There’s the potential for a cinephile in everybody we meet, probably with varying intensities, but there’s the potential nonetheless. There is always a hidden untapped passion brimming underneath the surface that even they might be unaware of – not necessarily cinephilia. But cinephilia was mine. Once I recognized the dormant passion that always resided in me and put it to exercise, I felt like a new man. It was like a new chapter for me. So, with this potential in mind, why do African nations in particular lack the knowledge and accessibility to lesser known, indie movies that are widely regarded as some of the best cinema today among more cine-literate circles? You can already tell this is going to be a personal essay which it very much is, but I’ll also evaluate connections between my own experience and the larger scope of things. Be ready to cringe because I’m about to get deep.
‘God’s Own Country’ is traditionally a term used to describe the vast, open, scenic landscapes that mold the county of Yorkshire’s unspoiled countryside. But, Francis Lee’s directorial debut, ‘God’s Own Country’ (2017), focuses less on the poetic beauty of the landscapes. It uncovers and reworks the expression to draw attention to the lands people, who often go unnoticed in mainstream media. What accompanies the land in ‘God’s Own Country’ are the sensations of isolation and solitude that are felt by, and have become an integral part of the film’s protagonist, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young, gay farmer.
In the midst of the scandals and snubs that have dominated the conversations surrounding Best Picture nominees of recent years, Phantom Thread and The Favourite are two contenders that have drawn the most specific comparisons. Given that they’re both British period pieces at their cores, and are helmed by prominent directors — Paul Thomas Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos, respectively — these films seem just as primed for predictable Academy recognition as star-studded melodramas or Sam Rockwell playing racist characters a little too well.
But even as The Favourite and Phantom Thread have received well-deserved buzz and tick many of the boxes that often lead awards cycle domination, the general consensus remains: there’s something offbeat and singular about how these stories unfold. In spite of their lavish settings, the films seize upon social codes of the time to exacerbate conflicts between their characters, until the resulting atmospheres become increasingly confined and oppressive. This intentional, rather ironic claustrophobia helps the films to plumb deeper themes that arise from certain historical circumstances, moving the needle on what a “period piece” can explore.
By the time that Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) first encounters his lover and muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) near the beginning of Phantom Thread, viewers have already been thoroughly exposed to the painstakingly choreographed rituals that dictate the designer’s opulent life. The film marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s first departure from the restless Americana of his seven earlier features, as he and the notoriously method-oriented Day-Lewis delved into the refined world of 1950s London couture houses.
Much more reliant on tradition than Paris — the other European dressmaking capital of the time — London fashion was predicated on the occasions of the city’s upper class. Scenes of royals and women of high society ascending the spiral staircase of the “House of Woodcock” to meet with Reynolds as Jonny Greenwood’s score swells carry an air of choreographed theatrics because they are meant to — these carefully manicured businesses are beautiful, but so steeped in privilege and British customs that they can easily turn suffocating if one steps out of line.
Everything that we are, how we define ourselves, and how well we understand ourselves, are determined by what we remember. Our memories constitute the role we assign to ourselves and to the people around us. For example: I am your friend, and you are mine. I know this for a fact because I have met you once before, and several times after that. I remember we bonded on a shared cab ride home one afternoon, and I remember trusting you enough for me to tell my deepest secrets to you, knowing you wouldn’t tell another soul. Regardless of its significance, our memories are not eternal. Time will play its part and slowly take away pieces of us, little by little. This theme is visualized in the animated short film, Late Afternoon, which is nominated for an Academy Award this year.
The short film, written and directed by Louise Bagnall, presents a depiction of an eventual version of all of us, in the form of an elderly woman named Emily. In the present, Emily is sitting comfortably in a chair, having tea, and sorting out her belongings with the aid of her caretaker. Throughout the film, we follow her escape reality as she reminisces on the long life she has lived far before that afternoon tea. Bits of events unfold through her temporary episodes of remembrance.
Emily’s first episode began with her dipping biscuit in her tea; it broke immediately— indicating the drink was boiling hot — and while she silently watches it sink to the bottom of the cup, she was diverted away from her chair. We now see a young girl “swimming” through an empty space and eventually enter a white sandy beach on a windy day. It’s Emily, in a much younger exterior. She runs around the beach for a while. She writes her name in the sand, plays cat-and-mouse with the waves, spots for boats, and fishes for gold by the shore. At the same moment when she was extracting a gold coin out of the water, she returns to her chair, having pulled out the chunk of biscuit in the tea. Then, her caretaker checks on her and finds the tea has gone cold. The thing about nostalgia is that it has the ability to blur someone’s awareness of time and space, therefore losing their sense of reality.
