Film Review:- 3 Backyards (2010)

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Dir:- Eric Mendelsohn

Starr:- Elias Koetas, Edie Falco, Embeth Davidtz, Rachel Resheff

Some movies have willfully obscure and oblique narratives and yet their mysteriousness fascinates (Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Tarr’s Satantango, Herzog’s Heart of Glass, to name a few). 3 Backyards, despite pretensions to the contrary, is not one of those films. It is the second full-length feature from Eric Mendelssohn, brother of literary critic and Classical scholar Daniel Mendelsohn, whose previous effort Judy Berlin (also featuring Edie Falco) came out over a decade ago to great critical acclaim, but little public attention. 3 Backyards is unlikely to expand Mendelsohn’s audience base, as it treads an all-too-knowingly odd line in retro-seventies camera technique, elliptical and fractured narrative and frankly unconvincing existential crisis.

The movie appears to take place over the course of one day in the sleepy suburbia of a Long Island town (the film was mostly shot on location in Northport). It features three main narrative strands, the first of which is Elias Koetas’s businessman and husband John, who has to take a business flight out-of-town, but appears to be more concerned with the unspoken difficulties in his relationship with his wife (played as if on Valium by Kathryn Erbe). Another strand involves Edie Falco’s wannabe artist and housewife Peggy, who appears to be, along with a friend across the street, a bit of a nosy neighbor. Peggy has become fascinated with the movie star who has rented a nearby property for the summer. Having offered her assistance to the movie star (another tranquilised soul, this time played with searing internalised suffering by Embeth Davidtz) Peggy is thrilled when the actress turns up on her doorstep needing a ride to the ferry terminal. The final strand features a young girl called Christina (played with arresting precociousness by Rachel Resheff) who steals her mother’s birthday bracelet and then loses it whilst exploring the backyards of her neighbourhood on the way to school. The bracelet is lost in the backyard of a strange young man (Nick Diamantis) who is never clearly observed, but, when Christina first stumbles upon him, appears to be masturbating to pornographic material in a shed with dog leads pinned upon the wall (a reference to a minor plot development about the disappearance of a prize poodle).

There really isn’t much narrative to describe, as this is very much a character and mood piece, at times playing like a series of interconnected short fictions focused on a theme. Mendelsohn seems to be intent on revealing the ‘strangeness’ of the everyday, boring and hum-drum. Each of the characters is introduced to us through their homes, normally with a hypnotic sequence of mobile dissolves. John and his, seemingly narcoleptic, wife are shown sat at their dining table at half three in the morning, then we are taken upstairs to where John is packing his things, before seeing John look in on his daughter whilst she sleeps and then returning downstairs to where he leaves his spacious, modern and glacial house. Peggy is out in her back garden painting when the doorbell rings and she reluctantly breaks from her work to answer. Entering the house via her back door she passes through into the livingroom, answering the front door (our view of Davidtz obscured at this point), before then proceeding to run upstairs to her bedroom and ring her friend across the street. Christina is shown sneaking around in her mother’s room when she should in fact be getting ready for school. Her mother is downstairs trying to get her daughter to move before she misses the school bus. Both the kitchen and the hallway are revealed to the audience before Christina departs the house in a hurry. Thus, in the most controlled and yet subtle way Mendelsohn allows us to explore the normally unseen interiority of these character’s domestic spaces, before thrusting them out into the public space of the ‘neighbourhood’.

Mendelsohn is quite clear from the opening credits of the movie that the ‘realism’ on display is attenuated by a concern for the ‘cosmic’. Recreating some of the unsettling look, tone and atmosphere of American independent seventies cinema (particularly features like The Strawberry Statement, Minnie and Moskowitz and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane) the movie utilises numerous slow tracking shots and the aforementioned dissolves, to give a sense of breaking through the protective and isolationary shells of home and workplace. Each of the main characters appears to be discovering unknown facets of their neighbourhood, whilst coming to understand a crucial ‘truth’ about their relationship to another human being. Despite a tendency toward simple, straightforward and unadorned shots, Mendelsohn accentuates the ‘weirdness’ of his setting by employing a richly patterned colour scheme throughout (deliberately washing out the colours of manmade spaces, whilst intensifying the effects of sunlight and natural features such as trees, lawns and flowers). The soundtrack is also flooded with ambient sounds, such as: crickets, sprinklers, footfalls, static, electrical hisses and airplanes. Often what is heard has absolutely no bearing on what has been shown, creating a disjuncture between reality and perception.

These stylistic flourishes can also be way off the mark with the mannered acting of Koetas, Davidtz and Danai Gurira (as the woman who John observes in the diner) being a real obstacle to any empathetic connection or understanding. Also, the histrionics of Michael Nicholas’ relentless and overbearing musical score, frequently incongruous as it is, serves to weaken much of the curious and discomfiting tension that builds up as the movie drives toward its conclusion. As much as Mendelsohn’s attempt to deal with ‘big’ ideas can be commended (the failures of modern communication exemplified by the physical disconnection of phone conversation, the unbearable weight of pure happenstance, the bizarre relationship that ordinary people have to celebrity, the inscrutable nature of evil, the numbing isolation we endure as individuals or as family units, and the wonder all around us that we take for granted every single day), 3 Backyards ultimately failed to illicit more than a grudging admiration for the director’s technical skill and craft. Although the characters are not Hollywood clichés, they do however inhabit a clichéd, almost anti-Hollywood, independent film idea of how people behave and interact. John’s section is perhaps the most frustrating in this sense, as his character seems literally incapable of explaining himself, or talking to another human being in a way that doesn’t sound like deliberately mystifying dialogue. It is in these elements that the film can feel a little like the exercises in preciousness that a film school or creative writing graduate might devise.

From the very first scene of John and his wife at their dining table, I was reminded of the work of Lawrence Kasdan, particularly The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon. Both Mendelsohn and Kasdan clearly utilise a heightened sense of realism in their portrayals of domestic spaces and traumatic experience. However, whereas Kasdan focused his studies of grief, loss and alienation on characters that you might not recognise, but you can at least understand, Mendelsohn, too often appears to be working through the thematic whilst losing focus of how to convey this organically through the characters. Perhaps the most successfully realised of the characters is Edie Falco’s Peggy whose neediness is allied with her nosiness, both of which seem to stem from a boredom and insecurity with how she spends her days. Davidtz as the tightly buttoned down celebrity, who appears to be going through the shock felt after a traumatic event, does a superb job of deflecting Falco’s anxious neurosis right back at her, making the drive to the ferry terminal an increasingly savage depiction of self-cannibalisation. At the close of the movie when Peggy’s family return home and ask her what’s wrong, her inability to self-diagnose her ‘problem’ is far more satisfying than John’s morose tour through the wrong part of town, or Christina’s sudden confrontation with an indefinable evil.

Despite its failings 3 Backyards does weave a fairly mesmerising spell, if you allow it. In much the same way as Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, in amongst the wreckage there are some sequences that linger long in the imagination and no other filmmaker would have likely developed. A sequence in which John communicates with his wife and daughter whilst, unknown to them, standing a walls width away, is remarkable just for the condensed range of emotions it manages to convey, as if seeing someone eulogising their own life to their loved ones. In a recent Hollywood rom-com called Crazy, Stupid, Love, there is a superficially similar sequence involving Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, yet the genuine depth of emotion present in Mendelsohn’s scene is almost completely absent, replaced by a treacly sentimentalism. Another moment that has persisted in my imagination, since viewing the movie, is to do with the strange young man who Christina stumbles upon. When Christina returns to find her bracelet there is a wonderfully disorienting bit of dialogue barked off camera, that allows you to realise that somewhere this young man has a father oblivious to what he is doing. The way in which Mendelsohn evokes a strong childlike perspective during Christina’s parts of the movie, so that the most mundane of things suddenly take on an element of wonder, or danger, is quite fascinating. Whilst the encounter with the imposing physical form of the young man, is made all the more unsettling and enticing, by the inability to make out his face, obscured by darkness and the dazzle of the sunlight. Never before has a bead of sweat come to so strongly define a sense of personality.

