Kapadia seems to get closer to Winehouse’s life and career than even the most dedicated and unscrupulous paparazzo. In part, that’s because the official and promotional footage is actually secondary to the home movies that Winehouse and her circle of friends and acquaintances started making from their early teens, wielding their digital camcorders like proto-SmartPhones, as they conducted their own mock-interviews and mockumentaries about their emerging lives and careers. Even as Winehouse skyrocketed to success on the back of Frank and Back to Black, she never seemed to stop mediating her friendships in this way, which provides Kapadia with an enormous wealth of material to draw upon, with the film ending just as it seems like the transition to a SmartPhone would have been the logical next step. In that sense, it plays more as a collection of home movies than a documentary per se – albeit a beautifully collated, curated and compiled collection of home movies, as Kapadia seems to know just when to cut, pause or slow down the footage to get a sense of Winehouse’s mercuriality, the utter lack of entitlement to fame or talent that rendered her so diminutive, vulnerable and unique. Like the most resonant home movies too, the footage is so incidental, incomplete and forgettable, that it seems to preserve Winehouse’s privacy even or especially as we get closer and closer to her, until she feels as immune to scrutiny as she might actually have felt in person, or at least at the kind of small-scale, jazz-club gigs she preferred the most. Immersing yourself in all the tics and nuances of her footage, then, is a bit like immersing yourself in all the tics and nuances of her voice – it seems to undo, moment by moment, her media image – until the film feels a bit like an accompaniment to the albums, or a sustained music video, a way of staying true to the mercurial music that made up her life.


Higgins: 9 to 5 (1980)

From Baby Boom to Big Business, the 80s abounded with films – usually romantic comedies at heart – that attempted to come to terms with women as corporate creatures. None of them, however, were as clear-eyed in their radical feminism as 9 to 5, which also managed to pull off one of the funniest comedies of the decade, suffused with a delirious, campy sense of joy that completed Dolly Parton’s country-pop crossover, and propelled Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda even further into the cinematic stratosphere. Part of what makes the film so powerful is that it operates more or less as a revenge fantasy that refuses to ever give up on its fantasy, as a group of three female employees form an unexpected alliance after discovering that they’ve all dreamed of taking down their misogynistic boss, Franklin Hart, played by Dabney Coleman in the 80s corporate schmuck persona he owned before it was gentrified by Michael Douglas. All three women have different grievances – Judy Bernly (Fonda) is bullied throughout her entire probation period, Doralee Rhodes (Parton) is repeatedly sexually harassed and Violet Newstead (Tomlin) is passed over for promotion because she’s a woman – but they’re united in their cause, and even more united by the fact that the film makes no efforts to explain or justify why they’ve chosen to work, despite the fact that they’re all in some variant on the nuclear family setup. In fact, some of the most utopian moments actually take place against the backdrop of their family and home lives, as writers Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins envisage a cinematic universe in which women can be presented as professionals without some laborious back story about how they’re extra-hard-working mothers and wives: these three women just simply happen to have relationships, and to work, and that’s it. Perhaps that’s why so much of the revenge takes place at Hart’s own home, as the trio’s revenge fantasies start to unexpectedly come true, launching the film into a dark, picaresque comic register that often plays as a siege narrative as much as anything else, a series of logistical hurdles and pragmatic challenges standing in the way of the equal rights they’re so keen to sequester. As Hart is progressively poisoned, shot and imprisoned, Judy, Doralee and Violet are forced to confront their deepest longings for liberation, the dicta of their most subscionsious selves emerging before their eyes, while also playing wife and mother to Hart as never before, creating a wonderful double bind in which their greatest burden is protecting their boss, co-workers – and themselves – from the corrosive rage forged from years and years of sexist subjugation. How they manage it is the ingenuity, beauty and comedy of the film, which draws on the gritty realism of 30s comedy, the backstage sisterhoods of early sound cinema, to envisage a fully unionised workplace, driven by proper benefits, job-sharing and equal pay. Of course, that can’t completely last, but the grandeur of the film is the way it refuses to dismiss fantasies as fantasies – if anything, the comedy is a way of keeping fantasies resilient – thanks to Dolly in particular, whose robust, bluegrass ability to present herself as a kind of grounded fantasy gives the film a lot of its heft. Still, it takes all three to remake every workplace montage sequence over in their own image, as they yearn for an alternative to the 9-to-5 day that nevertheless avoids the pitfalls of the flexible, casualised labour that has also started to emerge around female workers in particular – an alternative that may only exist in their welfare state of three, their charismatic communion, but never feels any less utopian for that, or makes them feel any less a force to be reckoned with.


