A Summer of Cinema

Although the summer is synonymous with the next round of blockbusters, now itself inextricable from the superhero genre, this is never fully the case. This summer, just like any other, there were multitudes of movies released from all genres. What follows is a record of what happened inside Edinburgh’s cinemas since our last issue, niftily arranged into three strands: the movies of the multiplex, those that flitted between venues, and those that occupied the arthouse.

If there was a unifying tendency of the movies in the multiplex this summer, it was that of overloading. Nick Pinkerton of Film Comment refers to this trend as ‘Le Cinéma du Glut, and his formulation manifested itself in a surprising number of ways in relation to the movies of the last few months. Although Pinkerton’s phrase was thought up in response to Ready Player One, it can be applied to the three major franchise movies of the summer, which all suffered from one form or another of overloading: Avengers: Infinity War, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Mission Impossible: Fallout.

Avengers overloaded its cast to an exasperating degree. Throwing the full roster of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) heroes into a single perfunctory storyline resulted in an episodic narrative, burdened rather than enlivened by every character it had to visit. Marvel have made some good pictures (this year’s Black Panther for one), but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the spectacle is becoming more and more hollow, and it may fade away into ash before we know it. Conversely, the sequel to Jurassic World was as dull as the last movie, up until it reached a conclusion, and decided to rearrange the ecological structure of the Earth all for the sake of a plot point.

Mission Impossible: Fallout is a special case, as its overload was part of why it became one of summer’s critical hits. In the case of this movie it’s the action and stuntwork that moved so many critics to garland it with effusive reviews. But beyond the impressiveness of some sequences, it’s running on empty. Cruise is all verb; he jumps, he runs, he rides, he drives, he flies. But, unfortunately, the PR machine for Mission Impossible got to viewers before the movie did. Sequences stopped being about what they were designed to show, but more about the fact that Cruise himself did the stunt in question.

In some moments, there is indeed the furious energy some viewers have argued for: the Paris motorbike chase, for example. But even then there’s a contradiction. In the action sequences, there’s an improvisatory feel, as though Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is solving obstacles as they come; except, later, it’s all revealed to be part of the plan. These two facts are at odds which other, and the image of the invincible Cruise besting his foes at every turn destroys the stakes of the drama.

But those are just three movies; it wasn’t all bad in the multiplex. Tully, written by Diablo Cody and starring Charlize Theron, is a movingly honest tale of a mother’s emotional life, even if its handling of neurodivergence isn’t the most sensitive. Ocean’s 8 utilised the architecture of the heist movie to diverting and pleasurable effect. Incredibles 2 swung in fourteen years after the original with a gorgeously animated and delightful continuation of the Parr family’s story. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again did so much, with such a raucous sense of fun. (It’s reviewed in the following pages.)

Then there are those movies which played in both Edinburgh’s multiplexes and arthouses. Hereditary was one, Ari Aster’s feature debut, a horror in which Toni Collette’s Annie tries to keep her family together in the wake of strange happenings since her mother’s death. For its first hour, Aster’s attentive direction and the arresting, slow-moving cinematography hinted at this movie being some kind of masterpiece. It follows the careful work of the opening half with some genre-typical nonsense and tipping the visual style over from intense to exhausted. Another was First Reformed, an ascetic and austere picture, directed by Paul Schrader. The digital images, with their shadows of impenetrable depth, are a brilliant visualisation of the despair felt by Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a minister at a small church, who’s asked to speak to the husband of congregation member Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who thinks it immoral to bring their unborn child into a world of environmental decline.

The arthouse enjoyed a largely prosperous summer. It wasn’t all good: Godard Mon Amour and L’amant Double made sure of that. But it was full of highlights. Ruminative beauty could be found in Andrew Haigh’s latest Lean on Pete, Valeska Grisebach’s slow and observational drama Western, Debra Granik’s heartbreaking Leave No Trace, Carla Simon’s Summer 1993, and Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians. But films of other temperaments were accommodated as well: The exuberant Jeune Femme, the lovely Hearts Beat Loud, the sweeping and lovelorn Cold War, and the endearing pathos of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda all shared screens with one another.

It’s also worth mentioning a summer’s worth of re-releases have been and gone, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), two Joan Crawford pictures in Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Women (1939), Jane Campion’s The Piano (1996), and a selection of films by Agnès Varda, whose Faces Places is weeks away from distribution. (Moral of the story: Edinburgh Filmhouse loves us, and we must love it, too.)

Yet, there’s a film missing from this list, and it’s the best film of the summer, and possibly, the year so far. It’s missing for a definite reason; because it only played one day, for one screening, in one cinema. Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library is the newest documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a filmmaker who exposes the idea of the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary for the lie that is. Ex-Libris charts the daily life of the New York Public Library’s existence in all its guises; from its main branch on 5th Avenue (with the lions) to its smallest incarnations. Wiseman is a master in the subtle critique of institutions. In one juxtaposition, he goes from a board meeting of the library’s executives using a vague corporate language to a small branch in Harlem, in which a room full of persons of colour raise objections to a McGraw Hill textbook, which claims that slaves came willingly to America to work the land. The genius of that; a group of people trying to truthfully rewrite their own histories on the library’s shelves.

The film is like life; it mixes extremes together so that they become inseparable. One moment is joyous: a picture archive, a public talk, an absorbed child reading seriously, people quietly milling about and learning; the next is devastating: a close-up of a man reading about a cancer screening on one of the computers, a homeless person using the room for warmth before they’re asked to leave, a job fair full of wearied faces. That his vision can encompass all of this and more exemplifies Ex-Libris as a miracle of sympathy and nuance.

Image: Kim Traynor via Geograph

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