Summertime, When the Living Ain’t Easy – Israel and the ‘Tent City’ Protests

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In many ways 2011 has, thus far, been a year of public protest and action, frequently verging on the revolutionary. With the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria, either having proved successful in changing government and/or government policy, or showing no signs of abating until they do, global media attention has become focused on how such outpourings of public discontent are being organised and maintained. Much writing and commentary has been devoted to the internet as a source of free-floating information that circumvents the controls governments have previously been able to exert over their populations. A negative aspect of this preoccupation, has been the increasing ‘threat’ to social cohesion that the internet has come to represent even within supposedly democratic governments such as France, the UK and the US.

 

After the UK riots at the beginning of August, much of the press and government criticism was directed toward the ease with which individuals were able to organise and incite public violence via on-line social media and mobile technology. In many ways this has paralleled the increasing mistrust of the internet amongst more obviously totalitarian regimes, such as Iran and China, which in turn is fuelling the desire for western democracies to crackdown on the ‘too free’ circulation of information via the internet’s various social media sites. Part of the UK government response to the riots was to utilise emergency legislation to prosecute individual’s who were seen to be using the internet to spread provocative and inflammatory information regarding the public violence. In America the S.773 Cybersecurity Act of 2009, proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller and Sen. Olympia Snowe, has been working its way through Congress. This act whilst seeking to tighten the US’s Federal interstate internet security procedures, also includes the possibility for the federal government to seize control of private-sector internet networks (in much the same way as the Chinese government does), in the event of a ‘cybersecurity emergency’.

 

The internet has become a source of intense paranoia for global government regimes, as internet users far from being bound to their desks by the ready availability of frivolous on-line entertainment, have increasingly sought to use the powers of the internet to organise large-scale public activities and demonstrations. Aside from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, there have also been Tea Party and anti-Tea Party rallies throughout the US, all year long, many of which have harnessed similar social media tools to give their movements shape. In Greece and Spain general strikes and protests have been organised, via the internet, in response to vast and rapid cuts to ailing public sector institutions and state welfare services. Throughout Europe and North America regular protests against the Afghan War have similarly been prompted by direct internet action. Whilst in Chile students have organised various actions against the government during August, in protest at the poor infrastructure in the Chilean secondary and higher education systems.

 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging of recent national protests have been those taking place in Israel for the last six weeks. Whereas the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, were in effect uprisings, whilst the Greek, Spanish and Chilean protests were limited to narrow, if important, political aims, and the Tea Party/anti-Tea Party rallies in the States were more about different, conflicting ideas of governance, the Israeli protests have featured a panoply of social and political issues that have come from middle-class Israel, as well as lower-class Israel, and have sought to blur the strict, dividing boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli concerns. At the core of these protests is a disillusionment with the lack of socially responsible economic reforms made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, which has in turn spilled over into increasingly radical demonstrations against social issues that are, as a result of this inaction, biting at the financial heels of more than just the worst-off in Israeli society.

 

These economic and social action protests have politically energised and engaged a normally relatively docile, if divisive, Israeli population, with over 450,000 people having taken to the streets in various different demonstrations and activities over the last six weeks. Unlike in London, where a slow-acting and alienating government, endured the kind of violence that stems from a generalised breakdown in the relationship between youth and authority, with little or no obviously articulated political agenda underpinning the rage and chaos upon the streets, Israel has seen weekend after weekend of carefully marshalled and organised political and social demonstration. Much of this activity has directly stemmed from the population’s engagement with different internet forums (at the forefront of which have been the ‘Activism’ blogroll and the ‘Wisdom of the People’ portal, which utilises a live chat messenger service to help organise events and actions) and social media, leaving Netanyahu’s government looking increasingly embattled.

 

The origins of the Israeli protests can be traced back to the issue of housing and accommodation in Israel, as well as a more generalised concern with the cost of living, as embodied by the effective protests regarding the price of an Israeli dietary staple, cottage cheese. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has written extensively over the past six weeks about the protests. Initially the protests developed around a Facebook-organised protest instigated by Daphni Leef, which asked for people (at first mainly students) to congregate along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and construct a ‘tent city’. Leef, a filmmaker who had been involved in previous political protests regarding army service and civil marriage, had discovered, when she was looking for new accommodation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, that rent costs had doubled over the previous five years. Concerned and shocked by this information she set about sounding out students and young people on Facebook, to see what other people’s experiences were of the rental issue.

 

On Thursday 14th July 2011, the first tents began to be erected in and around Rothschild Boulevard. Within days the movement had transferred to other cities and communities (such as Beersheba and Ramat Gan) and the Likud government began to realise that there was a significant Israeli popular political protest underway, for the first time in the country’s brief, but troubled, history. Normally Israeli’s would limit street protests to issues of defence and settlement, fearing that a protest directed at domestic policies of government would destabilise their regional power base in the eyes of external aggressors, such as Iran. Leef’s movement seemed to be establishing a different relationship between Israel and her neighbours, seemingly channelling some of the energy from the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain and directing this toward Netanyahu’s government and their apparent lack of understanding of basic domestic issues affecting the majority of Israelis.

 

As Bronner points out Likud and their finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, initially were seen to react quickly to the concerns and demands of the protestors:-

“promising construction of thousands of new housing units, along with a set of changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick (sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax)”

Yet some are now beginning to question whether Israel’s government have perhaps been a little too responsive to the demands of protestors.

 

A few weeks prior to the tent protests, Israel’s government had faced political pressure over the soaring cost of cottage cheese. Under fire from various protest groups the Knesset authorised State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the issue of cottage cheese prices, resulting in a 25% reduction in the price of cottage cheese. Clearly buoyed by the success of this particular issue, certain groups on the political left in Israel, such as The National Left, had begun to cultivate and mobilise protest groups against the issue of housing costs. Leef’s decisive intervention in establishing a Facebook site for much of the political dissent bubbling under the surface of Israeli society, has since snowballed into the longest period of political protest in Israeli history and has effectively brought together elements of the political right and left, as well as Israeli and Palestinian communities – one of the most noted ‘tent city’ constructions was that carried out by Palestinian activists in the Israeli-Arab city of Tayibe (or Taibeh).

 

On consecutive weekends during the last week of July and the first week of August, protestor numbers swelled to over 300,000, counting for something like 5% of Israel’s total population, a figure unheard of in Israeli domestic protests. The movement had shifted from its narrow focus on issues to do with housing, to a concern with something it was terming ‘social justice’, with the left-leaning independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich listing “education, health care and affordable housing” as the most pressing social issues that the Israeli government needed to address. The general tenor of the protests themselves was seen as being a commitment to numbers rather than issues, with a feeling that the protests whilst being mainly peaceful, were doing nothing more than creating ‘party atmospheres’ in which politics was taking a backseat. Regardless of the protestors intentions, the sheer volume of people on the streets couldn’t be ignored by Netanyahu and his government.

 

As Gideon Rachman puts it in his excellent FT column, 2011 has had a the feel of “the year of global indignation” and whereas nothing obviously links the politics behind the street demonstrations in Chile, Greece and China, with those occurring in Israel, Rachman is right to point out that

“Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth”

The free market, possibly neo-liberal, economic theories of the likes of Friedman and Stigler have been refined and gradually worked into policy in countries like Chile, Sweden, the US, the UK and, of course, Israel. The aggressive rolling back of the social policy mechanisms of state in many countries, after the economic turmoil of 2008, have left an increasing number of people around the world feeling dramatically disenfranchised from the apparent wealth of their national economies. In Israel, as Bronner points out, Netanyahu’s government has, on paper, managed economic growth superbly. Yet despite the fact that the

“unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector”

it has still being unable to adequately convince large parts of its population, particularly those under forty years of age, that these are indeed times of plenty.