Argento: Phenomena (1985)

One of the curious features of giallo is that – unlike virtually any other genre – it benefits from being dubbed, or from transnational casts that feel dubbed, since so much of its horror stems from the disassociation of sound and image – the space between sound and image – that Peter Strickland captured so uncannily in Berberian Sound Studio. Released in 1985, Phenomena is one of Dario Argento’s dubbiest films, at least from his classic period, taking the basic narrative of Suspiria – a serial killer stalking a girl’s school, this time in the Alps – but extending it in ever more preposterous and absurd directions. With Jennifer Connelly as the main character, Donald Pleasance as her mentor, a variety of Italian and Swiss extras, and a chimpanzee as a main character, there’s very little effort to regulate tone, manner or inflection – in fact, it is probably one of Argento’s most tone-deaf films, at least in a conventional sense, as everyone seems to be speaking in a voice that is not his or her own. Of course, that’s a very natural register for Argento’s particular brand of supernatural slasher film, which usually fixates on the telepathic communion between killer and victim more than its American counterpart. At the same time, that studied tone-deafness is the perfect starting-point for what turns out to be one of the most flamboyant dissasociations of sound and image in Argento’s career, with great swathes of the film poised at that moment when a montage sequence has started to go on a little too long, and you start to forget how the sound and images you’re experiencing relate to the narrative, or even to each other. That can be bewildering, but it also imbues sound and image – and images in particular – with the freshness of silent cinema, or a dream sequence – or a silent cinema dream sequence – as Argento sketches out something like a pre-conscious, phenomenal world, a world in which the visceral experience of looking precedes meaning, language or sonic accompaniment. With sight disassociated from any other sense, sight itself starts to feel somewhat prehensile, which perhaps explains why the actual murder sequences somehow manage to be both hyper-violent and non-physical at the same time, as if looking and murdering were functions of the same organ. At the same time, to help things along the way, Argento clutters and complicates many of his scenes with more than we can visually process or navigate at any one time, creating a spatial surplus, a lurid, exotic sense of space, that makes your eyes feel as if they have to work extra hard to traverse the tangled, distorted passage from one space to the next, even or especially when various eccentric transportation devices are inserted into the narrative to provide you with a bit of assistance, funiculairing, driving and elevating your eyes from mise-en-abyme to mise-en-abyme. In that sense, the Alps feel like the perfect backdrop, providing Argento with vistas that force you to redefine your sense of scale moment by moment, as well as putting more and more pressure on your eyes to keep up with the oversaturated circumambience of it all. Insofar as there's a story to ground all these visual challenges, it's partly about theorising or explaining this hypersight, as Argento variously imagines the film from the perspective of sleepwalkers, insects, serial killers and sex offenders. But, in the end, it feels as if it's the audience's perception that most fascinates him, the way that a cinephile will attach to a sound or image, beyond any rhyme or reason, long after the film has finished, until it's more real, in some sense than the film itself. In other words, for Argento, cinephilia is a way of grasping the hyperreal potential of film as a medium, which makes Phenomena's hyperlyricism feel like a consummation of cinephilia as well, devoid of anything but cinephilic moments, invitations to cinephilia - shots of wind in trees abound - that quickly make you feel as if you're experiening the after-effects of a horror film more than a fully-fledged horror film per se. And it's that sense of being haunted without having been entertained, of experiencing phenomena without a film to ground them, that makes the sense of horror so anti-cathartic and unsettling, in one of the least satisfying - but most terrifying - efforts of Argento's long career, destined to enrage critics and haunt cinephiles for decades to come. 


Docter: Inside Out (2015)

