Film in Oxford: 14th – 20th June

Oxford is well known for its abundance of musical, artistic, literary and theatrical events, but rarely is film given the same level of attention. The most modern of the arts, film – along with popular music and mainstream literature – has frequently been relegated to ‘low culture’, as the mass-production that cinema generally necessitates is perceived to compromise any artistic merit. This column aims to partially restore both of these imbalances, by addressing film as an art form (rather than as a disposable commodity), and by promoting and celebrating Oxford’s thriving film scene. Although this week’s column focuses on Oxford’s cinemas, future columns will hopefully include student-run film showings and standalone filmic events, such as the recent Hacked Off screening of Black Swan. Each week the column will provide a brief overview of the films showing over the course of the following week (Friday to Thursday).

There are few cases in which the tension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture is more evident than in popular bastardisations of classical music, and there has been no classical crossover act with a greater predilection for grandiosity and glamour than the American pianist Liberace, the focus of Steven Soderbergh’s new film Behind the Candelabra (Phoenix Picturehouse from June 14th). Liberace’s showmanship and absorption of popular styles led to a wildly successful career spanning four decades, and he became known for incorporating gimmicks into his routine, from audience interaction to elaborate stage decorations (such as the candelabra of the film’s title). Behind the Candelabra delves into the man behind the act, charting the excesses of both Liberace’s stage life and his personal life. Even the title drips with kitsch, and suitably reflects Michael Douglas’s portrayal of the pianist’s peacock image.

The title Behind the Candelabra does not just refer to Liberace’s fondness of glitz, however, but also to the eponymous memoirs of Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson, played here by Matt Damon. It is the relationship between the two men, rather than Liberace’s career, that forms the foundation of Behind the Candelabra. As he did in last year’s Magic Mike – in which the titular character mentors a teenage male stripper – Soderbergh depicts the destructive influence that a role model can have. Liberace shares with Thorson his lust for decadence – be it alcohol, drugs or fashion – and attempts not only to shape Thorson’s lifestyle, but also his looks, pushing him to take diet pills and undergo plastic surgery. The farce and horror of the couple’s dynamic is best displayed by a scene in which, indicating how he wishes Thorson to look post-surgery, Liberace unveils a portrait of his younger self. Despite major studios’ reluctance to back the film due to the same-sex relationship at the core of its plot, Behind the Candelabra is essentially a film about passive abusive relationships, regardless of sexual orientation. As the title implies, there is a more serious message lurking beyond the film’s dazzling exterior.

Liberace’s materialist mantra, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” could just as well have come from the mouth of fictional character Jay Gatsby or director Baz Luhrmann. Given the gaudy theatricality present in Moulin Rouge! and in parts of Romeo + Juliet, it was no surprise when Luhrmann was revealed to be at the helm for the latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. The Great Gatsby (Phoenix Picturehouse from June 14th) shares many themes with Behind the Candelabra: both initially revel in extravagance, fame and fortune, but ultimately warn against its shallowness and inability to ensure happiness. Luhrmann had already shown with Romeo & Juliet that he had a penchant for infusing the old – he (more or less) kept Shakespeare’s original text – with the new (the modernised setting and the soundtrack), and the same is the case with The Great Gatsby. The Jazz Age of the 1920s was contemporary to Fitzgerald at the time of writing, and was emblematic – both to himself and to readers – of the American Dream, but Luhrmann ‘updates’ the setting in order to speak even louder to a modern audience. The parties are bigger still, and the jazz is blended with pop: the viewers of his film are living in the ‘Hip-Hop Age’ (Luhrmann’s own words) and the soundtrack, with contributions by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and many others, reflects this. Again, the tension between the creative and the commercial is evident, and many critics will doubtlessly accuse Luhrmann of pandering to a young audience. Either way, the director offers a stylistic reimagining of Fitzgerald’s classic novel rather than adhering unfalteringly to it.

