Jackie: A respect for history

“Do you know who James Garfield was?”

“No ma’am.”

“Do you know who William McKinley was?”

The driver of the ambulance car carrying the body of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy knows neither.

“How about Abraham Lincoln?”

“He won the Civil War and abolished slavery.”

Jackie Kennedy, still in shock, turns away and closes the hatch. She looks to Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), sat beside her. “Tomorrow we must find all of the books accounting for Lincoln’s funeral.” As she alludes many times in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s titular ode to the most renowned First Lady, she has a great respect for history.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is one of the most notable and shocking events of the 20th century. Young, handsome and Catholic, Kennedy inspired strong fervour and contention due to his Cold War relations and subsequent quest for space. Along with his wife Jackie, the couple were regarded by the media as celebrities, being treated much in the manner of how popstars are in the present.

Born to a Wall Street broker and a socialite, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) appears uniquely predisposed to such attention. Regarded as an icon of style during and after her time as First Lady, Kennedy welcomed the public into her’s and her husband’s lives, forging a connection between the Presidential couple and American citizens. That connection soon turned to a thirst thanks to the likes of television and transparency, the Kennedys breaking down the barrier between office and public with their infamous 1962 tour of a restored White House; Jackie’s passion project.

A keen writer and reporter in her time before marriage and then a student of American History in the early years after, her love of literature and – most importantly – tradition centred her time in the White House and later life. The restoration of the White House was undertaken to regain historical pieces that had been removed from the mansion upon the departure of each successive president. Kennedy went on to coin a Congressional bill and founded a collection of trusts and committees declaring historical items property of the Smithsonian Institute, and therefore not fit for private acquisition.

Segmented between the sombre recount of President Kennedy’s death and subsequent aftermath, the televised CBS News tour shows a different Jackie: younger, more amiable, a deer caught in the headlights of the world – one that she has courted. By jarring comparison, the woman that exists following the assassination is harshly resolute and single-minded, an air of emotional detachment shrouding her person. She fixates on giving her late husband the remembrance he deserves, an unshakable drive to cement his place in both American and world history, all whilst living in paranoia of her son and daughter being taken from her along with her husband and two children.

“When something is written down, does that make it true?” Kennedy asks of the journalist (supposedly Theodore H. White of Life magazine) as he tries to lift the veil on the woman who aired her grief for the world to see. Her being interviewed is another attempt to keep her husband alive in the thoughts of her still captive audience: if a person’s name continues to be spoken, do they ever really die? In cementing the memory of President Kennedy, she is also solidifying that of herself. “You understand I will be editing this conversation,” Kennedy says. “Just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean?” The journalist complies, begrudgingly.

As Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant) once said to Kennedy, “People need their history… They need to know real men actually lived [at the White House]. Not ghosts and storybook legends – people who faced adversity and overcame it.” But who gets to decide what is history and what is fiction? Is history not, after all, the fiction of the victor in war? In taking charge of media canon, Kennedy ensured the public perception of her husband and his presidency was largely one of her creation and not one of those intent on smearing his name.

“There won’t be another Camelot,” states Jackie of the Kennedy term in office, comparing that brief tenure to the fantasy Kingdom,  one that had been snatched from her before its time. To her, this period – though marred by personal tragedy – was one of novelistic quality, a skewed narrative of which she chose to indulge.

Fiction or history, to Jackie Kennedy, legacy is all that matters.

 

 

Why going straight to Netflix may have been best for Annihilation

It sucks, doesn’t it, that online streaming services are fast becoming the last bastion of off-beat film? It seems that there is no place for the left-field in multiplex cinemas, home of the cinematic universe, goggle-eyed kids flicks and the Zac Efron vom-com.

When Marvel debuted 2008’s Iron Man they cannot have known that in pushing the boundaries of scale and long-term vision they had in fact spawned the virus that was to be the death of cinema as we knew it. What was explored in decades previous as mere franchise was stretched to breaking point. Cue present day and the concept of franchise has been morphed into mere commodity. It’s fair to say that – outside of children or genre fans – no one really cares anymore, but most feel compelled to make the pilgrimage anyway.

Annihilation, the latest film by buzz-worthy Britsh director Alex Garland, is the perfect example of how present-day habits of cinemagoers have damaged the potential of truly original work. Only the second feature by Garland – who burst onto the scene with his acclaimed 2015 sci-fi Ex Machina – Annihilation is adapted from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name and follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier who is enlisted to investigate the “Shimmer” following the suspicious reappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing for a year.

With an all-star cast including Portman, Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it had major potential to be an alternative success – so much so that Paramount Pictures stumped up $55 million for it. But following poor test screenings and worries that the film was “too intelligent” and “too complicated”[1] Paramount financier David Ellison demanded changes – including an alternate ending and making Lena more sympathetic – to appease audiences. Producer Scott Rudin and Garland refused, and just like that its international release (China aside) was pushed onto Netflix, the movie apparently too risky following the underperformance of similar outings Mother! and Suburbicon.

Garland later said of the debacle:

“We made the film for cinema. I’ve got no problem with the small screen at all. The best genre piece I’ve seen in a long time was The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think there’s incredible potential within that context, but if you’re doing that – you make it for that and you think of it in those terms. Look… it is what it is. The film is getting a theatrical release in the States, which I’m really pleased about.