 

Having already extracted numerous ‘assurances and guarantees’ from the Likud government, as well as some noted immediate policy intervention, in recent weeks the protest movement has once again morphed from peaceful protest and demonstration to a slightly more legally ‘dubious’ approach. Esther Witt, a special education teacher, originally from the Netherlands, is one of the figures who has spear-headed the ‘lightning squat’ recently adopted by ‘social justice’ protestors. Witt had been in attendance at ‘tent city’ protests in Independence Park, Jerusalem, earlier in August. In an article featured in Haaretz she had given a very clear, individual picture of some of the difficulties families were facing in Israel just to meet the costs of keeping a roof above their heads.

 

During the last weekend in August Witt, and a coalition of fellow activists, engaged in the first truly ‘controversial’ piece of political theatre of the protests, thus far. The group broke into a vacant building owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), not far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking over the four-storey building they christened it the ‘People’s House’ and held a public squat, that Witt hoped would force the government to introduce stricter property-ownership regulations, making it impossible for such buildings to remain unoccupied. In a Guardian report by Luke Brown, Witt claimed

“We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years, … We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.”

Witt, and those like her in Israel, are people newly committed to an old-fashioned idea of ‘society’ in the face of a perceived widening of social inequalities, as a result of aggressively pursued policies for economic growth. Whereas the noises from governments throughout the developed world are mainly of the bemused variety (how can people be protesting when so many nation’s are wealthier than they have ever been?), it is in protest movements like that in Israel that we are seeing the first articulations of dismay with the self-serving nature of much global economic policy and social reform.

 

CODA:- (Since starting work on this article much has changed about the situation of the protests, that can only really be reported, rather than directly commented on. What follows is an addendum tracing outlining recent events)

This latest escalation in the protest movement was followed by a momentary lapse in demonstrations, where the numbers of protestors in ‘tent cities’ across the country dwindled, but on Friday 2nd September the largest protests of all were stage across Israel, pulling in upwards of 450,000 people. The largest protest was staged at Kikar Hamedina, a large plaza in the centre of Tel Aviv. Protest leaders and student groups addressed the crowds asking for action and recognition from the Knesset. In the aftermath of this historic night Israeli city councils poured pressure on the protest movement to begin sustained dialogue with the Knesset and the Trajtenberg Committee instituted by Netanyahu on August 8th 2011 to examine the socioeconomic issues at the heart of the protests.

 

A temporary hiatus was called amongst the protest movements various bodies, but no solid attempt, as yet, has been made to discuss issues pertaining to Israel’s socioeconomic problems with the Trajtenberg Committee (many protestors remain opposed to any talks other than with the Knesset). The protest movement has since intimated its demands are to

“ “eliminate economic centralization”, propose a discussion to end monopolies, dismantle economic pyramids, increase competition, tax reform that would cancel the lowering of corporate taxes while raising taxes on high-income individuals, lowering indirect taxes, and monitoring of the capital market.”

Furthermore there have been increased calls for a return to the ‘welfare state’ model of social governance, that Netanyahu’s government has assiduously dismantled. Within the last 48 hours, a hardcore contingent of protestors that have chosen to ignore the requests of the government, local councils and the protest movements leaders, have been engaged in skirmishes and clashes with Israeli police. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this monumental protest movement, but it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will be able to ignore the events of the past six weeks and attempt to draw a line under proceedings.

Scotland vs Lithuania (at Hampden Park) Tuesday 6th September 2011

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HT:- 0-0

FT:- 1-0 (Naismith 50)

Ref:- Kirstinn Jakobsson (Iceland)

Scotland:- McGregor, Gary Caldwell, Whittaker, Berra, Bardsley (Crainey 70), Don Cowie, Darren Fletcher (c), James Morrison (Dorrans 79), Barry Bannan (Snodgrass 83), Steven Naismith, David Goodwillie. Subs Not Used: Gilks, Hutton, Grant Hanley, James Forrest

Bookings:- Dorrans (82, Foul – Prof.)

Lithuania:- Karcemarskas, Radavicius, Kijanskas (Danilevicius 60), Klimavicius, Zaliukas, Semberas (c), Cesnauskis, Mikoliunas (Beniusis 76), Pilibaitis, Sernas, Labukas (Novikovas 45). Subs Not Used: Setkus, Panka, Ivaskevicius, Papsys

Bookings:- Labukas (44, Del. Handball), Semberas (65, Foul – Prof.)

An improved attacking display from the Scots still could not hide the deficiencies at the back, nor the continued cautiousness of Levein’s tactics, which left most of the Hampden faithful unnecessarily chewing their nails with about fifteen minutes to play. The major positive of the night’s action was the midfield contributions of young Aston Villa midfielder Barry Bannan, who for large parts of the game left me in mind of a youthful Gary McAllister, and fully justified Levein’s claims of future stardom. Scotland dominated considerable spells of the match, yet a combination of exceptional goalkeeping from Karcemarskas and poor finishing from Naismith and Goodwillie meant that the Lithuanian’s perhaps had the better chances. It says a lot for Scots confidence that the best performers on the night were the younger players given an outing, whilst the usually dependable Fletcher managed to waste a penalty opportunity just before half-time.

Prior to this match Levein had made much of the way in which he felt his squad had been ‘cheated’ out of three points in Saturday’s match with the Czech Republic. The squad was apparently still angry about this result, but Levein believed that this anger could be channelled positively against the inconsistent Lithuanians. Scotland were missing two experienced players in Scott Brown and Kenny Miller (both of whom had picked up silly yellow cards against the Czech’s), which gave opportunities to Cowie and new Blackburn signing Goodwillie. Bardsley had managed to overcome the injury sustained during Saturday’s match, whilst Hutton had been, in my opinion correctly, dropped onto the bench in favour of Whittaker. The biggest selection shock was the inclusion of young Aston Villa midfielder Bannan in favour of Charlie Adam, yet by full-time this bold decision had been more than justified.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Levein’s team selection was the preference of a solid, but uninspiring, Cowie in favour of the more mercurial talents of Robert Snodgrass. It seemed obvious that in the absence of Brown, Fletcher would be asked to drop into the holding midfield role. Yet the inclusion of the Cardiff man Cowie in preference to the skilful Leeds Utd playmaker seemed emblematic of Levein’s propensity for safety-first football (particularly as Snodgrass had shone during his run-out against Denmark and both players feature at English Championship level). Most of this disappointment was quickly allayed, however, by the emphatic way that Scotland set about attacking the Lithuanians in the opening 35 minutes of the first-half.

Before the relatively experienced Lithuanian side had even had a chance to settle into things Scotland had laid down a few markers of intent. The lively Bannan, who switched flanks with Naismith throughout the match, delivered a couple of probing crosses into the box in the first five minutes, that showed some invention if just a little naivety in the execution. With the Lithuanians unable to hold on to the ball for longer than a few seconds at a time, the Scottish midfield was able to dictate play and the fullbacks of Whittaker and Bardsley were able to push forward at will. Lithuania were playing a very narrow game, but their strong centre back pairing of former Dinamo Moscow defender Klimavicius and Hearts captain Zaliukas, were proving difficult to break down. Prior to the match the Lithuanians had been robbed of their star fullback Marius Stankevicius (of Lazio) through injury, so the utility midfield player Ramunas Radavicius was having to deputise at right-back, giving Bannan, Naismith, Morrison and Bardsley plenty of joy when linking-up down the left flank.

Whittaker, Bannan and Bardsley were getting numerous crosses into the box early on in the half, as Scotland looked for ways round the back of Lithuania’s tight defensive centre back unit. The best of Scotland’s early chances came from a delightful Bannan cross from the by-line, that unfortunately fell to Christophe Berra in the box, the Wolves centre back hitting a strong shot off target. Bannan was causing mayhem with his delivery on corners and freekicks and yet despite some generally good movement from both Goodwillie and Naismith, neither could get themselves convincingly on the end of these gifts.

