What should we make of Jane Campion’s return to television? Also: should you be worried about Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby? Is Godard great – and who was Jesus Franco?
by Philip Matthews
At the time of writing, I’m just four episodes into Jane Campion’s television series Top of the Lake. On the one hand, everything I’m about to say might have already been rendered meaningless by outrageous plot developments or sudden lurches in tone or style in the closing episodes. On the other, anyone who hasn’t seen any of the series yet – who is waiting for the DVD, say – can keep on reading without encountering spoilers.
First, the context. Top of the Lake is six episodes or seven, depending on where you are – or whether you watched it by legitimate means or otherwise – co-produced with British and US money, but inaugurated from Australia. Campion co-created it with writer Gerard Lee, who dates back to Sweetie, while her co-director was Australian commercials, television and shorts director Garth Davis. But Campion has been taken to be the central creative force, and we could see the series as coming from a tradition of auteurist film-makers pursuing their visions through television, as an extension of the idea, developed over the decade since The Sopranos and Deadwood, that television is now a better vehicle for extended, grown-up storytelling than mainstream cinema. In this case, we’re talking about the mini-series or short contained series, so the true comparison is with things like Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce mini-series or Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which ran as five and half hours of television (the best way to see it) or two and half hours of cinema. In a way, Campion has been here before – An Angel at My Table was a three-part NZ/UK/Australian-funded television miniseries, as much as it was a movie.
But Top of the Lake is more of a genre piece than the Haynes and Assayas films. In television, everyone is looking for the next Killing. Meaning that the influential Danish series Forbrydelsen/The Killing is the most obvious antecedent and the solemn mood and nearly Nordic setting – all frost and fog and freezing water, everything drained of colour – puts Top of the Lake deep in that bleak Scandinavian crime tradition. This is not your tourist Queenstown, and there is surely some equation that could tell you how many minutes of Top of the Lake it would take to cancel the effect of every last Hobbit dollar. It’s less the landscape with too few lovers than the landscape with too many munters (New Zealand: 100 per cent impure). Beautiful but unwelcoming scenery is populated by creeps, and all distances feel remote. The community is fractured and paranoid, suspicious of outsiders and even of those returning after some time away.
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks ultimately gave you a horrific – albeit funnier – vision of a remote and insular community in which teenage girls were systematically groomed and abused by the middle-aged men that ran the town, but the power structure and moral order in Top of the Lake is that much murkier. The police don’t seem effective or to command much respect and they seem infected by a culture of misogyny and suspicion that wasn’t present in Twin Peaks’ police force, either. Good and evil is black and white for Lynch; there are more grey areas here. In fact, the only element in Top of the Lake that seems remotely Lynchian, apart from the woodland setting, is Holly Hunter’s cameo as GJ, a kind of oracular being wearing a curtain of grey hair and heading up a community of women living in shipping containers. To us, it looks like Christchurch, but their lakeside camp is called Paradise. So far this plot strand – which also gives us Robyn Malcolm as a nervous, American-accented acolyte – is easily the least satisfying thing about the series, and it looks like an entirely separate idea has been grafted onto the crime story.
If Hunter is the matriarch, then Scottish actor Peter Mullan is the patriarch. He’s grim, long-haired, violent, bearded and named Matt. Bible fans might have noticed that his sons are named Mark, Luke and Johnno. Top of the Lake shows us a clannish community in which the battle of the sexes – a recurring Campion topic – has broken down into a kind of Cold War, with men and women living apart from each other. In other relationships, there are suggestions of domestic violence, rape and subjugation. A 12-year-old girl is pregnant and disappears, and the initial mystery – which by episode four was looking more and more like a McGuffin that might be swiftly solved to satisfy audience expectations, as Lynch was forced to do with Laura Palmer’s killing in Twin Peaks – is who got the girl pregnant and where has she gone?
