Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy

There’s a saying, “better to be a dog in peace time, than a human in times of war.” From a Chinese author in 1627, Feng Menglong, it speaks of the troubles which assail our species during our existence on Earth. Apparently the roots of this phrase got tangled throughout time and cultures, and the British imported it to attribute a new phrase to its’ roots and created a supposed curse; “May you live in interesting times”. The irony is meant to break out through its’ delivery, supposedly condemning it’s subject to a life filled with the conflicts we supposedly wish to avoid in order to achieve or maintain happiness in life.

Honey Boy (2019, Dir. Alma Har’el) manifests that saying, the whole film runs like an explanation of that phrase, as we traverse through an autobiographical forest of Shia LaBoeuf’s early childhood, handled by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as young and older Shia respectively, while Shia himself embodies and plays the role of his father. The trees talk in this forest, and they have a lot to say.


 

We do pay a price for the sins of our fathers in this life. They actions of our ancestors tumble and unfold across this Earth and have been doing so for generations, and especially as we grow as young and impressionable children, we take stock and absorb the actions of our parents (if we have them). Their actions mark us, mold us, scar us both mentally and physically. As a child, you are bonded to your parent, your carer, your protector and mentor in a large and vertiginious world. You cannot navigate the real world space as a child, you need a support to lean on. But a child does not choose their support, or any of the associated bindings that come with it. Human beings cascade through life crashing against it’s shores, and sometimes those shores result in new humans that they are now attached to. Interesting times manifest as a growing little child, orbiting around you and whatever deitritus you’ve picked up along the way.

The parent-child bond whips its’ own way throughout life, and hell hath no fury like telling a parent how to raise their kid properly.  But it’s universal that children are impressed upon by their adults, especially their parents. Where Honey Boy swerves into its’ own lane is the uniqueness of the source material, since Shia LaBoeuf’s own twisting childhood was intertwined with his exposure to the world as a fictional son in the eyes of millions, through his career as a Disney child star and actor. For those young enough to have grown up with that experience, the story activates layers of meaning which other stories can’t spin around. His fictional presence in a disney-fied familial setting was impressed into our own minds as children, a heavily Americanised and sanitised setting, that work he did was sustained and fed the abusive real childhood that he went through and which is now the basis of another fictionalised story.  Honey Boy’s existence springs from a well where the boundaries of fiction and real life are much thinner, and so the work takes on a peculiar sense of being as it unfolds.

It is nasty to watch a child grow up in a world that you can see isn’t right to them. But it is also the lot of many a child across the world. Har’el can see this, and makes sure that Honey Boy doesn’t get away with washing down and cleaning up the ugly growths of LaBoeuf’s childhood. Even among the mechanised, well-lit and well ordered sets of film workers, LaBoeuf’s childhood slips in betweens the cracks of alcoholism, separated parents, and emotional and psychological issues which crash straight through any semblance of normality. There’s a particularly caustic scene where Otis (the moniker for LaBoeuf in the film) has to relay a conversation back and forth between his father and his mother on the phone, being exposed to the vitriol and the content of a fight which doesn’t need to be channeled through him. It’s moments like these which slowly eat away at the fragile stability of a child’s world, the kind which leads to problems down the line.

And so it goes, as Otis spends part of his adult life going through therapy as part of a rehabilitation program, trying to stitch back together some of these psychic wounds which were left open. The process in the film is one of remembering, an act which can be traumatic in and of itself. The impressions that are left on us by our parents fit their shape, not ours and that conscious readjustment is rarely smooth. It is painful to see, because it is painful to bear. The two timelines of the films allow an understanding across time of how the weight of our parental conflicts affects us throughout our life, not just in the moment they happened in.

So too do the fantasies, as one of the most crushing moments arrives as Otis sits in a filmed version of a family dynamic, a nurturing father giving guidance to his son. It echoes the footage I must have seen of LaBoeuf growing up, footage that I must have absorbed at the time of how a father and son should talk in the Disney-fied world. And it is hard to know that that fantasy which echoed the illusion of a genuine family which I as a child probably yearned for, was an illusion which carried sharper spikes for it’s performers. The conflicts and ideas of our childhood spill like oil across the rest of our lives, and it is their sticky residue which come back to haunt us.

