Parky At the Pictures (13/8/2021)
(Reviews of I'm Your Man; M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity; and WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn)
Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
I'M YOUR MAN.
Hanoverian writer-director Maria Schrader is quietly making a name for herself. Having debuted with Love Life (2007), she followed her sophomore feature, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (2016), by winning a Primetime Emmy for the Netflix series, Unorthodox (2020). She returns to the big screen with I'm Your Man, a free adaptation of a post-Stepford short story by Emma Braslavsky that was originally destined for German television.
Alma (Maren Eggert) is researching the poetics of ancient administrative texts at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. However, she has also been persuaded by Dean Roger (Falilou Seck) to participate in an artificial intelligence trial. This means liaising with a functionary of the Terrareca robotics company (Sandra Hüller) at a nightclub filled with revelling holograms to meet Tom (Dan Stevens), who has been designed and programmed to be her perfect companion.
She is taken aback by the way he touches her hand and bombards him with quick-fire questions to check his intellectual capacity after being disappointed by the triteness of a compliment about mountain pools. Alma is even more alarmed when Tom malfunctions on the dance floor during a rumba. However, her contact assures her that the fault will be fixed and Alma must wish the same could be true in the case of her father, Felser (Wolfgang Hübsch), who is suffering from dementia.
Returning to the club that night, Alma amuses herself by passing her hand through the holograms. However, she unintentionally taps Tom on the shoulder and they leave together to begin the three-week trial. In the car, he explains that he has been wired to respond to her reactions and will soon work out what pleases her. But he quizzically cocks his head when he discovers that he has been placed in the spare room and adopts the hint of a wry smile after Alma asks him to leave her alone after she wakes to find that he has tidied her apartment.
Having restored the order to chaos, Tom checks that Alma isn't interested in a romantic relationship before promising to do his best not to annoy her for the remainder of their time together. Yet, despite the advanced nature of his system, Tom struggles to understand why a couple in a coffee shop would want to laugh at online clips of people making fools of themselves. Having waited in the rain for Alma to collect him after the café closes, Tom also misjudges her attitude to having a bath drawn for her with candles, rose petals, strawberries and champagne. Puzzled as to why she would be in the 7% who wouldn't enjoy this, Tom takes the bath himself and strides naked back to his room, while Alma watches ants scurrying on the balcony as she smokes.
The next morning, she wakes to find Tom making coffee for her ex, Julian (Hans Löw), who also works at the museum and has come to collect a picture from the wall before he moves in with Steffi (Henriette Richter-Röhl). Alma smiles as Tom passes himself off as a colleague from London and uses his intel to blind Julian with information about cuneiform. Still in her shower towel, she even allows herself to peep over the balcony to watch them carry the picture to Julian's car and rewards Tom for his handling of the situation by allowing him to come to the Pergamon.
As she is close to publishing a groundbreaking text, Alma lets Cora (Inga Busch) show Tom around the office. However, as he looks at a piece of Akkadian stone, his memory bank alights upon a work by an Argentine scholar that will pip Alma's to publication. She is distraught and isn't consoled when Tom suggests she shouldn't be crying egotistical tears because the two pieces of research will expand human knowledge.
Having got drunk in a bar, Alma asks Tom why he never does anything surprising. She tries to provoke anger by throwing a glass of wine in his face and by taunting him about his sexual mechanisms. But he remains phlegmatic and puts her to bed because he doesn't feel in the mood for intercourse. The next morning, Alma gets into a panic when she can't find Tom. However, he has merely popped out to buy pastries, as the company rep is coming to check on his progress. When Alma discovers she's also a robot, she insults her and Tom is forced to concede she's not the poster girl for his kind.
They visit Felser on his birthday and Tom is pleased to meet Alma's sister, Cora (Annika Meier), and her young son. He is delighted that Tom is a robot and the siblings speculate about whether Tom was the boy they had a crush on during a summer holiday in Denmark. When they go for a walk, Tom and Alma invent a backstory (as the factory bot had suggested on their second night) and they seem pleased with their meet cute at a Copenhagen symposium.
On waking from a nap, Alma searches the woods for Tom and is touched to see a herd of deer milling around him with no fear. He coaxes her into running barefoot across the meadow and she whoops at the sheer silliness of the situation. That night, they attend Julian and Steffi's housewarming and Alma chides Roger for treating Tom like a machine. However, she is crushed when he catches Steffi in a faint and reveals when they get home that she and Julian lost a child and she feels he will forget when he becomes a father. Tom understands her pain, but can't comprehend why she allows herself to be defined by her loss and the fear she will grow old and alone like her father.
She goes outside to clear her head and follows Tom when he comes looking for her. They wind up at the museum, where he questions why her atheism would prevent her from praying if her plane was about to crash. He also wonders why she makes so much of the differences between them, They kiss and return to the apartment to make love and Tom is curious to know why Alma feels an orgasm is like dissolving and becoming part of a greater entity.