From one Great American Novelist to another, and Jeff Nichols’ third film, Mud (Ultimate Picture Palace from June 14th). Although – unlike Behind the Candelabra and The Great GatsbyMud is not a straight-up adaptation of a memoir or novel, it is a conscious distillation of the storytelling of Mark Twain. In the film, two teenage boys exploring the Mississippi River stumble across Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive wanted for the murder of a man who impregnated and abused his ex-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Despite his criminal past, the boys choose to keep their friendship with Mud secret. Beyond the obvious geographical ties, Mud shares with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn a childlike notion of adventurous escape, and by centring the film on the children’s characters Ellis and Neckbone, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland, Nichols shows the action from their perspective. The escape that their friendship with Mud allows is counterbalanced by everyday drama that they face, from personal insecurity to parents’ marital problems. Nichols has openly admired Twain’s ability to ‘bottle’ childhood, and Mud aims to imitate that feat, highlighting not only the excitement and imagination that childhood brings, but also its many personal traumas. Just as Luhrmann envisioned a Gatsby for Generation Y, Nichols here reinterprets Twain’s characters in the context of the twenty-first century.

The Ultimate Picture Palace regularly holds fundraising screenings for local charities, and their next is I am Nasrine  [2012] (Mon. 17th, 6.30pm), held on behalf of Asylum Welcome to mark the start of Refugee Week. I am Nasrine follows two Iranians, sister and brother Nasrine and Ali, as they are ordered by their father to move to the UK. The film explores the difficulties of adapting to a new culture, and the desire for a sense of belonging and being in the world. As well as migration, I am Nasrine tackles other sensitive issues, such as 9/11, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Another film showing this week, Piercing Brightness [2012] (Phoenix Picturehouse, Mon. 17th, 6.30pm), also confronts issues of race and identity, though it adopts a very different approach. Whereas I am Nasrine focuses on everyday human interaction, Piercing Brightness uses sci-fi tropes to create an allegorical meditation on the notion of identity itself, questioning race as a fixed concept. Directed by mixed-media artist Shezad Dawood, the film features two (extraterrestrial) children who are sent to Earth to retrieve the ‘Glorious 100’, beings in human form that were sent in order to enable the observation of the development of the human race. Upon arrival, the children (depicted here as Chinese) come across one of the 100, now a Pakistani shopkeeper. They find that the ‘Glorious 100’ have become immersed within – and influenced by – human society, and have forgotten their original purpose. Both films are concerned with issues of absorption into a community, and with the fluctuation of fluidity and rigidity with which cultural and racial boundaries are defined. The showing times of I am Nasrine and Piercing Brightness, unfortunately, clash directly, but either can be recommended as an example of provocative filmmaking.

The Malmaison hotel in Oxford Castle recently began its six-week partnership with Cult Screens, and will be screening films at their rooftop cinema on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of each week until mid-July. The next three films to be featured are: Amélie [2001], a charming and quirky French comedy (Friday 14th June); action blockbuster The Terminator [1984] (Saturday 15th June); and Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’s classic romance [1942] (Thursday 20th June).

Also showing in Oxford between the 14th-20th June are: live streams of Shakespeare’s Henry V from The Globe (Phoenix, Friday 14th) and Verdi’s opera Falstaff from Glyndebourne (Phoenix, Monday 17th); English romance drama Summer in February (Phoenix); Danish thriller A Hijacking (UPP); graffiti comedy Gimme the Loot (UPP); Shane Meadows’ documentary The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Phoenix); Oscar-winning hustler drama Midnight Cowboy [1969] (Phoenix, Mon. 17th); road trip comedy It Happened One Night [1934] (UPP); and Man of Steel, the latest addition to the Superman franchise (Odeon George St & Odeon Magdalen St).

J. Wadsworth

The day of showing is given for a film when there is only one screening between the 14th-20th June; all other films mentioned will be screened at least twice during this time. Any cinema listings given were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change or cancellation. All films were released in 2013 unless stated otherwise.

For up-to-date listings and to book tickets please follow these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St; Malmaison Rooftop Cinema. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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