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American Honey

December 2nd, 2016 1 comment

american_honey_posterSo American Honey is as good as they say it is. I’m suspicious of critically acclaimed indie movies.  They can be austere and intellectually respectable – like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road – and not terribly watchable. Particularly when they are almost 3 hours long.

But from the first beguiling frame, this is a masterclass both in direction and cinematography.

It’s shot in an at first brutal 4:3 aspect ratio – like an old school TV film, so almost square – and a reminder of how we usually like to soften out the horizons of a story in widescreen.  The effect, together with the strong and harsh colour timing, is to make it look like some of William Eggleston’s cibachrome prints of the Deep South – motel bedrooms (much of the movie is shot in motels or the crew van or lost American suburbs), kids in supermarket checkouts, the shock of going outside onto bright sunlit grass.  There is a fabulous scene – which would have been clumsy in less assured hands – when the two lovers chasing across a suburban lawn set off the sprinkler against an irradiated sky.

From the moment that newcomer Sasha Lane (the director cast her off the streets) appears on screen as Star, she holds it, often in close-up, along with Shia LaBeouf’s brooding and vulnerable bad boy presence.  That is when alpha bad girl Krystal (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’s granddaughter)  isn’t putting both of them in their place, a performance made somehow more aggressive because she is usually semi-naked when doing so.

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Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf, her ‘bitch’

The plot is freewheeling in a very good way. But the central premise is that Star is picked up by a van load of kids all trying to make money by hustling and selling magazines, and partying across America.

Where director Andrea Arnold opens it up is with the silences and interstitial spaces of glimpsed life from the van – not just white trailer trash America, but stray birds and dogs and lost children and, in one memorable scene, the oilfields burning at night.  There is sadness and hope echoing round Star as she travels across America with a cohort of lost souls. It’s a film about female freedom and loss.

Is it the best film of the 21st century by a woman director?  Undoubtedly.  And despite the TV ratio, a film that absolutely needs to be seen in a cinema so you can get lost in it yourself.

 

Embrace of the Serpent

July 15th, 2016 No comments

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Nominated for an Oscar and already much feted, Embrace of the Serpent can now be seen in British cinemas and is a revelation.

The masterstroke is filming the Amazon in black and white – counter-intuitive but brilliant – and letting the strange dreamlike journey play out along the river.

I am less certain that the dual narrative – many decades separate the two different storylines – works quite so well, and at times the anthropology can creak at the seams, but at its best, this is an odyssey along the most serpentine of all rivers, with many way-stations and dangers for the travellers in their canoes.

The Colombian director, Ciro Guerra, is not afraid to allow strange epiphanies to creep in:  a comet passes overhead at one point, lighting up the dark faces of those below; the torches of mission children are like fireflies in the night. The photography throughout is both numinous and luminous, shot on Super 35.

There’s been some discussion about the historical background to the film.  The producers say that ‘the film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes)’, but anthropologist have already been quick to note the discrepancies:  Koch-Grünberg, for instance, had no interest in hallucinogenics.  The historian John Hemming has pointed out to me that the brilliant and disturbing depiction of the messianic shaman with his own cult is based on Venancio Christo, active in that region from the late 1850s to early 1860s – half a century before Koch-Grünberg and a century before Schultes.

But as an imaginative interpretation of the spirit of the Amazon, this film must surely be hard to beat. And while Fitzcarraldo had previously set the benchmark, that was a film about the European psyche; this tries to be one about the mindset of the South American Indian.

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A Walk In The Woods

March 6th, 2016 No comments

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A Walk In The Woods is a curious film and proposition.

Bill Bryson wrote his book in the 1990s, when he himself was in his 40s like his friend Katz, with whom he makes this journey along the Appalachian Way.

Robert Redford wanted to turn this into a movie – but with himself playing Bryson, despite the fact that Redford is in his late 70s and looks absolutely nothing like the bearded writer.