As only Scotland can really contrive to do they produced their very best opportunities just as the Lithuanian’s were beginning to look dangerous themselves, in the ten minutes before half-time. First Bannan lofted a perfect chipped pass into the penalty area, which, for once, went between Klimavicius and Zaliukas, only for Naismith to not quite have enough pace to power a header past the keeper. Next Fletcher drove toward the Lithuanian by-line, on the left side of the penalty area, then cut back across Radavicius, before forcing a save at the near post from Karcemarskas. From the resultant corner Bannan delivered a wonderful in-swinging ball which Naismith somehow managed to waste, whilst almost completely unmarked. Moments later, Bardsley broke on the counter and drove a long-range shot just wide of the right post.

This was exciting stuff from the Scots, but their failure to capitalise on these well crafted openings was seemingly having a positive effect on the Lithuanian team, who produced a couple of quality opportunities of their own in the closing minutes of the half. Labukas, who’d give away a ridiculous penalty only moments later, managed to catch both Berra and Caldwell asleep in their own penalty box, but failed to time his header and power it around McGregor. A few minutes later, and just before the penalty, Caldwell’s casual pass to Cowie was intercepted by the Lithuanian captain Semberas, who broke clear of the advanced Scotland back line, leaving Berra isolated with three Lithuanians. Absurdly Semberas chose to run at Berra, rather than pass the ball to either of his better positioned teammates, allowing Berra to clean up this mess and get his defensive partner off the hook (much as he’d done in the Czech match). This was probably the most promising move of the first-half, and after the superb penalty save from Karcemarskas, Lithuania tested McGregor one last time, from distance, as Sernas hit a curling strike inches past McGregor’s left post with the goalkeeper looking stranded.

Coming back to the penalty, it was created by yet another dangerous freekick delivery from Bannan, this time out on the left. A moment of madness from Labukas, substituted at half-time, saw the Lithuanian make like Fabien Barthez and punch the ball away from the near post. After the hysterics of the weekend Scotland were not to be denied a spot kick and team captain Fletcher duly stepped forward to take it. Fletcher’s penalty was low and well struck to the left of the goalkeeper, but bizarrely, for such an experienced player, his body had signposted where he was going to strike the ball and as he opened his body up, Karcemarskas preempted him and produced a fantastic save. Incidents such as this have a tendency to depress Scotland teams, so some credit must be given to Craig Levein whose half-time team talk must have buoyed spirits somewhat, as Scotland took barely five minutes of the second-half to grab the lead.

The Lithuanians had brought on Novikovas at half-time, seemingly a punishment to Labukas for his mind-bendingly stupid penalty giveaway, and the new arrival seemed to give the side a little more width, enabling the team to reduce the effect of Whittaker and Bardsley’s forward-running. Almost straight away the hitherto quiet Cesnauskis managed to smash a brutal freekick just wide of McGregor’s right post, with the keeper again looking unable to get across to it. Despite this early pressure, the Lithuanians fell behind on 50 minutes to a beautiful three player interplay, involving two of the young deputies.

David Goodwillie, who had shown plenty of movement in the first period and a keen awareness of space, took the ball across the edge of the Lithuanian penalty area from off the left flank. His neat pass into Bannan out on the right gave the young midfielder time to turn on the ball and send a reverse pass toward the far post where Naismith took the ball first time on the half-volley smashing it into the top left corner of Karcemarskas goal. The fluidity and precision of this goal was quite breathtaking and could only make you wonder as a Scots fan what might have been if only Scotland had shown such inventive and penetrative attacking play more regularly, on Saturday, against the Czech’s.

The goal winded the Lithuanian side and forced them to change their rigid defensive counter-attacking setup. Immediately after the goal it seemed likely that Scotland would add to the scoreline, particularly when Bardsley drifted into the area, but couldn’t get his shot away in time. However, having weathered a ten minute storm, the Lithuanians brought on Danilevicius – an Arsenal and Dunfermline reject, with Serie A experience – at the expense of fullback Kijanskas, effectively deploying a 3-5-2 formation. Although this tactical tweak didn’t have the game changing effect of the Rezek substitution in the Czech match, it did upset the midfield rhythm of the Scotland side, particularly reducing the space and time on the ball for the highly influential Bannan. Frustratingly Levein resorted to an ever deeper defensive style of play as the game wore on toward the final 15 minutes, once again effectively ceding midfield possession to the opposition and allowing the Lithuanians to run on to the Scottish back line.

With Goodwillie having been unable to add a goal to his strong performance, Scotland were increasingly dependent on Naismith as the main counter-attacking threat. Naismith despite the coolness of his earlier finish, lacked a little bit of composure in front of goal, wasting two great chances from a bit of Bannan invention, one of which should have perhaps been a second penalty for hand ball. This was really the last of Scotland’s serious chances to add to their lead and for the final fifteen minutes there was an increasingly frantic feel to proceedings. Lithuania would have equalised if not for a superb deflected block from Fletcher, that saw the ball settle in McGregor’s grasp, when it looked likely to sneak past the unusually shaky Scottish shot stopper. The substitute Danilevicius missed a sitter when Cesnauskis whipped a cross in from the left side. Whilst McGregor was almost caught off his line by a looping Lithuanian header, only just managing to backpedal and keep it from crossing the line. Later still, the dangerous half-time substitute Novikovas managed to get another shot away from distance that moved all over the place before skimming just over McGregor’s bar.

Levein had taken off a tiring Bardsley for an ineffectual Stephen Crainey (making his first appearance in almost nine years for Scotland) and had also brought on the usually reliable Dorrans for Morrison, but all that the West Brom midfielder managed to contribute to the match was the second professional foul of the night. Snodgrass was given a brief cameo after 83 minutes, replacing the sparkling Bannan, yet with the Scots so much in retreat, Snodgrass was reduced to one moment of jinking brilliance. Right at the death the unfortunately named Pilibaitis had Scotland fans almost disbelieving their eyes, but thankfully failed to get a shot away when standing unmarked just a few yards from goal.

It would have been ridiculously cruel on Scotland to have suffered a second dramatic late equaliser, but nonetheless despite Levein’s continued good work at promoting Scottish youth, serious questions should be asked of his side’s inability to close out matches with a second goal. Any team which has Gary Caldwell’s lack of concentration at the heart of its defence cannot depend on defensive rigour so early in a match. Levein has Scotland playing some inventive football, but too often favours sacrificing forward momentum to hold on to what the side already have. With the well-drilled defences of the Smith and McLeish era this was a tactic that could be deployed to some effect against sides that posed a considerable attacking threat (France and Italy, for example). However, despite the hard work of Christophe Berra, this is not a similarly robust Scotland defence and the reliance on defensive solidity in matches against relatively mediocre attacks like that of the Czech’s and the Lithuanian’s is somewhat perturbing. A win is a win and moreover Scotland have managed a cleansheet, stoking the faint flames of hope once again, but I hope that Levein seriously reflects both on the positives (Bannan, Goodwillie and Bardsley) and the negatives (the preference for caution and defensive retreat) when rounding off our qualification attempt in October.

My MOM:- Barry Bannan – Kevin MacDonald had quietly touted the ex-Celtic youth as one of the brightest sparks in an impressive Villa youth side and Houllier and McAllister appeared to take notice. However it now looks as if Alex McLeish is going to be the real beneficiary, as Bannan added to his impressive early season performances for Villa, with a masterclass in passing that at times had the Lithuanian’s believing there must be at least four Bannan’s on the park at once. His intuitive use of space found him drifting all along the Scottish midfield, whilst his dead ball deliveries were as eye-catching as those of the man he replaced in the starting eleven. On the strength of this performance Scotland have a real talent on their hands.

And Another Thing… : – Lithuania are often patronisingly, if rather comically, referred to as the ‘Hearts reserves’, by Scotland fans. On Tuesday these fans were equally adept at ridiculing some of the Lithuanian player names, with substitute Beniusis, being greeted to cheers of ‘Benny-useless’ (a reference to his less than memorable loan spell at Hearts). Whilst Pilibaitis’ woeful late miss was quickly greeted by the derisive, and rather crude,  chant of ‘Pillow-biters’. I wonder what Vladimir ‘Roam-and-off’ will have to say about matters through his always farcical Hearts PR releases?