So far at least, it is an uncompromisingly negative vision. The story spreads in odd ways and gets increasingly Gothic – there is even an Austrian paedo living in a cottage in the woods – and the storytelling could have done with some tightening up and more focus. The plot’s crime elements, which aren’t limited to the girl’s pregnancy, are far from gripping. But maybe it’s impossible for us to watch this series objectively. We aren’t just distracted by the imported actors doing Kiwi accents, and the Kiwis doing offshore accents – and the third, luckier category of actors allowed to speak in their own voices (Mullan, for instance) – we are also distracted by the Campion-ness of the whole thing, by which I mean the recurring symbolism and borderline surrealism that pushes her work into the mythic. How apt that the beautiful opening credit sequence animates a painting by Seraphine Pick.
In surrealism, objects are loaded with dream-like meaning, the “primitive” is valued over the “civilised” and sex imbues everything. So it was in The Piano – and, to varying degrees, in every Campion film up to and including Top of the Lake (and Julia Leigh’s cold, remarkable film Sleeping Beauty, which Campion championed – it ran like Bunuel adapting Angela Carter). The Piano won the Palme d’Or at Cannes almost exactly 20 years ago and Top of the Lake is the first project since to bring Campion back here. It is also her reunion with Hunter, and that would have been even more meaningful had Anna Paquin been cast in the role that eventually went to Elisabeth Moss (reportedly, Paquin turned it down because of her pregnancy). Moss’ character, Robin, is a detective who has been living in Sydney and is back visiting family when 12-year-old Tui disappears; she is drawn into the case. There would have been added resonance with Paquin in the part, playing off her between-ness. Meaning, is Paquin American now or Kiwi? Both or neither? In a similar way, the project itself seems both identifiably local and strangely placeless.
For me, Moss doesn’t quite convince as Robin, who is the latest in Campion’s ongoing series of Antipodean women. I suspect that Campion has put Australian actresses into period films – Nicole Kidman in Portrait of a Lady, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star – because something about their Antipodean, contemporary personalities, their confidence and self-assurance, disrupts the received conventions of period cinema, or at least the polite, “prestigious” form of period cinema that dominates in the English-speaking world. I’m pretty sure that in Bright Star, Kerry Fox, in a supporting role, hardly bothered with a British accent, no matter that the setting was London in the early 19th century, and the rupture it caused in the film’s realism was intentional.
It’s not just about period films, either. Campion also wanted Kidman for In the Cut, in the role Meg Ryan eventually got, which meant an Antipodean woman would have been at the centre of what was otherwise a New York crime story extended into more familiar Campion areas: the relationships between sisters, a woman’s navigation of sexual danger and romantic oppression or confinement (in various ways, and despite it being an adaptation, bits of Sweetie, The Piano and Holy Smoke were in that film).
In Holy Smoke, Kate Winslet was the Antipodean woman as another reverse transplant, an English actress playing Australian (more successfully than Moss plays Kiwi, from memory). In Portrait of a Lady, Kidman’s Isabel Archer negotiated a minefield of potential husbands, but Henry James’ American in old Europe now seemed more like a modern woman testing the boundaries of a 19th century loveless marriage, and that sense of time travel was set up by Campion’s decision – an eccentric one but truly inspired too – to open the film with footage of young, contemporary Australian women talking about their romantic expectations. From that point on, our viewing of the story was framed by both time and distance. And in 2013, Moss is the Antipodean woman, mostly self-possessed but also dependent on men, and not just erotically. Which men can be trusted and which are dangerous? Would she be better off in GJ’s recovery cult? And is it just coincidental that she so resembles Kerry Fox?
The Piano aside, there has never been much of a critical consensus about Jane Campion. For some, Portrait of a Lady was the first great disappointment in her career. For others, it was Holy Smoke. (For me, it was In the Cut, but Bright Star lifted her average again). It’s too early to work out just where Top of the Lake sits, although you can already tell that it isn’t the great achievement that An Angel at My Table was, although much of that – from my half-way point, anyway – is about Top of the Lake’s relative failure as storytelling. The other business – atmosphere, acting, shooting, writing – isn’t quite compensating. The acting is especially variable. But, this far at least, the series has sustained a sense that some awful mystery is waiting to be cracked open yet may never be fully understood. Even the title – Top of the Lake – sounds like a metaphor for Campion’s unconscious processes, and her relationship to surrealism. We can agree on what we see on the surface, but we may never figure what is going on beneath. How deep does it go?