How does the world feel to a child raised on digital media, a child who’s compiled and stored more data than they’ll ever be able to retain by the time they’re a teenager? That’s the question that Pixar has seemed to be asking over its latest generation of films – how to nail that demographic – culminating with Inside Out, the first film in the Pixar universe to feature an everyday, realistic character – a twelve-year old girl named Riley – as protagonist. There’s a catch though – most of the action takes place inside Riley’s mind, where the emotions of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader) collaborate and compete to regulate her moods and memories. Digital minds are often figured, onscreen, as fluid, provisional and improvisational, and while there are certainly traces of that here, the film’s power lies more in the way in which it captures the mechanised, externalised consciousness of the social media addict – the sense that all your feelings, memories and experiences are somehow out there, more organised but also more free-floating than ever before. As a result, Joy, Sadness, Digust, Anger and Fear don’t feel exactly inside Riley, but nor do they feel quite outside her either – they emerge from her in the same way that the cloud emerges from individual hard drives, or the mind was once thought to emerge from the brain. Not only does that disaggregate Riley much more than you might expect – the emotions are the real characters here - but it sets the film a peculiar challenge: how do you create a mindscape, or mindspace, that is at once mechanical and amorphous, internal and external, human and post-human? The answer looks a bit like Myst crossed with the perkier, brighter palette of the Pixar universe – a giant ball-bearing machine that unfolds before us as Joy and Sadness find themselves jettisoned from “Headquarters” and forced to traverse one part of the mind after another. Along the way, there are a few whimsical moments – the train of thought, the land of imagination – but for the most part this mindscape is too efficient, elegant and economical to admit of much whimsy. Instead, it tends towards a schematic sparseness and Cartesian minimalism that subsists on texture as never before in the Pixar universe, evincing an animation aesthete’s delight in surfaces, and the sounds of surfaces, that gives it a highly cerebral edge, culminating with production designer Ralph Eggleston’s “electrochemical” philosophy for visualising the emotions themselves. As might be expected, that’s quite an austere aesthetic, and for those raised on earlier Disney fairy tales, or even earlier Pixar fairy tales, the move from self-realisation to self-regulation might seem somewhat somewhat disarming – it feels right that the majority of emotions are voiced by actors from The Office and Parks and Recreation – as well as somewhat vertiginous, as Riley’s peaks and troughs sync up with the lovingly painted San Francisco backdrop in quite sudden and unexpected ways. But there’s also a message about resilience here, a guide to managing your digital consciousness without succumbing to depression – or datageddon – that not only flies in the face of conventional wellness wisdom, but does so quite unsentimentally, if only because the whole mechanics of the film unpack and undo the Pixar production of sentimentality, growing out of it before your very eyes.


Wain: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Released in 2001 and steadily increasing in cult acclaim ever since, this delirious delight takes place on the last day of a holiday camp in Maine in 1981, as the intrigues, romances and animosities between the various camp counselors are brought to a head. As the day proceeds, and we move from counselor to counselor, and incident to incident, we’re exposed to an incredible range of comic talents – including Janeane Garofolo, David Hyde Pearce, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black – to the point where it doesn’t really feel like a regular ensemble cast so much as a looser, more flexible comic collective, poised somewhere between a comic summary of the 90s and a comic prehistory of the 00s. As might be expected, that works perfectly against the film’s own coming-of-age backdrop, since it’s a bit like watching a new generation of comedians cutting their teeth with a few mentors along to show them the ropes, blending two generations in the same way that writer-director David Wain tends to confound all distinction or hierarchy between the counselors and campers. Since this is something of a rite of passage, then, some of the jokes don’t land – in fact, many don’t land – but the joy of the film is more in its messiness, as Wain’s catch-all approach leaves space for an enormous number of comic styles, registers and experiments, even or especially when they’re a bit daggy, or demand a little too much joyful credulity from the audience. In that sense, it feels like a tribute to the films that these actors grew up with – and, in particular, to that moment in the early 80s when sex comedies started to impart something of their anarchic energy to serial comedies, with nods in the direction of National Lampoon, The Gods Must Be Crazy and the Zucker comedies, as well as more familiar flagposts like Caddyshack and Porky’s. For all their differences, those films impressed you with how fun they must have been to actually make – and, moreover, invited you to vicariously experience that fun, creating a kind of amateur involvement that was perhaps only really possible before VHS, and not unlike the involvement of watching a live sketch variety show, or even a stand-up set. In that sense, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an elegy for pre-VHS cinema as a live medium, or at least as a more enlivened medium than 90s cinema, whose ironic literacy is dismantled at every opportunity. Among other things, that creates an amazingly and distinctively 80s sense of immersion, despite the fact that what we’re watching is effectively a string of tangentially-related sketches, since it never really feels as if the stories stop when we cut to the next nook or niche within the camp – you can’t help but feel that the actors you’ve just cut away from are still there having fun, or goofing around, even if they don’t happen to be on camera at this exact moment. In other words, it never feels like a sequence of sketches because it feels like all the sketches are continuing all the time – they’re really just the dynamic that keeps this collective together – just as the various stories don’t converge so much as overlap, with dialogue from one increasingly dubbed over the next, all layered into the final camp talent show which more or less absorbs the film. In retrospect, it can’t help but anticipate the draining 80s nostalgia that followed in its wake, but, in its serial, chilled-out invitation to watch and participate at your own pace, it also feels like a forerunner of recent television, especially Netflix, who have picked it up for the miniseries Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, a prequel-sequel that feels wonderfully true to the film’s own complicated coming-of-age contortions, its anarchic, frenzied blend of nostalgia and futurity.