Despite the incongruity, critics have been a little unkind to it, as it’s worth watching for the gentle humour with which things unfold – and gentle humour is a rare commodity in movies these days.  Also, the film – and the Bill Bryson character – are lucky enough to have Emma Thompson as a (much younger) wife, who always brings some welcome asperity and wit to proceedings.

Nothing is less filmic than a man walking or hiking slowly across landscape – which is why movie-makers since the time of John Ford always try to get them on a horse, wagon or fast moving car.  When I was making travel documentaries myself, I always used to dread the bits when my presenter would ponderously stumble along with a backpack.

But the filmmakers make a decent fist of it here and if it is all a tad inconsequential – particularly the jeopardy moment when they fall off a very small ‘cliff’ and think themselves stranded – there’s a slow, loping charm which is very much like the act of walking across such a landscape.

Paul Fussell: An Anniversary Tribute

May 23rd, 2013 No comments
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Lt. Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945

I was in Philadelphia recently and thought of Paul Fussell, who lived there before his death this time last year and whom I knew:  one of the finest writers about 20th-century war, both because he wrote about the subject as a cultural critic more than military historian and because having fought in WW2 both in Europe and the Pacific, he knew what he was talking about.  The Great War And Modern Memory is his most famous book – but I have only just read one of his very last books, The Boys’ Crusade.  Subtitled ‘American GIs In Europe: Chaos And Fear In World War II’, it highlights some familiar Fussell themes:  how many American soldiers were teenagers, how little about war they knew before they went, and how many cock-ups there were.

Like all of his books – and like his conversation – it is candid and clear-sighted, just like the Augustan prose he so admired (he was a professor of 18th-century English Literature).   Unlike most books on WW2, it is also elegantly short.

But if his other achievements were not enough, he also helped in the revival of interest in travel writing, for which I am more directly grateful to him.  His book, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, championed travel writers of the 1930s like Robert Byron who had largely been forgotten at the time.

I was once with him when a BBC executive (I was trying to get the BBC to make a programme about and with Paul) asked him if he had ever met any Germans.  Fussell gave him a stare:  ‘Any Germans I met during the war, I killed.’  The executive blanched.

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Highway to the Sangre de Cristo mountains

August 30th, 2011 No comments

road to Sangre to Cristo mountains, Colorado

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In Colorado to ride horses in the mountains.  One of the first times I’ve been in rural America – most of my previous visits have been to the cities – and I’m blown away by the scale and wilderness.  The largely empty highways seem to go on forever.  The mountains are chunkier than I’d expected as well – we’re a stone’s throw from Pikes Peak at over 14,000 feet.

 

Even the apples are bigger in America. And there’s a reason for that.  They grow a thousand times as many apples in the States as in Britain, but they prefer theirs to be ‘meal-sized portions’ – so they export the little ones to us, with our smaller appetites and orchards.

We take a pack trip into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, south-west of Colorado Springs, and spend some nights at over 10,000 feet with nine wonderful horses who pick their way surefootedly across some difficult terrain.  The forests are a rich mixture of aspen, spruce and pine, with wild raspberries growing underfoot and a few bears lurking around to add spice to the mix (we have a large Great Dane with us called Guinness, who is said to be more than a match for any bear, as they are notoriously afraid of dogs).

I’m with my old friends Gary Ziegler, who has led trips with me in Peru many times, and his wife Amy Finger.  Their Bear Basin Ranch lies on the old stagecoach route to Westcliffe, and has over 4000 acres of fine riding country to explore.

By coincidence I’m just re-reading John Steinbeck’s excellent Travels with Charley, in which he also travels across America with a large dog, who at one point barks at a bear.  It’s almost exactly 50 years old, written in 1961, published 1962, almost his last book and a fine tribute to his love for the wide open spaces of America as well as a melancholy forecast of some of the changes he could see coming.  It came out the year he won the Nobel Prize and was subtitled ‘In Search Of America’;  perhaps helped by the Nobel Prize, it was a bestseller and deserved to be for the simple, direct approach he took to travel writing, and his perfect ear for American dialogue:  ‘the Badlands of Missouri are like the work of an evil child…’