Do you remember the bit at the end of The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway says that Jay Gatsby got so close to his dream that he could hardly fail to grasp it? Well, soon, thanks to the magic of 3D, that will be you too, reaching out and touching his dream. Talk about literalising metaphors.
Baz Luhrmann’s US $127 million 3D adaptation is the fifth version of a novel that should be easy to film – a straight-forward and cinematic story, economically told – but has kept eluding film-makers’ grasps, like so many green lights at the end of docks. We don’t doubt that Luhrmann is up to delivering the wild party scenes at Gatsby’s West Egg mansion, which, based on the trailers, look like variations on the wild party scenes in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, but is there a risk that everything else is just as overblown, as in Luhrmann’s melodramatic disaster, Australia? Again, based on mere seconds in trailers, the famous shirt-throwing scene – Daisy weeps at how beautiful Jay’s shirts are – now looks like it will become another 3D showcase moment, as we get to stroke the linen and silk right along with them.
Cannes will find out for sure when The Great Gatsby opens that festival on May 15, after its New York premiere. All fans of the book will be curious to see what Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have done with some big artistic decisions. Do you keep Tom Buchanan’s lazy racism? It’s a very quick way of identifying Tom as a thug and an idiot – that rant about “coloured empires” is almost the first thing he says – and his reputation never recovers. We already know that Luhrmann’s soundtrack is anachronistic, as it was in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, which reduces the chance that the film will feel as much like an empty museum version as the 1974 version.
And what do you do with all that amazing writing? Do you just serve up big chunks of voice-over? The 1974 film, flatly directed by Jack Clayton from a faithful screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, did that – but then it put F Scott Fitzgerald’s great lines about how Dutch sailors saw the New World as dialogue in the mouths of Nick (Sam Waterston) and Jay (Robert Redford), which was a much less successful idea. The problem is whether you can ever communicate the profundity of the closing pages without having someone just say the words, over the images or in front of the camera.
But those decisions seem reasonably simple compared to the really big ones: which actors you cast and how they play it. Of the three main characters, Daisy, whose voice sounds like money, should be the easiest but Clayton screwed up in 1974, when he cast Mia Farrow. Fitzgerald’s early description of Daisy speaking for a moment with “tense gaiety” is how Farrow seems to have played the entire thing – she is forever on the verge of falling apart. Unprepared audiences would have wondered what the suave Gatsby impersonated by Redford was thinking, bringing his big romantic dream to life for that flighty woman. If Daisy is this unappealing, how can you believe in Gatsby’s epic longing?
I don’t think Gatsby is necessarily a difficult part to play, either. Redford was right for it in 1974 and Leonardo DiCaprio is probably right for it in 2013, just as Carey Mulligan seems like an alluring enough Daisy, although you might wonder if she seems too intelligent. No, the difficult one is narrator Nick Carraway. Who is he, exactly? Nick is our way into the world that we see, but he is selective in what he tells us – and what he tells others. Fitzgerald leaves us plenty of room in which to speculate.
According to his own account, Nick is passively carried along in the slipstream of rich and careless people he describes as a rotten bunch, while he also “disapproved of [Gatsby] from beginning to end”, yet befriended him. We have to believe that a character who will be so outshone in the film – an observer, a passenger, played by Tobey Maguire – is also capable of the remarkable thoughts that Fitzgerald gives him. Of all the main characters, Nick is the one who is the least straight with both himself and us. Somewhere online, there is a reading that takes Nick as gay and in love with Gatsby – I’m not sure I buy that, but it does say something about how unclear he remains to some readers 90 years later, just as it tells you that any literal filming of the text will never deliver the truth of the story. That’s one of the ways in which the 1974 film fell down. The possible moral of all this: never believe anyone who says they are one of the few honest people they know.
What’s so great about Godard? New Zealand Film Festival director Bill Gosden answers that question in the excellent programme notes that accompany the screenings of three early Godard films – Vivre sa vie, Bande a part and Pierrot le fou – in Auckland and Wellington. The three films are pitched as the artefacts of the relationship – cinematic and romantic, if there’s even a difference – between Godard and Anna Karina, and between Godard and his ambiguous love for Hollywood.
