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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Z for Zachariah (2015)

In cinema, we're accustomed to imagining the post-apocalypse world as one of chaos, darkness, noise. Is it ever daytime in Terminator? Does the sun ever stop blaring down in Mad Max?

Few filmmakers have wondered about the tranquillity of a world that lacked men and machinery. But then, stillness is difficult to convey in film, and is best portrayed when it seems like a contradiction: Toshiro Mifune at the start of The Bad Sleep Well, Ryan Gosling at the end of the otherwise frenetic Drive.

Z for Zachariah is a study in sexual tension and menace, but also of gentleness and solemnity. The film divided critical opinion. The title hints at allegory, both in its eponymous reference to prophecy and divine omniscience ('Zechariah' means 'God remembered' in Hebrew), and also, perhaps, in its echo of Costa Gavras' ponderous Z, a film saturated with hope, threat, and dread. The critics weren't sure what Z for Zachariah was really about.

But what if the disappointed critics were searching for something that just isn't t there? Though it raises questions about race, class, faith and gender, the film's answers are, at best, indefinite. The moral quandary at the film's centre, which resolves the love triangle, turns on an action we never see. It transforms each of the characters in a purely interior way. Perhaps a story of three people struggling to survive is just a story of three people struggling to survive. Perhaps they don't have to stand for anything; perhaps they're interesting enough in themselves?

In the opening scene, we see Margot Robbie, who still thinks she's the last person alive in the world, wandering through a half-destroyed town in a home-made hazmat suit. Her valley farm has somehow escaped the radioactive catastrophe, but lacks vital supplies and, as we later discover, is supplemented with the pick of the town's library books.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Book of Eli (2010)

"It was a dark and stormy night."

So begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford, and hundreds of stories which mock it. Bulwer-Lytton, a popular and prolific nineteenth-century author, was also a politician, which may account for another of his other coinages - "the pen is mightier than the sword." This second slogan is etched onto the western window of the Library of Congress' South Corridor, from which the United States Capitol can be seen.

I like the first line, which has a fine and strong directness to it, but dislike the second. To me, it seems either banal or untrue, and either way, dangerously naive. It's shallow, and it shows a disregard for history and human experience.

But I don't doubt that moral writing can have a transformative effect. The Book of Eli spins upon a variety of implausible conceits, chief among them Denzel Washington's possession of an ethical rulebook, with which he manages to defeat bands of gangsters in post-apocalyptic California.

I'm troubled by the film's theocratic paternalism, its soft-hearted ideology, and its attempts to normalize the supernatural. By the film's end I felt conned twice over. But its genre-bending loopiness belies its charm. The book ends up in a library on Alcatraz Island.

Incidentally, Alcatraz Federal Prison had a library, and a notable one. Every new inmate was given a library card and copy of the catalogue. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that "these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular." The library was the chaplain's responsibility (for more on librarian chaplains, see this earlier post), who ensured that all references to sex, crime, and violence were excised from the collection's books. There's brief library scene in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

Friday, 8 November 2013

Oblivion (2013)

Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian and Liberal imperialist, was a trustee of the British Museum and a founder of the London Library. He is one of the nineteen men of letters whose names adorn the windows of the Museum's Round Reading Room, and until the legend of Karl Marx and the winds of change dissolved his reputation, was the library's most noted quotidian reader.

Historically and architecturally, the Round Reading Room vies with the Library of Congress as the most significant building in modern library history, but it is little filmed. By contrast, the New York Public Library's filmography grows longer by the year. Tom Cruise drops through its replicated ceiling in search of a wayward robot in the inept sci-fi thriller Oblivion. He escapes with a copy of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, most famous for its narrative ballad about about Publius Horatius Cocles, a hero of the early Republic, who faced down the entire Clusian army to save the city.

Cruise recites the poem in an incongruent Elysian valley he finds among the ruins, snow, and dust of our demolished planet: '...how can man die better / than facing fearful odds, / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods.' Through the twists and turns of the increasingly ridiculous plot, the poem provides a mantra for Cruise, and a hint at how the story will develop.

Horatius did not die. Wounded and bleeding, he cut off the enemy and escaped, and when he returned to Rome was paraded through the streets by a singing crowd. For the sake of the human race, it's a good thing that Cruise found such rousing poetry in the Rose Main Reading Room, and not Of Mice and Men or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. But the film might have been much less ponderous, and much more fun, if he had picked up a copy of Biggles.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

The Library of Alexandria probably wasn't burned down by a mob of intemperate Christians, the original Library of Congress probably wasn't the direct target of British pyromania during the War of 1812, and the recent panic about iconoclasm by Islamist radicals in Timbuktu led to much worrying, but few charred manuscripts. Though many libraries have been victims of war, I can't think of one destroyed by a deliberate act of terrorism. Librarians like to say that knowledge is power. If that were really true, surely more libraries would get blown up by those whose values are antithetical to our own?

A bomb in an archive sets up the action in the latest Star Trek film. Science fiction has often been a vehicle for investigations of knowledge and power, but not here. The pyrotechnics merely push the plot towards more explosions. Star Trek Into Darkness provides a sequence of interstellar detonations separated by winks, nods, buddy hugs, and gratuitous shots of Alice Eve's bosom.

In film, libraries often disguise something else (see my posts on the British Museum, Batman and The Librarian). The Kelvin Memorial Library hides a subterranean weapons facility, a cave full of spaceships directly underneath London that, somehow, remains secret. But then, not much in Star Trek Into Darkness makes sense. The suicide-bombing is carried out by a Starfleet officer to thank a villain who saved the life of his child. Only the anti-intellectualist Quarterback Kirk thinks it odd that someone would want to blow up what is nominally a library.