One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up and then if they don’t, it vanishes from cinema screens in two weeks. So it’s got pluses and minuses, but from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it – [it was made] to be seen on a big screen.”[2]

But why did Ellison, of Skydance Media, and Paramount ultimately decide that Annihilation wasn’t worth the risk? It had bankable actors, critically acclaimed source material and a director whose previous release received a plethora of nominations including Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Surely there was an eager audience? Judging on the $11 million it made on its U.S opening weekend – modest by any film’s standards – perhaps Ellison made the right call. But the press generated by the shift to Netflix has only garnered more attention to a film that may have otherwise slipped under the box office radar.

There are positives to the Netflix shift, ones that only benefit the viewer and not the studio. Viewing the film is essentially “free” if we’re not counting the general subscription price. There is no dishing out for overpriced popcorn. Then there is the convenience factor, but despite such flexibility Netflix recently stated that 70% of its users persist in viewing its content on TV as opposed to tablets or mobile phones. [3] No doubt this will be some music to Garland’s ears, given the grotesquely beautiful and colourful visuals best viewed on a large screen.

Currently certified 87% fresh (thanks Rotten Tomatoes) with an audience rating of 67%, Annihilation has clearly resonated with someone. It’s parallels with 2016’s Arrival in being multilayered, understated yet grandiose, continues a subtler wave of science fiction film most notably ushered in by Ex Machina itself. When there is action, it is justified. When there are jumps, death and confrontation, the plot pays off. Annihilation deals in intelligent conversation. Perhaps studios would benefit from respecting their audience a little bit more.

 

“It’s not green, it’s teal” – The use of colour in The Shape of Water

SPOILERS AHEAD

‘It’s not green, it’s teal” grumbles Michael Shannon‘s Colonel Richard Strickland, not too long re-educated himself on the deviant shade of his brand new Cadillac. As the salesman says, teal is the “colour of the future,” but in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance The Shape of Water it traps its inhabitants in the confines of the past.

Set in a parallel relic of 1962 Cold War Baltimore, The Shape of Water centres around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a secret laboratory who falls in love with The Asset, a humanoid amphibian man dredged from the depths of the Amazon rainforest. Eyed for vivisection by the cruel Strickland, Elisa conspires an escape plan with the help of her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her sympathetic co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

With a precarious future on the doorstep and the echoes of the Second World War lurking in the periphery, the sense of purgatory is all around. Paranoia is in the air, along with a palpable need to stay one step ahead of Soviet opposition. The eyes of the U.S government are fixed on a fantastical and seemingly unattainable prize amidst the space race: the ultimate proclamation of world power. Who needs Earth after all, when you have the moon in your back pocket?

It is not the moon within reach however. The amphibian man is a creature fit for pulp reader salivation, albeit a lot closer to home. Shades of green are omnipresent, from the sheen of The Asset’s scales to the shade of Elisa’s scrubs. In the darkly cynical and clinical setting of it’s laboratory dwelling, The Asset’s shimming scales and green palette make a pleasant change from the bleak, industry standard of grey. As pleasing as it may be to the eye, the blue-green hue and 50s architecture implies a suspension of societal imbalance between the wild implications of the space race and the comfort of a post-war past.

Teal – and also, green – in The Shape of Water  denotes the aspirations of mankind to conquer new, unknown territories, and when the world has been afflicted by war, what better distraction to look to the stars? Societal recovery following the Second World War propelled itself on an unprecedented scale, a revelry of innovation twisted into simulacrum. This hyperreality culminates in the alien nature of The Asset itself, and the woman whose perception of self  is so rooted in “otherness” that the only entity she feels a connection with is the non-judgemental nature of a newly discovered species. Elisa does not feel at home in her world, just as The Asset itself is – quite literally – a fish out of water, both forced to inhabit a space which does not suit their natures amidst humans who do not understand them and wish to inflict their own means of oppression.

The same could be said for Giles. A gay illustrator renounced of employment for not hiding his sexuality, Giles’ employer opts to string him along rather than admit their own bigotry. He rejects his illustration of a family mealtime, stating that the red jelly in the picture be replaced with green: the colour of the future, replacing classic imagery with a flavour altogether more faddish. As it transpires, Giles’ employer soon decides that his illustrations are not as good as a photograph. His subsequent inhalation of the greenest key-lime pie you ever did see – and aggressive rejection by his crush, the pie-shop assistant – only reinforce Gile’s otherness in the more conservative 60s.

Smattered amongst the teal is a red awakening of a blossoming love. Upon consummating her relationship with The Asset, Elisa’s dress introduces ruby shoes and a scarlet headband, showcasing her desire for the world to see. By the end of the film, even her dress is red, so consumed by love that she follows it until its end. Set upon a background of the “Red Mist” of communism, instances of red are regarded with deviance and suspicion despite being the most sincere. The red velvet of the cinema below Elisa’s apartment implies the purist creativity of film, one that was tainted with the anti-communist propaganda of the era, one that perpetuated the hyperreal “all-American” family, and dream.

In 1960s sci-fi, the alien entity was only ever hellbent on world control, quite often so by stealth. By comparison, The Asset merely wants to be left to its own devices in a peaceful coexistence far from the gaze of the human world. Elisa’s transformation and movement from the human world to the amphibian shows that humans have more to gain in trying to comprehend which they do not understand, rather than destroy it. Elisa’s acceptance and love of The Asset is the core of this film, reminding that amongst the machinations of futurism it is the most earnest and honest values that survive through time. A teal innovation may signal the quest for a new beginning, but through touches of red Del Toro evokes acceptance, purity and a heartfelt nod to the past.