If you’re lucky enough to see them, read the notes, and also look at Richard Brody’s book Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. He’s good on just what was revolutionary about Godard, as in this short excerpt on Vivre sa vie, which he calls “Godard’s most classically tragic film”:
Vivre sa vie offered [young directors] a new paradigm altogether: it reoriented mise-en-scene from space to time. Godard did not invent the long take, but in Vivre sa vie he invented the staging of lengthy dialogue scenes in artful framings. The films of Jean Eustache, the later films of Philippe Garrel, the films of Chantal Akerman, the subsequent films of Eric Rohmer, all of the modern verbal American cinema – Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Hartley, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee – and even the flowing dialogue shots of Abbas Kiarostami, are derived from the long and carefully patterned talk-takes of Vivre sa vie.
You could probably add Richard Linklater to that list. If, like me, you first got serious about cinema in the early 1990s, there was a kind of retrospective shock when you finally got around to watching 60s Godard. So that is where so much of this stuff came from? And no discussion of Godard and Tarantino could ever ignore Bande a part, with its famous dance scene that was appropriated in Pulp Fiction, as well as Hartley’s Simple Men. In the Hartley film, the impromptu dance broke out to Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”. I remember that as a pretty fantastic moment in a cinema.
But neither of those two appropriations help to answer the opening question about Godard. For that, go to an analysis, again by Richard Brody at his New Yorker blog, of the Bande a part dance sequence, and the way that Godard used it to reveal character. Fifty years on, it remains revolutionary, as Brody writes. If you’re going to the Godard films, read this too.
The death of ridiculously prolific Spanish cult film-maker Jesus Franco on April 2, aged 82, was not covered very widely at all – even the usually reliable Twitter RIPs were minimal. But he left those interested with a formidable challenge, perhaps even an impossible one – to see all of his films. How many are there? Getting a precise number would seem to be the first obstacle, as the usual estimate is that he directed between 180 and 200 films over 55 years, but multiple versions may push that total even higher. Good luck tracking all those down. (Even his name existed in multiple versions.)
Locally, the easiest two Franco films to see would be Venus in Furs (1969) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Both cast you back into a lost moment of sexually-charged, loosely bohemian, European pseudo-arthouse – the same world that produced Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet and Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales, among others. For the most part, this world was pre-pornographic, although both Franco and Metzger would go hardcore later. One of the best descriptions of what Franco and Borowczyk were up to came from Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, who saw their approach as “outsider art” – the language of 60s European cinema was distorted, personalised, exaggerated and sometimes botched. As Tohill and Tombs wrote in their book Immoral Tales, it was too low-brow to be arty but too intelligent and personal to be simply Eurotrash.
Venus in Furs opens in Istanbul amid parties that resemble parodies of Antonioni boredom – La Dolce Vita, Vertigo and Black Orpheus are in the mix too – but the horror moments and general feeling of erotic torment seem fairly persuasive. If anything hampers it, it is a dud of a lead performance by the wooden American James Darren, who can’t even extract humour from so-bad-it’s-good dialogue like this: “She was beautiful even though she was dead. There was a connection between us.” But you see what I mean about Vertigo? As the quote shows, Franco took the necrophile aspects of the Hitchcock film and extended them.
Like Metzger, Borowczyk, the more cynical Russ Meyer and others, Franco was briefly revived by the Incredibly Strange crowd in the 1990s. The soundtrack to Vampyros Lesbos was mined for kitsch appeal, but the film is much more coherent than Venus in Furs, less camp and closer to genuine horror – the original Dracula story was a rough template. Again, we are in Istanbul – Franco had no qualms about recycling footage – where Spanish brunette Soledad Miranda is a vampire countess and German blonde Ewa Stromberg is an insurance agent sent to settle an account. You can see where this is going. Let’s just say that Vampyros Lesbos is a film in which the following dialogue is allowed to occur:
“I didn’t bring my swimsuit.”
“There’s no need to be shy.”