Thoughts Out Loud, No.1:- Lines of Beauty

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This is the true essence of what Apercu was meant to be. A repository for the fragmentary, unworked and inconclusive outpourings of my idle mind. Thoughts Out Loud will be a series comprised of rambling idea-pieces, so please do not hold these writings to quite the degree of scrutiny of other material on the site. These pieces will reveal far more of my flaws than I could ever hope to chronicle.

 

I was recently challenged by the book review published  in The Economist, August 27th 2011, entitled ‘The line of beauty’. Three recent academic publications were put under the microscope: Beauty Pays – Why Attractive People are Successful by Daniel Hamermesh (Princeton University press); The Beauty Bias – The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode (Oxford University Press); Honey Money – The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim (Allen Lane). The review focuses on the central ideas put forward in these books, amongst which are: the implicit notion that beauty is a measurable and quantifiable asset; the idea that beauty, power and wealth form an irresistible triumvirate in our modern world; the sense that beauty is a great, if not the greatest, source of injustice and inequality within our societies; and the idea that beauty can be harnessed as a commodity for the transference and enacting of power.

 

For some it will be an abhorrent notion that beauty be reduced to either a mathematical equation (The Golden Ratio), a logical/rational system (Zeising and Fechner), or a formal series (Vitrius and Pacioli). It becomes more distasteful then to consider beauty, or at least our shared ideals of beauty, as something defined by economic value and power. After all in a highly individualised free-market capitalist democracy (if that conglomeration of terms is even vaguely plausible) it would be expected that a coherent and unifying sense of beauty is unsustainable, if not undesirable. When the very notion of ‘society’ is being challenged by a kind of Randian fixation with the individual self, what room is there for preconceived and idealised notions of beauty? In such a ‘reality’ surely beauty becomes the epitome of subjectivity?

 

A lot of weight is given to the idea that beauty is something inherent in ‘nature’. This, at first, seems to soften the focus of an overly humanistic understanding of the concept. In crudely reductive terms the fact that we find the sight of a mountain peak ‘beautiful’, or that we consider a tree-fringed lake to be a ‘beauty spot’, suggests that beauty stems from something ‘purer’ and more ‘unifying’ than our commerce-fixated modern world will allow for. To some it becomes an expression of the hand of God, a clear demonstration of the genius of creation, beauty and divinity are, in this reading, inextricably linked. However the inescapable interpretative core of any idea of beauty is humanistic, even this obsession with beauty in nature.

 

Classical conceptions of beauty permeate our own modern ideals. The sense of the harmonious apogee of forms is something that we either actively seek to define beauty by, or against. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is modeled on the rational proportioning of Vitruvian architectural/engineering theory, whereby the body is seen to be solid, robust and strong. In this strength and the balanced motion through which this strength operates we apprehend the usefulness of the organism, the human form. Yet Vitruvian Man is assumed to possess beauty as part of this nexus of attributes. How do we know that beauty is to be observed here? Does every human apprehend beauty in the Vitruvian Man? Can beauty manifest itself in non-pleasing forms?

 

These concepts of proportion, balance, harmony, are also at the heart of mathematical attempts to define beauty. The idea that what we perceive as beautiful in ‘nature’, works along the same basic principles as that which we perceive as beautiful in humanity, is one that emerged in Classical thought, but was recalibrated for modern consumption in the early Renaissance period. There is a sense that in proportionate, symmetrical and balanced forms you are beholding the manifestation of health and vitality. As we age, decay and wither, our bodies take on the distorted forms of disease and damage. In many ways our bodies become the repositories for death, maps of pain. Likewise in ‘nature’ the change from summer to autumn sees the decline and deformation of forms that have begun to die. Growth propels us up toward an apex from which we must then fall away into decline. There is a deterministic mode of thought that suggests we intuitively respond to those attributes that are most conducive to the continuance of a healthy offspring. In which case our obsession with beauty could be nothing more than an implicit acknowledgement of what is considered optimally healthful.

 

I’m wary of these assumptions though, as it appears difficult to extrapolate the personal from the ‘normative’, or perception from ‘conditioning’. Human civilisation has a tendency toward hard encoding specific cultural notions (such as the contemplation of the harmonious as preferable to the chaotic) to such a degree that it becomes difficult to think outside of these terms, so that they can be inferred as ‘natural’. In some ways this is why I give more weight to the abstract verification of a mathematical principle such as The Golden Ratio, because it becomes merely a formulation of things apparent within our experienced reality, without necessarily needing to be given any greater value significance, other than it is found within many ‘natural’ forms. The fact that we then might see these natural ‘forms’ as pleasing, is neither here nor there in terms of the mathematics underpinning our apprehension. This, for me, is where the true difficulty lies with the idea of beauty.

 

If beauty were a consistent presence in our reality, then I would argue that we could understand it within universal abstract frameworks, such as can be found within mathematics. However, does our own appreciation of what is beautiful not show a tendency for inconsistency, a lack of the harmonic? Were mountains always a source of scenic wonder and beauty? Have bodies of water always given humanity a pleasing feeling of appreciation? Do healthy forms always attract us? Do human bodies with high degrees of proportionality appear more satisfying to the eye, than those which do not? Most importantly of all, in our mobile modern times, can we honestly say that the Classical conceptions of beauty that informed Renaissance thought and by extension European mercantile and colonial thought, are applicable universally and transcend the boundaries of culture (and geography) that existed for the best part of 6,000 years?

 

This isn’t meant to be an organised and structured assessment of beauty, merely a collection of witterings that have been chiming away through the nether regions of my self-contained little mind. I found it difficult to fathom how a researcher like Hamermesh could compare the quantifiable (i.e. wages earned, earning potential, annual budgets, GDP) with a concept of ‘beauty’ that is surely only verifiable through a particularly narrow aperture of ‘normative’ behaviour. What exactly is Hamermesh presuming to quantify when suggesting that ‘handsome’ people earn $230,000 more over their lifetime than ‘plain’ people? I appreciate that you will carry out surveys and collate statistical data from those surveys, but like any data set how representative is this of an idea that often has the currency of a ‘universal truth’ like beauty?

 

Rhode’s theory seems potentially more problematic, whilst being quite perceptive. In Rhode’s idea beauty is a divisive attribute that fundamentally underpins inequalities within our societies and our systems of law and governance. The perception of physical beauty, or in this case, the perception of adhering to a ‘normative’ sense of the physically pleasing, infiltrates all the key decision areas within our societies when it comes to the dispensing and management of power. Whereas Hamermesh connects beauty to an economic power, Rhode appears to connect beauty with economic power as a means of warping the notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ (a whole different array of questions to be raised). Beauty is then a complex construct, that merges together ideas from various periods of history and civilisation, crucially incorporating that commercial/cultural border-hopper that is ‘fashion’, thus establishing specific conditions against which we base our own judgements, either positively or negatively, about what we see as beautiful. A society can thus pass judgement on ugliness, by placing it against what is considered the ‘normative’ of beauty, whilst still having room for individual expressions of dissent.

 

For a final thought consider that supposed relationship of beauty, power and wealth. Which way round do we correlate things? Does beauty lead to power and wealth? If that is the truth then how do you explain a majority of the worlds powerbrokers and commercial leaders, the Donald Trump’s, Bill Gates’ and Silvio Berlusconi’s of this world? If power and wealth attracts the beautiful, then again we have issues about why beauty isn’t more dominant in the boardrooms and halls of governance. The ‘normative’ beautiful in the Anglo-saxon world seem to be associated with those areas of media that are considered fashionable: film, music, fashion, art, etc. Once again, however, there is a need to see that all of these things are merely predicated on a ‘normative’ sense of beauty and the real question perhaps should be what drives this ‘normative’ (or questionably ‘objective’) idea of beauty. I’d argue that you will find very different ‘normative’ conceptions of beauty in the various ‘cultures’ on this planet. I’d also mention before closing, that the appeal of the beauty, power, wealth nexus is a strong one, however what about that return to the natural, with all of that Romantic ideology freighted into our poetic resonances with landscape? Isn’t it the case that when it comes to ‘nature’ our understanding of the ‘beautiful’ becomes far less dependent upon the commercially desirable wealth and power principles espoused above? How do we adequately place anything other than an aesthetic and experiential ‘value’ on observing a thick coastal fog as ‘beautiful’, for example?