Late Afternoon captures a wonderful way of conceptualizing someone’s experience of escaping consciousness, by imagining them flowing through a realm similar to a space between dimensions. The style of animation is presented in a manner of continuous flow, almost as if symbolizing how time keeps on moving, and does not wait for anyone. Emily is almost never shown to escape her nostalgic episodes voluntarily, instead she is always being pulled away from the memories and forced back into reality. She is constantly thrown into moments in time, but restricted of the possibilities of slowing down, speeding up, or pausing.
If we look at how Emily remembers her life, it says a lot about how the memories that stay with us the most are not always the big events; instead the small, day-to-day moments can remain as well. It is profound how in a limited amount of time, this film is able to explore vivid themes of love and loss. Emily’s memories that are shown to us are related to either one of those two, or sometimes both. We know that — in a way — love and loss contradict each other, but at the same time they can be complementary and seen in a cyclical nature: after love comes loss, but after loss also comes love.
Late Afternoon shows that when time and our bodies are not reliable to turn to, or return to, we can count on the things around us — just like Emily’s belongings — to serve as a reminder of who we are.
Shame is a perpetual feeling often associated with poverty. In a world where independent capitalist endeavours are so highly praised and defining of one’s worth, those lacking in such ventures are often left feeling worthless. Those who ask for financial help are called ‘freeloaders’ or ‘lazy.’ Even though it’s a system built to keep those at the bottom remaining at the bottom, it leaves those in need feeling humiliated and ashamed when they cannot securely provide for themselves. This feeling of remorse is worsened even more when you consider the responsibility of taking care of a child. Not only is your already-stretched budget now splitting at the seams to cover your beloved offspring, but you’re responsible for explaining to a child as to why exactly they’ve inherited such a bad lot in life. There’s a crushing and frustrating guilt that comes with knowing your child is not being provided with the best possible start in life—regardless of how hard you try.
Both Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018) offer up insight into the struggle of trying to raise a child in poverty. How wanting to promise your child the world conflicts with the unlikelihood of being able to follow through on such promises. Having to face the reality of doing things for money that one would never want their child to do, just to keep your head above water. All while trying to disguise your child from the harsh realities of life. It’s a dizzying and exasperating tight-walk of morality and being realistic about the world—one that sometimes requires delusional wishful thinking just to keep you and your child sane.
“I loved that”, said my friend after our screening of Love, Simon finished. The lights were coming up, ‘Aflie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ was playing over scrapbook style credits. She had been babbling since they started rolling. Her face was a portrait of the film we just watched, eyes red and puffy, mouth in a wide grin. “I loved that so much, I can’t wait to see it again”. I agreed. Love, Simon was easy to love. I wanted to see it again. And see it again I did, three more times in fact, and each with the same amount of joy.
Love, Simon is by all measures a crushingly average film. It is about as cliched as a high-school, coming-of-age, romance film can be. That’s what, in my mind at least, makes it so good. Prior to Love, Simon I had felt that while queer experiences had been depicted well in film, it was normally reserved for awards season or indie films. When queerness was in the mainstream it was usually packaged for heterosexual audiences rather than being for the queer community – 2013’s GBF sticks out as prime example of this.
While this had been improving, 2016 and 2017 certainly saw queer films pushed further into the mainstream with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name respectively, much of the press surrounding the latter sought to detract from the queerness. With two white male leads in an otherwise common love story its only unique factor to me seemed to be the queerness – yet efforts were made to detract from this queerness, with the film frequently being touted as a ‘universal’ love story.
For Love, Simon to be as average as it was while simply letting its protagonist be queer was nice. “Everyone deserves a great love story” ran the tagline. I wouldn’t call Love, Simon exceptionally great but the queer community was finally getting a middling high-school romance and that did feel great. It felt great because it felt normal – we were finally being treated as normal. Love, Simon seemed special considering that 2018 was year where many films with queer narratives fell into the same clichés of queer cinema past. From these films, Boy Erased sticks out to me as the most egregious example.
Where Love, Simon was focused on the future, Boy Erased was trapped in the past. The story of Jared (Lucas Hedges) is one that we have seen before multiple times, from the 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader to this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which tells the conversion therapy narrative with far more delicacy and emotion than Boy Erased).
Examinations of masculinity are most interesting when viewed either through the female or gay male gaze as we have seen so little of this perspective in the context of the history of cinema. When women do get the opportunity to direct, they frequently, and completely understandably, focus on female protagonists, personal themes and coming-of-age stories. However, when they do turn their lens on a male protagonist, fresh insights can be brought and new truths revealed, through the objectivity of an ‘outsider.’
In Beach Rats (2017), director Eliza Hittman and cinematographer Helene Louvart closely follow Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a young man from Brooklyn who is wrestling with his sexuality. In Lazzaro Felice (2018), director Alice Rohrwacher and cinematographer Louvart (again) tell the story of gentle tobacco farmer Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) in two halves; one in the summery, rural setting of the farm in Italy and then secondly in the cold city. The secondary character of the Marquise’s son, Tancredi provides a counterpoint to Lazzaro’s highly unusual brand of masculinity.