Inside the 'archive'
The destroyed archive is named for the USS Kelvin, the spaceship on which Kirk was born, shortly before his father died in battle. Relieved of his command, stripped of his rank, Kirk is reborn as a captain in this act of terrorism, which will lead to the death of his surrogate father. The layers of psychoanalytic convolution, plot circumlocution, and self-referentiality stopped me from enjoying the spectacle here. The neat shades of grey written for Benedict Cumberbatch are too simple for the actor's abilities. Triangulated between the comic book, the blockbusteringly nonsensical and the postmodernist reinvention, Star Trek Into Darkness falls into a black hole of its own making. It already feels time for someone to reinvent Star Trek again.

Director: J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Editing: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
Cast includes Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Take Shelter (2011)

There's a predictable inevitability to Take Shelter, a film about the slow unravelling of a man's life. He has a job, a family, a truck, and a best friend, but he's plagued by prophetic visions of an apocalyptic storm. If this makes Take Shelter sound dull, hackneyed, and crushingly banal, it overlooks the fact that great films don't need explosions, chases, sex scenes and heavy weaponry. They're often about ordinary people facing something extraordinary.

The performances are compelling. Michael Shannon is magnificent as the troubled working class hero, his physical solidity and mental trauma filling the screen like a sleeping lion. Also remarkable is the film's everyday approach to madness, which in cinema is usually either a given (most horror films), or its development is purely exterior (e.g., The Shining). Take Shelter asks what it would be like for a good man to worry about the collapse of his mental health. It wonders what a family man might say and do if he thought he could no longer provide for his loved ones.

Shannon borrows books on mental illness from the local library to help work out what's happening to him. The heavy books suit his hands, which are made for building, not Googling, and removes him from the family home in order to set up an important confrontation. It's good to be shown that you can still find solid, readable medical literature in libraries, despite the shelves heaving with chick-lit and tales of military daring-do.

In a film which dramatizes potential, Take Shelter shows an actor (Shannon) and a director (Jeff Nichols) emerging as film people with a great future. Last year's Mud, with Matthew McConaughey, pulled them further into the limelight. A big-budget sci-fi project, with echoes of John Carpenter's early work, is next on the cards. I look forward to it.

SGU Stargate Universe ("Epilogue", 2011)

Nearly every space-based sci-fi series has an episode like this.

For ill-defined reasons, the spaceship is drawn to a mysterious planet. Something dangerous (usually involving unstable seismology or meteorology) makes a landing inadvisable, but senior crew-members descend anyway. A discovery is made about the origin, or future, of humankind. The key to this knowledge is within reach, but an evolving cataclysm prevents it. The knowledge is lost forever. The episode ends with someone looking out at the stars, saying 'there are some things we're just not meant to know.'

Though the short-lived Stargate Universe owed much to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, it didn't suffer from the latter's metaphorical overkill. In one of the potential-for-development stories introduced in the second series in an attempt to save the programme from imminent cancellation, the crew of the Destiny come across a planet they had (somehow) settled 2,000 years before.

The planet contains evidence of the lost civilization they had founded, but is lifeless, and gashed by flowing lava. The intrepid marines and scientists discover a subterranean library containing ebooks written by their future/past selves. Reassuringly, libraries are still libraries, even in the future/past. The reader spaces are located on a gantry that mimics the railings of a Victorian library. And the library is underground, bringing to mind the notorious bookstacks of the New York Public Library, the British Library and Oxford's Bodleian.

Just as the crew are on the cusp of discovering the secret of the temporal puzzle, gangways fall and ladder-securing bolts shudder and shake. The captain pulls them away as the planet is torn apart. The series was cancelled. We we never given the key to the puzzle. Obviously, there are some things we're just not meant to know.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Belle (2013)

I've always argued that the depiction of libraries on film is more cinematically complex than most librarians acknowledge. But whether metaphors, visual shortcuts, or locations for unexpected drama, libraries in movies are usually just that - libraries. Examples in which they stand in for something else are rare. But they do exist.

Interior scenes of the reinstated Irish parliament were shot in Trinity College's 1937 Reading Room for Michael Collins. And though Oxford's Bodleian has been filmed a number of times, it has rarely ended up as a library on-screen. The court bounded by the Schools Quadrangle, Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Building (pictured below) has been anonymized by its ubiquity. In Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, in X-Men: First Class, throughout Inspector Morse, and in Brideshead Revisited, actors cross this quad going about their business, going anywhere but the library. The surrounding seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings in Headington stone could be almost anywhere in Oxford. Perhaps the Library authorities are more welcoming to filmmakers than the Colleges - today a website encourages enquiries.

The Headington quarry also supplied the limestone with which Eton College and Windsor Castle were clad. Indeed, Hollywood seems that all of England's buildings were hewn from it. Harry Potter's Hogwarts library is, in fact, the Bodleian's Duke Humfrey's Library, its infirmary the Library's Divinity School. The Divinity School also featured as the lobby to the House of Commons in The Madness of King George.

Nearly all of the Bodleian's buildings, and many surrounding streets, stood in for early-modern London in Terrence Malick's overlooked The New World. So it is with Belle, an eighteenth-century period drama due to be released later this year. Belle is the only film I've witnessed being filmed outside a library. All day long horses and carriages trundled up and down Catte Street, a filmic simulacrum of London in the 1760s. What are we to make of the illusion? Perhaps it simply adds another layer of complexity. Location scouts and cinematographers are able to look beyond traditional associations and reimagine libraries, usually successfully, as alternative architectural spaces. Perhaps librarians could learn something from filmmakers?