May you live in interesting times is what I hear throughout the film, bouncing off it’s surfaces. The lives of these characters, based off of the lives of these real people, are cannonballs hurtling through the sides of ships, splintering fragments of war everywhere. James, Otis’s father, explodes again and again detonating over his son’s psyche, and the consequences lash against them both. But through the most violent and turbulent times, the bond which binds the two carries throughout time, interesting or not. There is a reckoning by the end of the film, and the happiness which lurks in the daydreams and fantasies of our lives is replaced by a contentment with the interesting times we occupy, because they are all we have.

-Alex

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Honey Boy (2019)

American Honey (2016)

American Honey

In cinema, you can get away with a lot just watching beautiful people doing things. This isn’t meant to be a slight against American Honey (2016, Dir. Andrea Arnold), just a reminder of some of the implicit things we accept in cinema unconsciously. How would we feel about a lot of characters, a lot of their actions if they weren’t also actors which need to “look good” on-screen. The world of cinema is one edited alongside that society’s standard of beauty, one which reflects it. And as a result, we might lend our investment, our desires and our time to those we deem good-looking. Psychologists chart this example in what’s dubbed “the halo effect”. I guess the question I would ask is, what would this film be like if its two leads were not conventionally attractive?

It’s unlikely we’ll ever find out, so I’ll leave the hypothetical there. Sometimes its good to entertain how a film does what it does, and what the result would be if one its aspects was considerably changed. But also oh well, because what Andrea Arnold has presented us with is more than enough to talk about and reducing any discussion of this film down to the aspect of attractiveness is missing the point. Hard.


One of the biggest pains of poverty is the fact its unrelenting. When a storm comes into view, it may rage and flash wildly over the sky, but sooner or later it’ll pass. Poverty isn’t a storm though, it’s a knife in your side which you grow up with, affecting your every motion, thought, experience. It hangs over your head like a storm cloud chained above you. And so when you’re exposed to the chance to make money, a dream which hopefully leads to you pulling that knife out of your side, you want to grab it with both hands.

So that’s just what Star (Sasha Lane) does, when Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) catches her eye, and she jumps in a van to help sell magazine subscriptions to anyone who’ll buy them. It’s a life of cheap motels, of rough/fun parties with hard edges, and of money which is both real and ghost-like, money which is earned and then either owed or almost immediately spent. And one which seems sweet on one hand, and just about to turn sour on the other.

And so follows a road movie in that classic vein of American films, one which charts a journey through a landscape, rather than through a plot. Star encounters haphazard points and paradoxes of American peoples, traversing through the landscapes of the South while pinballing through its potential dangers. And its this aimless motion, one which moves forward with such urgency even as it explodes into nowhere, which manages to hold your attention for the film’s running time. Star, like Jennifer Lawrence’s “Mother!” holds the centre of the frame for almost the entire films running time, and in that 4:3 aspect ratio, the film functions like a portrait painted a thousand different times. All the while, the marks of experience begin to get scratched into the walls of her mind, good and bad.

The film functions more like a poem than a script, and how much you pull from this hyped up pop-Americana trip is up to how much you’re willing to climb into the back of the magazine van with her, and how much you can vibe with Arnold’s unapologetic youth revolt into nothing. I guess that’s why I brought up the attractive people note earlier, because a lot of this film rides on the young people just being young people wavelength that can get exhausting, even if it’s purposefully so. And what makes American Honey so special in that regard, is taking that oldest cliché of young love and making it feel vibrant and thrilling, even if it doesn’t feel new. Things always feel new for the people on adventures.

So Star rides an endless wave of half thought dreams and dull edged reality, the desire and desperation for a better life keeping her from sinking beneath the Americana sea. And she does this alongside the soundtrack of multiple Americas, the folk country world fused into the current trap/rap game bleeding into radio pop from Rihanna, they all fight for meaning and relevance to her story, and Arnold makes sure that each track pulses alongside the beat of the film, sometimes obviously and sometimes less so. Not everything is meant to be subtle when you’re an 18-year-old, and that fact being captured in the music without becoming overwhelmingly annoying is a difficult tightrope to walk on.