Next morning, Alma raises an eyebrow at Tom's snoring. But she feels foolish about pulling the covers over him and making him a boiled egg because he's not human. Explaining that she feels she is acting for an audience of herself, Alma informs Tom that the experiment is over and asks him to leave, even though she is distressed by the idea that his chip will be wiped and he could well be dismantled. Watching him from the balcony, she considers running after him, but knows the doubts will always be there.
Driving to see Felser, Alma is appalled to find him wandering in the woods after being beaten by thieves. She snaps at the cop who says there was nothing of value to steal when the flat is full of her father's mementos. But life must go on and Alma resumes her routine. She bumps into a man she had presumed was a hologram at the club and listens as she gushes about the sense of acceptance and contentment he feels with his female robot.
When she comes to write her report, however, Alma tells Roger not to support the partners for life programme, as humans who depend on their robots will cease to function effectively with their own kind. Nevertheless, when she learns that Tom has not returned to the factory, she drives to the Danish coast and finds him waiting by the ping-pong table where she had met Thomas during her adolescent summers. He has walked all the way and had been prepared to wait until she came. As she lies on the table with her eyes closed reminiscing about the innocent kiss that never came, the screen cuts to black.
Although the faint echoes of Susan Seidelman's Making Mr Right (1987) and Spike Jonze's Her (2013) might make some think that Maria Schrader's third feature is just another manufactured romantic drama, it's actually a thoughtful dissertation on identity, self-worth, acceptance, sexual ethics and the intricate complexities of human emotion. But Schrader and co-scenarist Jan Schomberg also find room to explore the lessons taught by ancient civilisations, the legacy we will leave for future generations, the pros and cons of technology as we approach the singularity, and the fragility of a treasured memory.
Thanks to the sublime playing of Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens, this is also a delightful comedy of manners, as an academic who has steeled herself against feeling again after losing her child tries to resist the charms of a structure of metal and algorithms that is open to feeling as well as learning and experiencing. Watch their eyes, as they say so much in the silences. But listen out for the witty barbs that are all the more amusing because their so insouciant and deftly timed. Even the soundtrack cracks gags, such as when Alma enters the club to the strains of `Putting on the Ritz', which one hopes is a sly reference to Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974).
Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfeis captures some nice views of Berlin, while production designer Cora Pratz's makes adept use of cavernous museum galleries and bijou high-rise apartments. But the look of the film is less intriguing than its themes and the pithily poignant way in which they are considered, as Schrader confirms Alma's thesis by finding poetry in unexpected places.
M.C. ESCHER: JOURNEY TO INFINITY.
You have to admire the honesty of a film-maker who opens a documentary about the Dutch artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher, with the typed declaration: `I am afraid there is only one person in the world who could make a good film about my prints; me.' But, while he may not have been his subject's first choice for the assignment, Robin Lutz makes a darn good job of tracing a distinctive career in M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, which draws on a range of print sources for the informative, if occasionally florid narration provided by Stephen Fry.
Born in the magnificent Princessehof in Leeuwarden on 17 June 1898, Escher was raised by wealthy parents in Arnhem. A sickly child, he spent time in a sanatorium and sought solace in his art classes. In 1919, he enrolled at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts, where his talent for woodcuts was spotted by tutor Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. Yet, he sometimes found it difficult to summon the enthusiasm for work, especially after he realised that finished pieces would rarely match the vision in his mind's eye.
As the organist at St Bavo Church in Haarlem plays Johann Sebastian Bach's `Toccata and Fugue in D Minor', Fry reads Escher's description of the swirling sound of the music whipping him into the air, as the booming notes bend the very fabric of the stonework. Lutz uses special effects to elongate pillars and pipes before sending a top-hatted skull scudding through the clouds, as Escher revealing a grim diagnosis that prompted him to travel through Italy and Spain for his health in 1922.
He ruminates on the blueness of the sky, as he tries to improve his drawing skills. However, he is frustrated by the complexity of rendering the simple beauty of plants and rocks, while the flower displays almost make him regret not using colour. While staying in Ravello, however, Escher falls for Jetta Umiker, who had witnessed untold horrors during the Russian Revolution, and his gratitude at her loving him inspires a vow to try and make her happy.
Now 92, George Escher recalls how his parents married in Viareggio in 1924 and settled in Rome, where Escher liked to sketch at night because the darkness took the edge off the Baroque fripperies that he felt marred the architecture. A slide show follows of some of these etchings, as George reminisces about the wonderful smell of the printing ink. When he was about 10, however, his parents decided to leave Italy because George was becoming a bit too influenced by Benito Mussolini's Fascist propaganda.
