Two Films by Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016) and Homecoming (2019)

There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.


Lemonade (2016)

I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.

Lemonade film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.


Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.

Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.

There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.

Homecoming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.

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LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)

My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eleven: Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), Overseas, Scales and Relativity (all 2019)”

.قضیه شکل اول… شکل دوم Qazieh-e shekl-e avval… shekl-e dovvom. (First Case, Second Case, 1979)

For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.


At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Filmfarsi (2019)

This week sees the release to UK cinema’s of Tehran: City of Love, a recent film set in Iran’s capital. As such, I’ve got a themed week of Iranian cinema, representing one of the richest cinematic traditions in the region. The first film I’m covering is another recent film, but one which looks back towards the past, before the Revolution that saw out the Shah.


I’m sure many of us have seen plenty of (serious, engaged) Iranian film made since their 1979 revolution, but what this documentary does is chart the popular cinema that held the country’s attention before then, linking it not just to wider cultural currents coming from Hollywood and the geographically closer regional cinemas of Egypt and India, but to the tensions within Iranian society too, as people turned against the decadence of the middle-class Pahlavi regime. It covers the character types which would have been familiar to viewers in the country, the strongly macho filmic terrain and it even makes the case for some more interesting talents among the evident dross (I am particular intrigued by Samuel Khachikian’s work). Narrated by the director Ehsan Khoshbakht (himself a programmer at Il Cinema Ritrovato), it exudes authority as much as it provides a fascinating insight to a largely lost filmic history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Ehsan Khoshbakht احسان خوشبخت; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 26 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 264: Dokument Fanny och Alexander (The Making of Fanny and Alexander, 1984)

What’s interesting about this “making of” documentary is that, rarely enough, it is actually what it says: it shows in great detail the actual making of the film. It’s not so much bothered about contextualising the production, about where it was made or how long the shoot was (though that sort of comes out in a roundabout way), nor even the preparation or the post-production. This is focused strictly on Bergman himself making the film, with his actors on the sets, with his DoP Sven Nykvist, and just in the flow of eliciting the performances and ensuring that the vision being created by the camera and the lighting matches his. In that sense it can be a little claustrophobic, because you’re just in these houses with him constantly, but it imparts a little sense of how engaged and focused he is on the task, and about some of what it means to be a director: it’s about getting the performances you want to see from your actors, and about having the right people around you to deal with the other stuff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This feature was originally accorded its own spine number, but in the Blu-ray re-release of the box set, is essentially just one of the supplements. The others I mention on the page for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 19 August 2019.

Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom

Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom”

LFF 2019 Day One: You Don’t Nomi (2019)

It is the start of another London Film Festival! As a resident of this city, it’s also one of the easiest ways (if not exactly cheapest, though it’s not terrible value given how much a regular cinema ticket can be in some venues) to see new and interesting films. As ever, my strategy is to select films that are less likely to come back, as well as ones not directed by straight white men — I can’t promise that every film I see will be super obscure, because I do have my favourite directors and my interests, and my first day’s film is one of the few I’m seeing directed by a white man, albeit it’s a film which has been screened in a number of LGBTQ festivals and contexts. It’s also about one of my (problematic) faves, Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls, which I rewatched a few days ago to prepare. In upcoming days expect more than one review per post, because I’ve packed my schedule with only a few evenings off.


You Don’t Nomi (2019)

There’s something pure about this film in the way it specifically doesn’t try to get in touch with any of the creatives involved with Showgirls, because ultimately that’s not what it’s interested in. Like a number of recent documentaries, it’s about the audience and about fan culture in its workings as much as it’s about how the thing everyone’s a fan of actually got made. That said, it does do a bit of digging about that, presenting clips of director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas talking about it at the time, and the film is very good about contrasting the way it was understood back then, both by its makers and contemporary critics (mostly broadsheet reviewers giving it simplistic star ratings and thumbs-up/thumbs-down critiques), and how it has come to be understood and embraced. The film is also good about presenting a range of opinions: it’s not just a queer subtext waiting to be uncovered, or a camp classic, or a misogynistic creep’s voyeuristic rendering of sexual liberation, or a pure expression of performance and performativity itself, but it’s also somehow all of these things — and that can be fine. As Adam Nayman (a critic who has written a book about Showgirls and who is heard on the soundtrack) more or less puts it, you can love the film while also accepting that’s it not in any conventional sense ‘Good’.

So what I love here is the stuff that feels like an unpacking of fan culture itself, and of the way audiences respond. The people in the row behind me at the cinema were certainly happy to quote along with the dialogue when we see it (and there are lots of good, high quality clips of all Verhoeven’s films), but it’s good to see a film that is serious about its subject and not just treating it as silly fun (because certainly a lot of Verhoeven’s work is not silly or fun, and there are still serious reservations which have been levelled at his use of rape as a theme across his body of work). Like all the excellent documentaries about films, this will probably end up being seen mainly as a supplementary feature to a deluxe reissue, but I hope that happens (the US 15th anniversary Blu-ray I’ve got is pretty patchy in quality, and while the Dutch Blu-ray has a great transfer it has no extras), because Showgirls is a film that deserves all its admirers and detractors both — whereas this exegesis should mainly have admirers.

You Don't Nomi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jeffrey McHale; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Wednesday 2 October 2019.

Two Recent Documentaries about Young People in China: A Way Out (2017) and Present. Perfect. (2019)

Continuing my theme of films about China, these two are made in and about China by Chinese women, that elucidate certain aspects of Chinese society one imagines were not particularly pleasing to those in power in that country. It’s about young people and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them upon graduation.

Continue reading “Two Recent Documentaries about Young People in China: A Way Out (2017) and Present. Perfect. (2019)”

For Sama (2019)

With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.


There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.

For Sama film posterCREDITS
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.

Minding the Gap (2018)

With The Farewell in UK cinemas today, another recent film by a Chinese-American filmmaker was one of the finest documentaries out last year, although it only touches on themes related to the Asian diaspora experience (as when its director, who is a fellow skateboarder, appears on-screen). There have been a number of recent films about kids expressing themselves and finding a community through skateboarding (like Skate Kitchen), and this documentary is a fine addition to this burgeoning sub-genre.


I guess the obvious thing to say is that this isn’t a film about skateboarding, though the first shot of them gliding through the streets — a kinetic moment of movement and light and joy — is repeated throughout as a sort of motif. It underlines the film’s real point, which is about the precarious transition between entrapment and escape. Some of what keeps these men stuck in their lives (and there are three of them including the director Bing Liu) is partly down to society, but is also it turns out somewhat reflective of the domestic situations in which they all grew up, and that starts to become the focus of Bing’s questioning. This leads to scenes which are both heartbreaking and also really very painfully confrontational, such as Bing putting his mother under the spotlight, or about Keire’s relationship with his father, which feel sometimes like things that are too abjectly personal to be on camera. And then there’s Zack’s own patterns of domestic abuse, which Bing never really confronts his friend directly about, and which he leaves largely unresolved, while suggesting (perhaps more hopefully than anything else) that he could yet have matured. In any case, there’s a lot of material here, a lot of painful, confrontational material, nakedly emotional, but also there’s that through-line: the joy of skateboarding that brings these men together and makes them — they hope; we hope — better people, and helps at least some of them to break free from their pasts.

Minding the Gap film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Bing Liu 劉冰; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, 27 March 2019.