Film Review:- The Beach (2000)

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Dir:- Danny Boyle

Starr:- Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Tilda Swinton, Robert Carlyle, Guillaume Canet, Paterson Joseph

 

Following hot-on-the-heels of Tim Roth’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s less than impressive tale of incest and familial abuse The War Zone, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach seemed a strange choice for both Boyle and his then rising star Leonardo Di Caprio. Garland’s none-too-subtle assault on the late-90’s trend for privileged Western youth to ‘find’ themselves in some far-off exotic destination, trendily off the well-worn tourist track, seemed to entirely bypass the ‘remittance men’ culture of 20th Century colonial decadents. For Garland the complacent culture-hopping of the 1990’s twenty-something is a ‘new’ phenomenon, in part explainable by the media trends at the end of the last century, that place an emphasis on commodifying ‘authentic’ experiences of the different, original, strange and unique. Boyle’s adaptation simplifies things yet further and in so doing creates a curiously shallow study of youthful narcissism. Here, finding one’s self appears to demand a certain living on the edge, adrenalin pumping hedonism. Di Caprio’s character Richard even hints as much in his overly world-weary voiceover – one of many pointless/aimless distractions in a wonderfully vacuous holiday snap of a movie.

 

For Richard home is a pampered place of comfort and privilege. Breaking away from home to explore Thailand, is all about getting as far away from this comfort zone as opportunity will allow. Thus Richard’s sense of adventure, of exploration, is predicated not so much on a sense of discovery and expanded experience, as on a need to redefine home. In this respect Richard and his ilk are the very definition of ‘tourists’, cultural vampires unwilling to acknowledge their domestic roots, yet unable to do anything other than parasitically exist in whatever foreign context they ‘find’ themselves in.

 

Adrift in a grubby, squalid Bangkok – all muted blues and sickening yellows, to emphasise the appeal and vibrancy of the fabled ‘beach’ – Richard indulges his youthful brio by downing some snake blood and engaging in conversation with a demented Scots skinhead (yet another yawnsomely OTT performance from Robert Carlyle). It is this latter character’s tale of an Edenic island beach that propels the clunky narrative into action. What contact Richard has with his surroundings is minimal, limited to interactions with Thailand’s tourist trappings and a revolving cast of young Westerners, not too dissimilar from himself. His single-minded pursuit of this beach now becomes the crux of whatever attempt at self-discovery Richard claims to be making.

 

Carlyle’s rather gruesome death is used as a first indicator of how desensitised to human suffering Richard is. A later ill-advised computer game pastiche sets about reinforcing this notion of Western culture having detached young people, like Richard, from their humanity. Forgetting the Scotsman’s pathetic end, Richard befriends a ‘nice’ French couple, who noisily make love in the room next door to his own. In persuading the couple to join him in his big adventure to find the ‘mythic’ island all the narrative pieces thus appear to have fallen into place ridiculously early in the film.

 

However the narrative continues its slow meander toward the island, in the company of its narcissistic narrator and his new friends, as they joke about shark attacks, take pictures of the stars and get just a little more stoned. This section of the film comes to resemble the very worst kind of self-indulgent holiday home-video footage, replete with risible candy-floss pop soundtrack. A little amble through beach resort Thailand, sets up one last little contrivance before the movie heads to its central island location. Richard ends up giving a map of the route to the island beach to some ‘clueless’ American compatriots who help him out of an alcohol fix. The glaringly highlighted nature of this transaction, makes it pretty obvious that these identikit American twenty-somethings will invariably end up oiling a later part of the narrative machinery.

 

Despite these criticisms and flaws the movie somehow succeeds in keeping the interest. Even when they finally arrive on the island and Boyle awkwardly handles a love-interest angle involving Virginie Ledoyen, there is still just about enough tension and mystery to sustain the viewers interest. One of the few superbly well realised elements in the film was that of the nature of the island itself. The island turns out to be home to a utopian commune of limited ideals and ideology, that seems to exist purely to serve the escapist needs of its members. However, the commune is surrounded by native farmers growing an illegal cash-crop, which acts both as external agent of threat and danger, as well as a tenuous link to the reality of the commune-dwellers environment.

 

It is genuinely impressive how little of Thailand is actually revealed throughout the film, mirroring the central character’s unacknowledged lack of curiosity. This is vaguely reminiscent of Boyle’s later oscar-winning tale Slumdog Millionaire which, although superficially more intent on revealing parts of Mumbai’s slum reality, somehow still manages to serve as no more than a picture-postcard from India (mainly as a result of the seeming disconnect between the protagonists and their surroundings).

 

The characters of the commune itself blend into one another with only a few of them seeming to be clearly delineated, among them: a black Londoner obsessed with Christianity and cricket, a jealous carpenter and his partner and the communes de-facto leader Sal (Tilda Swinton). The rest of the characters never stray too far from stereotype, including the three Scandinavians who will later feature in one of the more significant plot developments on the island. This is perhaps the point where film and book most clearly diverge. In the novel the cast of characters that form the commune are fairly rich, textured and intricately interwoven, thus creating much of the tension and genuine horror, as a society in microcosm begins to fundamentally fracture and fall apart. In the film we are very much left marooned in Richard’s limited view of the world around him, his observations frequently as empty as his inner world.

 

This inattentiveness to character proves to be an insurmountable flaw when it comes to caring about Richard’s predicament at the films denouement. With such an overwhelmingly selfish and egocentric hero, the film is crying out for some clear and established supporting roles to balance the narrative. Apart from those already mentioned there is little to counter Richard’s adventure fantasies: Richard takes out a shark, Richard spears lots of fish, Richard on the hunt through the forest, Richard as socially dynamic and stimulating company. Further credence is given to the idea that The Beach is a subjective study of a cypher in search of an identity, when it is considered how the French couple effectively disappear from view once Richard has fouled up his affair with Francoise. The film seems to imply that it is in fact all about Richard, that Richard’s insufferable ego is the instrument of dictation. This then could only lead to dire consequences when subjected to the egoless requirements of Tilda Swinton’s Sal. It is this tension between western individualism and some archaic notion of eastern collective identity that throbs through the subtext of the movie, but Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge, never quite manage to adequately expand on the movie’s surface gloss.

 

 

 

Film Review:- Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

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Dir:- Kelly Reichardt

Starr:- Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Rod Rondeaux

In 2006 I went along to see a movie called Old Joy, primarily because it had the talented alt-country performer Will Oldham in it. I had no idea who Kelly Reichardt was and had seen nothing else by the filmmaker. Old Joy was a beautifully shot, quiet rumination on people who no longer seem to fit into the society of others. It featured an intensely lyrical sequence in which the two friends at the heart of the movie (Oldham and Daniel London) bathed in a natural hot spring and silently communed both with the lush Oregon wilderness and each other. This short, self-contained piece of cinema ended with the achingly tragic image of a ‘lonely’ Oldham, stumbling the streets of Portland, a creature cut out of his ‘natural’ environment.

For some reason, despite falling in love with this simple and spare film, I didn’t trawl back into Reichart’s filmography and allowed her 2008 effort Wendy and Lucy, also with Michelle Williams, to completely bypass me (something I will shortly remedy). Thankfully, the same fate did not befall Reichardt’s impressive minimalist Western, Meek’s Cutoff.

Reichardt is very much a local filmmaker, who seems infinitely fascinated with the Pacific Northwest. The film Meek’s Cutoff is loosely based on the hellish 1845 trek west undertaken by a band of pioneer families and guided by the 19th Century frontiersman Stephen Meek. The title of the film is derived from the road Meek discovered, off the main Oregon trail, that avoided the supposedly dangerous Indian lands in the Blue Mountains. It also acts as a perfect summation of the action of the film, as Stephen Meek (played under thick facial hair by an almost unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood) blindly leads a small band of families through the harsh prairie lands and desert wilderness of the Oregon High Desert.