Having secured a passage for the family to Valencia, Escher toured Spain and was so blown away by the decorative designs of the Alhambra that he developed a lifelong fascination with the mathematics of tessellation. While he admired the logic of patterns made from geometric shapes, Escher wondered why the Moors were so against using birds, fish, reptiles and human when he felt the need to incorporate elements from Nature into his own concepts that relied heavily on recognisability.
As Escher couldn't abide snow, the prospect of spending a prolonged period in Switzerland didn't appeal and 80 year-old Jan Escher remembers the family relocating to Belgium. By now, however, the peace of Europe was being jeopardised by Adolf Hitler and Escher was forced to draw on his own imagination, as travel became increasingly difficult.
Inspired by his brother, he studied crystallography and he started to explore the idea of `endlessness within a limited plane'. In `Cycle' (1938), he uses variations on a diamond shape to show jolly men running down a series of steps before the design turns into a sequence of tessellations. Later the same year, he repeated this circularity in `Day and Night', which depicts birds flying over a country village. He notes somewhat dejectedly that friends don't share his fascination with his new direction and, with items like `Development III' (1939), he comes to question whether such visualisations of mathematical principle even count as art at all.
Early in the film, musician Graham Nash had revealed that Escher had dubbed himself a mathematician rather than an artist when he had called him as a fan in the mid-1960s. He had been baffled by his appeal to the counterculture and admitted to being annoyed by the fact that they took his designs and colourised them without seeking his permission.
As a lizard slithers away from a corner of `Development III', Escher via Fry explains how he started playing associational thinking games as a child and he concedes that his images are based on the same principles. The best way to show how these elisions work would be through the medium of film, but he suspects there would be no audience for his kind of animation (even as Lutz speculates how it might have looked) as the regulation would bore people to tears.
In an aside, he commends Walt Disney on Mickey Mouse and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but hopes that animation will eventually become a means of expressing more complex ideas and images. In fact, avant-gardists like Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Man Ray and others had been producing abstract animations since the 1920s and New Zealander Len Lye's 1930s shorts for the General Post Office echoed some of the theories that Escher would later espouse.
Forced to move to Baarn in The Netherlands, Escher spent the war watching artistic freedoms being eroded. He made his protest by resigning his various memberships, but was powerless to prevent Mesquita from being rounded-up in the middle of the night during the Hunger Winter of 1944. Escher managed to rescue around 200 prints from his mentor's ransacked studio, but the `birds of despair' continued to fly above him `on slow wings'.
Escher devoted himself to finding food and protecting his wife and three sons. But Jetta's mental health declined, as future daughter-in-law Liesbeth Escher-Hogenhout recalls. Escher himself cut an isolated figure, as he returned to his studio to produce such dissertations on mortality as `The Eye' and reflective pieces like `Three Spheres' (both 1946). He continued to find fault with what he considered his limited talent and encapsulated his struggle in `Drawing Hands' (1948), which almost seems like a product of his bloody-minded refusal to give up until he had satisfied his demanding standards.
In 1954, Time Life journalist Israel Shenker came to interview Escher and apologised that he couldn't offer a fee. But the publication sparked global interest and George remembers how the family didn't have to struggle any longer. Three years earlier, Escher had realised while riding his bicycle that God had forgotten to invent the wheel and devised a creature which he dubbed `Curl Up' or `Pedalternorotandomovens centroculatus articulosus' to rectify the situation.
Another masterpiece from this time was `Relativity' (1953), which muses on the lack of contact between people with things in common despite having no concept of each other's existence. Having produced a portrait of Jetta in `Rind' (1955), Escher disliked the fact that the shape had definitive starting and ending points and he reworked the image with a self-portrait to show the figure intertwining in `Bond of Union' (1956).
Bach's music became an increasingly inspiration in the postwar period and Escher recalls the journey around the world that he took in his mind while listening to `The St Matthew Passion' in Naarden Church. He also enthuses about the fact that a man views an image containing himself regarding the same picture in `Print Gallery (1956), which he suggests was influenced by Albert Einstein's idea of a curved universe. Lutz indulges in some camera contortions to take the audience into the heart of the image and its cunning concept. But these periodic flights of fancy on the part of the director feel self-indulgent and prove more irksome than illuminating.
Frustrated that people didn't understand what he was trying to express in `Smaller & Smaller' (1956), Escher found a like mind in Canadian mathematician Donald Coxeter after seeing his design, `Figure 7'. While he may not have been interested in the theoretical `hocus-pocus' behind the image, Escher devoted himself to achieving the `miraculous beauty' of a circular regular tessellation that was logically bounded on all sides by the infinitesimal. As Lutz's camera roves across sketches, Gustav Holst's `I Vow to Thee My Country' swells on the soundtrack leading to the revelation of `Circle Limit I' (1958).
