A sense of place, but not of time: Mud and Something in the Air

24 May 2013

Some annotations on two films currently on theatrical release...

Halfway to the cinema today I realised I'd forgotten my notepad. Not that I take notes religiously (rarely, in fact, outside of festivals and/or commissioned articles), but I'd set mine aside today in the assumption that I might have a bit to say, good or bad, on Something in the Air (Aprés mai), Olivier Assayas' latest feature, which I knew I was seeing alongside Jeff Nichols' latest film, Mud. As it turns out, I took to the Assayas even less than I had expected to from its terrible trailer, whereas Mud, to my mind, appears to be the best fictional US film released so far this year. Rushed for time but driven by a desire or self-imposed challenge to Get Something Down, then, here are a few thoughts on today's films, noted as and when they come to me. Indulge the haphazard experimentation.

Warning: spoilers ahead

bears palpable resemblances to several other films - Badlands (1972), Stand By Me (1986), The Return (2003), A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) - without feeling tired; feels wholly unique, original.

Even its trailer-friendly moments of encountering a tall dark stranger establish a familiar rhythm and template in which Nichols and his performers can then anchor the film, bringing in various genre elements while solidifying the central drama

Various genre elements: gangster, revenge thriller, romance, all under COMING OF AGE territory.

its PREMISE - two close pals, 14 or so, meet a strange guy named Mud, becoming enchanted by him and projecting their own domestic/familial voids onto him. They must allow themselves to believe this man's every word so that the film itself can create tension: we "know better", but then various other characters seem to corroborate Mud's story:

The film unfolds through the eyes of two impressionable kids but allows itself the privilege of other vantage points: Shepard's, Shannon's, Sparks's and Baker's (but, to my recollection, not Mud's).

romance (Mud/Juniper) elevated by Romance (Ellis's distorted worldview), but then Romance is undercut by the disintegration of a romance due to the material pressures of adult life.

Is the film misogynistic? I thought at one point that it might be. Juniper's made out to be some kind of femme fatale who repeatedly uses Mud to her advantage; comes crashing home for Ellis when his "girlfriend" casually and insensitively ditches him. Who's to blame? Him for reading too much into things, or Mud (and the very masculine world he inhabits) for contributing to a certain representation (Otherising?) of women?

Cast a tad too "handsome" for the anonymous feeling of place intended? Or fitting?

All performances are excellent: McConaughey appears typecast but there's something very subtly distinct in this turn. Moments of vulnerability very touching - key, in fact, to film's sustained appeal

Tye Sheridan and newcomer Jacob Lofland (= River Phoenix?) are particularly brilliant; former my favourite (male) performance of the year. Shifting chemistry between two make early scenes fascinating - also inform us of alternative ways of reading Mud.

David Wingo's music lovely

Adam Stone's cinematography convinces me that "evocation of place" or "sense of place" (overused phrases the pair of them, maybe?) come down for the most part to lighting. Dusk/dawn; that shot of Witherspoon/Juniper looking out from the confines of her motel balcony. The few late-eve shots later on in the film as it's wrapping up...

Nichols knows just how long to hold a landscape shot for - confidence to hold it longer than others, but leaves us wanting more

very MELANCHOLIC tone; whole thing oozes resignation - river homes, divorce, economic fallout,

Something in the Air aka Après mai ("After May" more fitting title...?

Film begins in 1971 "not far from Paris"; bears no relation to 1969 Thunderclap Newman hit.)

What is it about films set amidst revolutionary youth currents in '60s-'70s Paris etc. that's so dramatically and cinematically superficial?

Classrooms, discussion meetings, activism - all lack naturalism and/or spontaneity of actual life; never rendered authentically by cinematic image. (Seminar scenes early on in 35 Rhums very much have the same feel.) A far cry from Days of Hope (1975) and other Loach films.

Intellectual process by which thoughts are revolutionised (discovering an author and reading their work for instance, applying new concepts to material circumstance) is distinctly uncinematic - inherently clichéd.

Why must young revolutionaries (and "Revolution"="Youth" again and again and again) be so obnoxious and open to parody in films? I wouldn't want to hang out with any of these guys.

Assayas relocates the ciphers of late-'60s Godard (La Chinoise, Weekend, Tout va bien etc.) to an ordinary and totally familiar drama; awkward shift

I can see how it might work as prose, where characters are the culmination of a series of descriptions, of multiple inherent metaphors, but in film: embarrassing, awkward shorthand...

Cinema's unmatched verisimilitude: where a person is a person and not just an impression. Nuance demanded, and therefore a certain responsibility to the historical moment. But the film is dull dull dull: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cipher

Acting bland (not Bressonian, plain bland) and staging wholly contrived: why are two characters discussing something that would be of vital importance to both of them as they're walking along a road or standing in the middle of the a street or trying to hitch a lift off passing cars? Why have they just started talking when the camera began to roll?

(This is why the film "looks nice"; it's aestheticised and terrible.)

Film begins to demystify artifice of cinema (yawn!) and also remystify it, especially towards the end when Life's Compromises Have Taken Hold and we move into the Concluding Montage of The Great What-Ifs.

One of those films whose dialogue/s can't help but be a running self-questioning and/or self-vindicating commentary on its own approach. Does it wish to defend its own accessibility (i.e. the fact that it is routine) by bringing into question the individualistic nature of petty bourgeois auteurism?

Why are multiple women getting naked and only one male character does in return? does Assayas equate the female form with social progression?

does Assayas have any interest in analysing history, or does he merely want to remember it?

does he have any interest in changing the world?