Each of the three families have their own wagon, livestock and limited provisions, but little else. Reichardt opens the film on an embroidered patchwork still, telling the audience this is the Oregon Trail 1845. Throughout the film Reichardt focuses on these little objects of domesticity, such as kettles, blankets, handlooms and wash bowls, frequently framing her families in isolated tight shots, mid-conversation. A wordless opening seven minutes sees the families gathering water from a stream and struggling to find a fording point for their wagons. In less than ten minutes Reichardt has fully established the terrain, it’s wild, sprawling, natural emptiness, as the dominant character within the movie, utterly dwarfing and subsuming these tiny human forms that cling to survival within its maw. It is reminiscent of this year’s The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, in the way that it sets about placing humanity in an ever-diminishing relationship to the powerful, natural elements that move the universe.

When the film does give us its first moments of dialogue, they are from the Book of Revelation, and specifically the section on the Tree of Life. The reading is given by the young son of Shirley Henderson’s Scottish pioneer, and it evokes a strong sense of foreboding with its dwelling upon the eating of flesh to survive. It is through this  indirect sourcing of the ghoulish folklore and myth that has grown up around much of this early frontier Trail experience, that Reichardt cranks up a brooding atmosphere of growing paranoia and fear.

An early sequence features a perfectly executed cinematic slow dissolve, between one landscape shot and another. Not only does it underscore the unvarying nature of the landscape, but it also suggests a ghostly presence, as if we are already witnessing the dead, the lost, the forsaken. It is one of many such visually dynamic and arresting shots with which Reichardt gradually illustrates the enduring nightmare these people find themselves in.

The braggart character of Meek, is openly mistrusted by a few of the pioneers, particularly Michelle Williams’ Emily. At the beginning of the film they feel that he has deserted them, but when he reappears to offer them his sage guidance toward a source of water, far from being grateful, the pioneers seem to doubt his abilities to navigate the terrain, despite his repeated assertions that he knows the landscape. Reichardt toys with the idea that Meek is not to be trusted. As well as the imposing nature of the landscape through which the families wander, there is also the ancillary fear that Meek is not just leading them blindly through this wilderness, but is actually guiding them into the hands of bandits, robbers, or Indians.

Adding to the grim array of prospects lining up in front of the pioneers, is Emily’s insistence that they are being scouted by an Indian on horseback. Eventually the Indian (played inscrutably by Rod Rondeaux) shows himself and Meek and Solomon (played by Will Patton) hunt him down. Meek wants to kill the Indian, trying to shock the pioneers with his tales of  ‘heathen’ brutality, given a little more weight than they would otherwise possess by referring to specific tribal characteristics of different Paiute Indians. However, Emily and Solomon resist his desire to execute the Indian and the younger pioneer, called Thomas (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano in a minor role) attempts to communicate via barter. The idea that the pioneer’s have is for the Indian to guide them to water, much to Meek’s chagrin.

From this point onwards the movie operates along three narratives of increasing paranoia. First of all there is the intense paranoia that develops in Thomas and his wife Millie (played by Elia Kazan’s granddaughter Zoe) toward the Indian ‘interloper’. Millie becomes convinced that the Indian is leading them further into peril, as well as communicating their route to his tribespeople through the various drawings and inscriptions he is leaving on rocks and in the sand. Then there is the growing fear of Meek’s possibly violent and mercenary nature, ultimately leading to the stand-off between Meek, the Indian and Emily. Finally there is the unceasing and energy-sapping conditions of the nature that surrounds them.

I’ve never before come across a film that so carefully accrues subtle visual details to such a devastating atmospheric effect. The isolation of the characters from each other, is juxtaposed against their remote location at the centre of wide-lens shots of desert and plain. The landscape appears to be devouring them. Reichardt also goes to great lengths to illustrate the ‘alien’ nature of Indian to European settler, as well as European settler to Indian. Rondeaux’s character is frequently framed in extreme close-up, with an unreadable expression upon his face, or he is almost hidden within the wide shots, showing how much more attuned to survival in these conditions he is.

The screenwriter Jon Raymond, who also wrote Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, as well as the award-winning HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce, does a remarkable job of simply overhearing snippets of dialogue. Conversations are rarely shown to begin when a scene begins, and often comments are made without the necessary context by which an audience might make more coherent sense of them. In this way the audience is being made to experience some of the disorienting nature of the predicament the pioneers find themselves in.

In one of the lengthier scenes of dialogue, Meek espouses his belief that women are ‘chaos’ and men are ‘destruction’. For Meek chaos brings life into the world, with its rampant abundance, but it is destruction that orders and cleanses. In this weirdly primitive chauvinism and Meek’s tendency toward the pessimistic (he is often heard to talk about the hellishness of existence) Raymond appears to be demonstrating the fearsome, altering grip with which this ‘nature’ seizes hold of human personality.

Although Meek’s name is within the title of the movie, it is with the terrain that has now taken his name that Reichardt appears to be really interested. Of the characters that are most clearly defined, it is the women (Emily, Millie and Glory) who are shown to toil and struggle with survival most keenly. In the final sequence, that brings the narrative almost full-circle, we have seen one of the men collapse from dehydration and heat exhaustion, whilst Meek himself has resigned from grappling with the pretence of understanding this forbidding landscape. A powerful closing image shows only one of the characters persisting, moving onward, venturing forth into the continuing expanse of grim brush and sand, whilst the rest of the group, all but cling to the Tree of Life.

Scotland vs Czech Republic (at Hampden Park), Saturday 3rd September 2011

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HT:- 1-0

FT:- 2-2 (Miller 44, Fletcher 82; Plasil 78, Kadlec  90 (pen))

Ref:- Kevin Blom

Scotland:- McGregor, Gary Caldwell, Hutton, Berra, Bardsley (Danny Wilson 75), Darren Fletcher (c), Scott Brown, James Morrison, Charlie Adam (Cowie 79), Kenny Miller, Steven Naismith (Barry Robson 86). Subs Not Used: Gilks, Bannan, Goodwillie, James Forrest

Bookings:- Scott Brown (17, Foul), Kenny Miller (49, Foul), Danny Wilson (89, Foul), Berra (91, Simulation)

Czech Republic:- Lastuvko, Hubschman, Sivok, Hubnik, Kadlec, Jiracek (Pekhart 77), Rosicky (c), Plasil, Rajnoch, Petrzela (Rezek 55), Baros (Vacek 91). Subs Not Used: Drobny, Pospech, Pudil, Lafata

Bookings:- Jiracek (23, Foul), Plasil (58, Dissent), Rezek (61, Foul),  Baros (91, Foul), Pekhart (93, Simulation)

An inconsistent refereeing display from the Dutchman Kevin Blom, who recently refereed the first leg of Arsenal’s Champions’ League Qualifier with Udinese, should not paper over an unduly cautious and relatively anaemic display from a Scotland side that knew they really had to win here to stand any chance of qualifying for Euro 2012.

Craig Levein will surely feel aggrieved at the ‘dubious’ penalty decisions that went against his side in stoppage time at the end of the match, when first Wilson was penalised for leaving his foot in on a quick-tumbling Rezek and then Berra was denied a penalty in almost identical circumstances. However, I’m sure that when Levein sits back to analyse the performance he will feel rather fortunate to have escaped with a point from a game that could, and probably should, have been over long before Miller fired Scotland in front just before half-time.

With home advantage and an urgent need to reduce the points deficit on the Czech’s you would have expected that Scotland would come out strongly in the first-half. However for well over two-thirds of the opening period the Hampden home support were left sitting in nervous silence, as the Czech’s cut through the Scotland defence on numerous occasions, yet failed to find the breakthrough their attacking enterprise deserved. Amongst the most wasteful of the Czech Republic starting eleven was the highly experienced former Liverpool and Lyon striker Milan Baros.