As the disc spins the birds in the image, Lutz elides into `Circle Limit III' (1959), a rare colour piece depicting fish that gives way to the bats in `Circle Limit IV' (1960). Escher considered these visualisations of infinity to be a milestone in his development. However, their reception left him feeling adrift, as he was neither a scientist nor an artist and he found the fact that increasingly few people understood his aims depressing.
He started working on `Ascending and Descending' (1960) and was transfixed by the solemnity and absurdity of the statement it made. While taking a cargo ship to address a conference of crystallographers in the US, Escher reconnected with the marvels of the sea and sky and the unfathomable power of gravity. In 1962, however, he discovered he had colon cancer and George notes that he worked less as he recovered from a series of operations. But Jetta's decision to move to a home near George in Switzerland removed a burden of responsibility, even as it separated him from the soulmate who would outlive him.
A problem with which Escher never came to terms, however, was the increasing volume of post he received. Fingers bash stubbily on typewriter keys, as he composes a letter declining Mick Jagger's request to design an album cover and reminding the singer that he doesn't have the right to address him as Maurits.
As mentioned at the outset, Escher had nothing but contempt for the reprinting of works like `Tower of Babel' (1928), `Palm' (1933) and `Three Spheres I' (1945) in fluorescent coloured inks. But Graham Nash counters that people of his generation owe Escher a great debt, as he taught them with images like `Snakes' (1969) to look anew and more deeply. Yet, as an old man, Escher lamented the fact that he had to content himself with revisiting old designs, as he no longer had the energy to create new material. He regretted the fact his prints largely failed because he could never convey his inner vision. But he took some comfort from the fact that while most artists pursue beauty, he had attempted to capture wonder.
Following the caption, `I could fill a second life with my work,' this demanding, but rewarding documentary concludes with a crash montage of Escher images accompanied by Sky's 1980 rendition of `Toccata'. It might have been even more challenging had Lutz delved more deeply into the maths side of Escher's art. But, perhaps, we should be grateful that we are spared the denser theories of Donald Coxeter and Roger Penrose about Escher's use of geometry and tessellation, as there is already an awful lot of biographical and aesthetic information to take in.
Yet, more might have been said about Escher's legacy beside Nash's conviction that his influence will grow as the world gets crazier. A couple of objective contributions from art critics might also not have gone amiss, if only to fill us in on the artists who had left an impression on the young Escher. But the feature's biggest flaw is its cavalier attitude to identifying the works it's supposed to be celebrating.
We have been so spoilt by the good folks at Exhibition on Screen that we have now come to expect art films to label and date images so that viewers can judge the evolution of a style and/or technique without having to resort to online search engines every 30 seconds. Frustratingly, Lutz is more interested in the visceral visual effect of Escher's images than in identifying them, especially lesser-known early items like `Seated Man With a Cat on His Lap' (1919) and `Self-Portrait in a Chair' (1920). This rather reduces his film's value as an academic resource, even though Moek de Groot's slick editing ensures it remains a riveting watch.
The musical accompaniment is first rate throughout, although Stephen Fry's voiceover takes a little getting used to, as it doesn't seem a natural match for the bearded fellow in `Self-Portrait' (1923) and the splendid archive footage. However, Fry amuses in the more dyspeptic passages and when Escher bashes out retorts to those who consider his work `a mish-mash that lacks all profoundness' by proudly averring that `it is and remains the game of a child. And sensible people are welcome to consider it trivial.' After watching this, welcome and long-overdue profile, however, few will be able to draw that conclusion with any real conviction.
WeWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 BILLION UNICORN.
Critics see hundreds of films each year and occasionally find themselves confronted with something that really isn't their cup of tea. Over the last 36 years, this correspondent has always tried to give everything a fair crack of the whip, even when the content falls way outside his purview. But both the subject matter of and the key players in Jed Rothstein's WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn feel so alien to the everyday experience of someone who has spent the last two decades being pretty much housebound that the prospect of watching it felt as enticing as being trapped in a lift with Alex Ferguson, Michael McIntyre and Katie Hopkins.
Imagine the surprise, therefore, dear reader, when it became clear that there was another reason why it would not be possible to review this documentary in the customary manner. Not because the content was dull or detaching, but because a personal deficiency in the command of language would entail that anything written would convey such contempt for the principals and their modus operandi that lawsuits would almost inevitably follow. Suffice to say, there are now two more people this reviewer wouldn't want to be stuck in a lift with.
So, thank you Jed Rothstein and your excellent contributors for teaching many lessons in exposing the evil despicability of capitalism with such clarity and precision. Apologies that this isn't the appraisal such a compelling and pretty much unmissable film deserves. Instead, may we recommend that it is watched in a double bill with Hilary Powell and Daniel Edelstyn's Bank Job, which may not be perfect, but at least it shows what genuinely trying to change the world looks like.