Godamn, it’s just a good film. It does justice to half of the reality and half of the fantasies of youth, ones that we still might carry round with us even as we fade out of it. And what sticks in your mind is its engagement with the darkness of the world without losing its hope. And maybe it’s just me, but I wouldn’t mind riding that wavelength, because giving into the bleakness is when the fun really stops, and the rollercoaster ride actually comes off the tracks.

-Alex

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American Honey (2016)

The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II

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The infernal hurricane, which never rests,

Hurtles the spirits onwards in its rapine,

Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.

 

When they arrive before the precipice,

There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,

There they blaspheme the puissance divine.

 

I understood that unto such a torment,

The carnal malefactors were condemned,

Who reason subjugate to appetite.

(Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Lines 31-39, Longfellow Translation)

This is the section in Dante’s Inferno where Dante visits the 2nd circle of hell, the circle where those who have sinned according to lust, given in to earthly delights of a sexual nature at some point during their time on Earth, and are thus condemned to be buffeted about eternally by endless winds, never-ceasing to stop, to die down, to rest is possibly the best term.

So too is the nymphomaniac in question, Joe. Her odyssey is enshrined in that experience, of eternal restlessness.

And 5 and a half hours later, as the credits rolled on the Director’s Cut of Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Vol. II, I wondered why the hell anyone had ever thought this film was a good idea.

This is my first Lars Von Trier film, and so it certainly could be said that I went in at the deep end on this, as I did with a similar experience with Werner Herzog, where I started with Fitzcarraldo. The difference being, the idea that Lars Von Trier is truly respected as an auteur director fills me with frustration. It is best not to judge an entire director’s worth on one film he makes, so instead I shall judge the films worth, and come to the conclusion of “In what in hell’s name possessed Von Trier to make such a crucifyingly dull film?”.

How is it that a film with such room to breathe, 5 and a half solid hours, 330 minutes of running time (for reference, Lawrence of Arabia runs for 3 hours and 48 minutes, while as Mark Kermode consistently quotes, 2001: A Space Odyssey takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to ‘chart the dawn of our civilisation to the birth of a new one’) manages to ultimately say nothing at all? Nymphomaniac is plagued by images, ideas, thought patterns, allegories, poorly arranged ideological arguments, tangents which spiral off into the ether, and somehow, under all that weight of provocation, it manages to crush every single morsel of interest flat, spreading the film with a thick layer of numbing cream.

The film is seemingly designed as an endurance test, as Von Trier imagines a woman who embodies the epitome of depravity, both morally and physically. She is designed as the ultimate individual rebel, a woman who craves nothing more than her sexual desires to be slated whatever the cost (even abandoning her child at night to go see her S&M master, played very excellently by Jamie Bell). He pits her experiences, sinking into the inky depths of depravement, as she fucks just about anything, manipulates and ruins people’s lives just for the chase of chance, against the lonely asexual (ha) Seligman, who constantly rationalises and tries to defend her actions, to ‘see the good in her’ while Joe continues to beg for judgement, continually unravelling her story. The film limps back and forth between Joe’s life and this ‘battlefield’, as Seligman  contextualises and draws allegorical parallels between Joe’s actions and historical events or actions. He compares her journey on a train with a friend to see who can fuck the most guys to the art of fly-fishing. Their discussion on the differences of the East and Western styles of Christianity segues into one of her segments. The Fibonacci sequence appears in relation to a time where Jerome (played by Shia LaBoeuf) fucks her in a humiliating fashion.

The problem with this, is its ultimately bullshit.