As early as the fourth minute the debutant winger Petr Jiracek (who had an exceptional first half) managed to win the ball in the air out on the left, putting Baros away down the wing. Baros knocked the ball back inside to Jiracek who drove down the flank, before cutting a beautiful ball back to Baros in the centre of the penalty area. Inexplicably the Czech Republic’s second highest scorer of all-time (having scored more than twice as many goals as Scotland’s Kenny Miller) contrived to steam the ball clean over the bar, when it really would have been easier to score.

The lethargic Scottish midfield did not immediately awaken from their stupor, as might have been expected, instead they allowed Tomas Rosicky the chance to pump a free kick into the box, where Jan Rajnoch managed to get between Bardsley and Berra and screw a header inches wide of McGregor’s left post. The Scottish defence was looking all too static and there was a genuine sense that they could end up imploding under this early Czech barrage. I’ve never been a fan of Gary Caldwell, believing him to be a painfully slow centreback, lacking the positional sense and judgement to get him out of jail. Yet it was Caldwell’s link-up play with Adam and Fletcher that really provided Scotland with an outlet to relieve some of the pressure. Scotland were playing some neat passing football and were holding the ball relatively well in the middle of the park, but frequently lacked the final pass that could open things up for them.

Scott Brown managed to get himself his required booking after only 17 minutes for a dumb challenge somewhere around the centre-circle. Brown, like Caldwell, has always been overrated and his complete inability to think his way through a match, reduces his play to little more than a bit of high-tempo charging about. He is frequently a disaster waiting to happen. Thankfully Fletcher, Adam and Morrison were more controlled and economical with their energies and Scotland did produce some neat openings down the left, where Morrison and Bardsley were frequently marauding into the space vacated by Hubnik and Sivok.

Scotland had played almost 30 minutes before they got there first real sniff of goal, before which Berra had to block a beautiful Kadlec pass to Baros in the box and Caldwell had got away with his customary rick of a defensive pass thanks to his centreback partner’s quick thinking. It was Caldwell, charging forward with the ball, who managed to find Miller on the left side of the penalty area, only for the Cardiff striker to fail to get any power on his header. Moments after this half chance, the increasingly influential Morrison put Naismith clean through on goal only for the Rangers player to hit the ball harmlessly back to the inexperienced Czech goalkeeper (deputising for the injured Cech) with a truly appalling first touch.

Despite a really impressive first-half display from Gary Caldwell, who managed to stifle another good opportunity for Baros by showing him away from goal, the Scotland defence were frequently guilty of failing to clear the danger. Often the Czech Republic would break at pace on the counter, leaving the Scottish defence playing catch-up. Across the back line Scotland were failing to take adequate responsibility for ensuring their clearances didn’t drop back into dangerous areas. More often than not the Czech’s were able to get a second, more threatening, crack at goal due to this inability to play the ball out of from the back convincingly.

Amazingly, despite the Czech’s more obvious attacking threat, just before half-time Miller was put through by a bustling Fletcher run and coolly slotted into the bottom right corner with Scotland’s first shot on target. Lastuvka’s attempt at a save was pretty feeble, but it was still a priceless bit of poaching that Miller has become increasingly effective at producing for club and country.

Levein would have surely been ready to tear into his player’s at half-time, but the goal may have softened his rhetoric, as Scotland started the second-half in even more of a lacklustre and aimless fashion than they had the first. This time after just a minute Baros found himself once again in the right place in the box, only to fluff another gilt-edged opportunity. Unlike in the first-half this did seem to put some urgency into Scotland’s play and they spent the next ten minutes dominating possession and putting Naismith and Miller into dangerous positions in the box, from which they failed to capitalise. This moment of Scottish control was fleeting however and with the substitution of the ineffectual Milan Petrzela for the more robust and direct Jan Rezek, Czech coach Michal Bilek brought Baros a little deeper and pushed Hubnik and Hubschman a little further forward. By congesting the midfield in this manner, the Czech’s enjoyed their most dominant spell of the match, with Scotland seeming increasingly happy to sit back on their goal advantage.

Scotland’s inability to clear effectively had not improved and the likes of the wily Rosicky and aggressive Rezek were able to make the most of every second ball that dropped their way. On 65 minutes Hubnik, who had an very productive second half, should have scored the equaliser for the Czech’s, but saw his foot catch in the turf when he only needed to make the slightest of touches to knock Sivok’s headed pass into the back of the net.

Scotland were now reduced to fending off the Czech waves of pressure and foraging for the occasional counter-attacking opportunity. After Hubnik’s glorious chance McGregor managed to release the ball quickly to Morrison who delivered a delightful cross to Miller at the near-post, but this time Kenny was unable to get enough of a touch to divert the ball past the flailing Lastuvka. Up the other end Rosicky took a long-range shot, from about 25 yards out, which managed to career wide off an unfortunate Rezek, preventing an almost certain goal. With this kind of luck it seemed that just maybe the Scots could hold-out.

In the end the unrelenting pressing game of the Czech midfield, allied with Rezek’s highly effective battering ram centre-forward work, managed to create a ridiculously simple opening. Rezek broke wide of Hutton and delivered a teasing cross toward the near-post, where Nedved lookalike Jaroslav Plasil managed to steer the ball into the net with his chest. Embarrassingly the Scotland team, that had been complacently counting the clock down on a 1-0 lead till the equaliser, suddenly began to dominate the middle of the park once more, proving that if they had wanted to they had the wherewithal to compete with this weak Czech side.

Whereas in Scotland’s first goal Fletcher had been provider and Miller finisher, this time Miller exploited a terrible defensive error on the left-side by Rajnoch and broke into the box. Playing, what looked like an overhit pass across the penalty area, Miller actually picked out a lung-bursting run from the Scots captain, with Fletcher dispatching the ball into the bottom right corner emphatically. The roar around Hampden was suddenly deafening, with the home fans breaking into a gleeful rendition of Flower of Scotland. Yet once again the Scottish team took their eye-off-the-ball, with the Czech’s throwing everything at them for the last few minutes of the match.

Step forward the controversial Kevin Blom, who had already missed a Czech penalty shout in the first half, as well as a dodgy elbow by Naismith on Rezek in the second. Rezek could also count himself lucky for still being on the pitch after a horrible tackle on Adam a few minutes after the elbowing incident. Perhaps a combination of these elements were clouding the judgement of the Dutch official as Rezek hopped into the Scottish penalty area in the 89th minute, going to ground laughably quickly under a challenge from young substitute Wilson. To be fair Rezek at least waited for Wilson to make contact with his trailing foot before taking his tumble, and although it is clearly a soft penalty, it’s still a possible penalty. Kadlec came forward to brusquely slam the ball straight down the middle of McGregor’s goal, however this didn’t quite break Scottish hearts.

As with the first equaliser Scotland found a new lease of life and straight from the kick-off Hutton won a free-kick in a dangerous position. Caldwell’s delivery found his defensive partner Berra in space in the box, only for Hubnik to close in on the defender and Berra clearly choosing to go to ground. Levein and some of the Scots’ players appeared incensed as they were still disputing Rezek’s penalty, but although the two incidents were superficially similar, there certainly seemed less contact in the Berra case. At the end of the match Scotland were left feeling cheated, but can only really blame themselves for failing to consistently apply the pressure necessary to brush aside this far from world-beating Czech Republic team. Long before the drama of those closing moments, the Scots should have ensured they had more than a one-goal cushion. Their complacency when in front and their generally poor work at denying the Czech Republic the second ball were what ultimately cost them a vital victory at Hampden (which should put pay to their qualification hopes also).

My MOM:- Petr Jiracek – Even though he was substituted just before the Czech’s equalised and despite the game-changing substitute appearance of Jan Rezek, the Czech winger looked incisive and composed on the ball throughout. Considering this was his full International debut Jiracek ran the lines well and his link up play with Baros was one of the highlights of a hard-fought match.

And Another Thing… : – Scott Brown and Kenny Miller clearly fancied a longer lay-off before returning to club action at the weekend, as both of these senior players shirked responsibility by putting in stupid ‘nothing’ challenges in unimportant areas of the park. The bookings they duly received, ensure they won’t feature against the Lithuanian’s on Tuesday.

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