I shall return to this later on, because it requires a thorough dissection, but for now, let’s deal with the basics of it all. The performances by and large, are dreadful. They literally inspire dread, because I was dreading the next time I saw many of them on-screen. Almost universally, the performances retain this incredible sense of lifelessness, of walking corpses who offer nothing. I am foolish enough to ask only for sympathetic or relatable characters, but I look for characters who just aren’t boring, who aren’t full of ash. Singular criticism must be singled out for Stacy Martin, who plays the young version of Joe, taking up most of Vol. I, whose lackluster abilities defy description.  Paint drying would find her boring. Whether it is her or her direction, the two combined managed to create the effect of waiting for the mountains to move in front of your very eyes. Every single scene is visibly hampered by the corpse Von Trier drags around with him, as his Joe fails to arouse anything, she simply exists outside a realm of humanity. Shia LaBoeuf is just odd. Everyone else is like a retreated turtle, nothing but shell, no life visible. Bar two.

Uma Thurman turns up for an oddly exciting cameo, as 2 hours in finally a character turns up who even manages to rouse some basic human emotion. In fact her entire scene highlights this feeling to ludicrous parody levels, as her portrayal of restrained menace and hysteria connects like a punch under the effect of sleeping pills. Naturally, she disappears after 5 minutes and we slip back into slumber. The other performance is that of Jamie Bell, who alongside this entire arc, Chapter 6: “The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck) ” comes to embody the only portion of the film which is salvageable. Even among rubbish, gold can be found. He’s the only character who has any depth, and alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe, they manage to undergo a tough arduous journey into the extremities of human sexuality, pain and pleasure and the risks someone will take simply to feel.

The film also contends itself with being set in a timeless, non-specific location, which doesn’t hurt the film, but also doesn’t help it either. The cinematography, the kino-eye of the film is myopic, barely able to capture the events unfolding with any sense of importance. The grey tones of the film help only to devoid the eye of any involvement, any stimulation, which lead it to be almost completely looked at, not watched. You stare at a foggy window, which refuses to allow you to see anything you can recognise. The music does that excruciatingly annoying Michael Haneke trick of playing short fragments of music constantly cut off, only done to disorient, a condescending and extremely patronising film skill. And finally of course, the real grey elephant in this slightly less grey room, the editing.

Who. On. Earth. Allowed. This. Film. To. Be. 5. Hours. And. 30. Minutes. I have not seen it, but the cut version is still 3 hours too long. This film in its state is nothing short of unwatchable, and either the editors thought it was a good idea which frustrates me furiously, as the stretch of time involved in this is unbearably indulgent, or Von Trier thought he was write and exercised control over the edit, which is a sign of auteur decadence not seen since Dennis Hopper decided to edit Easy Rider by himself. Luckily his film was salvaged by people not insane. Nymphomaniac was not so lucky.

Here’s a scene in the film, one of the weakest in my opinion. Context is this is right after Joe literally ( I do mean literally) abortions herself. It’s a verb in this context. She performs an abortion on herself.

[SCENE IS GONE FROM YOUTUBE, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO WATCH THE FILM. OR DON’T. PLEASE.]

The clip isn’t in its entirety, but the argument Seligman makes, the one of so called “rational society” is we cannot talk about abortions because biology is icky, and Joe chastises him for being a hypocrite.

*ahem*

I challenge you to find any act of biology which on some level isn’t gross. Whether it’s the messiness of sex, the literal millions of mites living in your eyebrows, the dead skin cells which cover your body, teeth rotting, animals killing each other, female spiders consuming their males during sex, the fact that a fox has barbs on its penis to stop the female fox from escaping copulation, excretion of human waster, god I could go on. Go with Cronenberg on this, all humans are just fleshy meat sacs. Seligman’s “cowardice” wanting to know the facts of abortion is a cheap set up for Von Trier to act like he’s scored a point over the stupid intellectuals who pretend they know everything.

And my god does this film reek of anti-intellectualism, of anti-moralism, of anti anything which is nothing less than the raw primeval truths of Joe’s experiences. No line of dialogue is written by accident, and there are plenty of barbs laying in wait. He lines up anyone who takes a stance as a fool or an idiot, Joe humiliates the other nymphomaniacs at the Sex Addicts Anonmyous, while Von Trier sets the leader up as a cheap shell to take pot shots at, as she is written to be basically a moron. Anyone who expresses conventional control, control by gender dynamics (the way the girls humiliate boys who try to seduce them, declaring war on traditional love, the general ripping on religion), control by conventional power structures (an office boss who forces her to go recovery, the clinical psychologist she needs to see for her abortion), control by conventional familial duties (Jerome puts the guilt on her). It’s not just that these methods are subjugated to the desire for sex, it’s not just Dante’s circle of Lust. It’s that they are actively derided, attacked and made fun of. It’s not enough for Joe to reject these structures, she has to make herself superior to them. Maybe its the intention of the film, but its a callous and bullshit one if that’s an ideological slant its pushing.

What does Lars Von Trier want with this? What is the truth, even if it is the absence of truth behind this film? Who did he make it for? If he made it as a form of personal catharsis, good for him. But the film is just so horribly indulgent it hurts. Von Trier is not a subversive filmmaker. These films are designed to shock, to provoke, but the only people who would seek these works out are those already experienced in these areas. Nymphomaniac is not designed to be watched by average Joe on the street, it’s designed to be watched by the kind of people who find themselves bored with the mainstream, look for work which indulges their pretensions of just by showcasing depravity and uncovering the rock of the human psyche, that by looking at the underside underneath, we can somehow take part in that holy communion. And that’s a land for people who are ultimately dissatisfied with themselves, with people who are unhappy with their own identities and the perceived identities of those around them. Why else would they be so desperate to jump into this mud pool, declaring it a work of excellence, ready with their academic spears to dissect it according to X thinker, or Y term (An example over this overreaching can be found here).

Perhaps this is why many reacted so harshly to its ending. In short, after Joe lays her tale bare, she confesses that she feels hope and possibly redemption and has found a friend in Seligman.Seligman puts her to bed, then comes in to rape her, and she shoots him and leaves.

The same people who were so quick then to laud this work, are also quick to turn on it at this point, as the final cruelty of this joke self-destructs any chance the film had at constructing…well anything. All of the pre-supposed superiority of watching the film, of having Von Trier explain in exposition each idea he wants you to associate with the film, so you can immediately construct links he wants you to follow, finally reach the unexpected dead-end of the tracks, as Von Trier pulls the rug out from under you, and shuts the doors tight on his kingdom of nihilism, of the idea that at the end of the day, we’re all just cunts (apologies for the strong word, but its appropriate, considering how often the film refers to it.) It’s in that case a good example of post-modernism, whatever the hell that even really refers to any more, it deconstructs everything, and lands itself in the realm of nothing but cheap ironic tricks and ‘cool’ nihilism. I hate nihilists. They’re prone to being incredibly boring.

It’s a final provocation, Seligman’s last scene, and maybe I’m superior in saying it, but it didn’t get to me. In fact nothing got to me, beside the above mentioned good parts of the film. It was in the point of Joe enduring the Cat O’ Nine Tails, of her suffering creating meaning in true existential form, as she finally rediscovered her orgasm, that I managed to find something to connect to in the film. And that flash in the pan quickly vanished, because the rest of the film is so desperately needy, so gaudy as it practically screams “LOOK AT ME, JUDGE ME JUDGE ME”, that it failed to arouse anything in me. My friend felt sorry for her, his girlfriend condemned her, and I ultimately couldn’t conjure up any feelings on the matter at all. A cynic would say I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of judging her, but I’ll defend it and say I simply didn’t care. I just didn’t care. The entire theatrics of the film, the showboating and self aggrandisement and bullshit philosophy, all are masquerades for what is a hollow statement of self-expression. Our resident nymphomaniac was left unsatisfied, and my fate was worse than that. I simply was not put in a position to be left either in satisfaction or dissatisfaction, simply confusion. Confusion as to why anyone thought it was a good idea to tell this story at all. There’s a reason Dante didn’t spend the rest of Inferno in the 2nd circle, and that’s because there’s far more interesting matters at hand. It’s sin is that for it’s all posturing, it’s just unforgivably boring, and that is my judgement.

I have no more thoughts on the matter. I will however persevere in the future to watch more of Von Trier’s work.

-Alex

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The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II