Just make something up! Tales of tall tales and parables for our times (KVIFF 2022)
P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Karlovy Vary 2022: Liar! Liar! Pants on fire! Why doesn’t somebody call him out? Well, his new chums have been hoodwinked; the old ones see no reason to state the blindingly obvious. For as liars go, this one is a master craftsman, a match for any Johnson or Trump or perhaps even Putin himself! The tragedy of the liar, not least a truly great one, is how familiarity – that merciless truth-teller – inevitably breeds contempt.
Jöns Jönsson’s Axiom (2022) is both a beautiful character-study and a compelling character-driven story. Indeed, the film is a heaving nest of stories. As soon as the protagonist, Julius, hears one, he adopts it as his own, repeats and embellishes. You could almost describe this film as The Story of Stories. It is also a sort of parable of our post-truth times.
Axiom opens with the workaday witnesses to art just going about their business, roaming the gallery, keeping an eye on things. Their job is to protect the integrity of these assembled attractions as the sacred objects of self-expression. They are not to be compromised, certainly not by clumsy patrons wielding prohibited eats and drinks. This enigmatic prelude quietly raises a question that only resonates fully by the end of the movie: Just how far will we go to nurture, defend and fulfil the creative human spirit? For one of these gallery custodians is himself one such human spirit – and this is his story.
What is great about this film as entertainment is the steady delivery of the quite unexpected: first, that the confident, charismatic Julius should turn out to be such an inveterate liar and, second, that the filmmaker refrains from delivering the usual, conventional warnings of the perils of mendacity. If you are hoping for the standard, salutary tale of the unnegotiable, axiomatic sanctity of Truth – with a capital ‘T’ – then you will be disappointed.
Axiom delivers that subtle, ineffable balance that is the mark of a good movie. In the journeys of Julius we encounter, on one side, the excruciating contortions of the dissembling misfit, and, on the other, the sheer, joyous exhilaration of an incorrigible con-artist on a roll. In all his outrageous infidelity, he provides a fascinating microcosm, in bold strokes, of the two irreducible dimensions of the human condition, the triumph and despair, the yin and the yang, the joyous creativity bursting from – but never entirely escaping – the cramping horizons of its empirical ground.
It takes an outlier to throw our everyday humanity into sharper relief. In this respect the film channels the spirit of Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, from 1988, and what I suspect is his deepest inspiration, Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets from 1949, the underrated prototype and flagship of the ‘Ealing Comedies’ of the 1950s. In short, Axiom rehearses, but also refreshes the palette, of that old cinematic favourite, the likeable rogue.
Estimations of the value of narrative vary considerably. There are certainly film buffs who set much greater store by a work’s visual poetics, for example. For my money, narrative is paramount. Yet by its very magnetism, a good story readily becomes a victim of its own success, cheapened by the very popularity the filmmaker may have wanted just a little too badly. Well, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! What the shameless blockbuster, so overeager to please, shares with a more serious ‘statement’ is the core of film as expression. This is the capacity to connect with a viewer, someone somewhere, at least, whoever it may be, and channel her desire. The goal, for good or ill, is cognitive, bodily, ineffably human, and you won’t get far without a strong narrative.
Social anthropologists may be sceptical to the very idea of cross-cultural universals, but they come close to conceding one where narrative is concerned. Stories can be heard – if not understood – just about anywhere. They may well be the nearest we come to an indelible facet of human nature. Their importance borders on the existential: How can we live without them? It is only by telling our own stories – at least to ourselves – that we manage to construct a sense of the integral, uninterrupted self, that essentially unchanging subject and protagonist of our more-or-less unwritten autobiographies. By their very ubiquity, stories nevertheless easily become tired – and tiresome – to the point of mind-numbing banality.
The history of cinema is sadly rife with bad examples, but a couple of decent efforts from the same festival may illustrate the narrative pitfalls as well as any. Neither was assisted by the choice of genre, one half-worn-out by its very pertinence to an age of profound disillusionment. Yes, it’s our old friend dystopia. Their narrative challenges thus begin with how to tell a post-apocalyptic story in a new and interesting way. They are Magdalena Lauritsch’s Rubikon and Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s Vesper, both released this year, both shown with some fanfare at KVIFF.
Both have merits, especially in their visual poetics and, indeed, the rhythm of the narrative dances they weave. There is an impressive visual realism here too, courtesy of some pretty high production values. They show the technical craft we typically associate with the deep pockets and wells of experience of the Hollywood studios. In short, they are highly competent works, both. Where they falter is at the level of narrative, the power and compulsion (led like the slaves of desire we are) of the story told. The product is in this sense much less compelling.
Of course, opinions will differ. Indeed, both films, and Vesper in particular, have received positive – if not rave – reviews. I have to accept that others’ suspended disbelief and misdirected desire will probably have been successfully engaged. Though I talk about the films and their narratives faltering, I am really talking about myself (as usual?): how I faltered, disengaged, and ultimately left the theatre feeling a little unsatisfied.
Rubikon takes up a promising albeit overworked theme. A motley crew of random survivors are washed up together somehow, somewhere, at the end of the world, in this case a space vessel orbiting a dying planet. The rubric here, pardon my pun, is the psychological drama. It’s tough to lose everything and everyone – save for these idiots! Then there are the impossible ethical choices entailed in trying to save something or someone from the planetary train wreck.
The standout example of this tiny subgenre, for my money, is the one played strictly for laughs, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s epic low-budget sci-fi sitcom series Red Dwarf (1988-). The sense of a strange and surely inadvertent reworking of that early masterpiece, stripped of any humour, probably did nothing for my experience. More importantly, neither script nor acting succeeded in adding sufficient nuance and colour to the story. Big life-and-death dilemmas seemed artificial; the characters insufficiently fleshed out to be emotionally engaging.
Vesper takes us – or me – a good deal further. The visual palette absolutely helps: a little more John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) meets the Mad Max franchise, and a little less Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). The story unfolds against a drab yet lush cyber-cum-biopunk backdrop. Indeed, the movie draws to good effect on some of the stylings of that giant among dystopias, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1981). The acting too is stronger. Together, visuals and characters help establish a sense of an imaginable and hence credible post-apocalyptic reality. ‘And then I go and spoil it all…’
There is always a danger the script will wilt under the weight and pace of an action-packed yarn of this kind. Too much has to happen way too fast; too many dangling plot threads (in the scriptwriter’s estimation at least) have to be satisfactorily stitched together in time for the thrilling dénouement. In the course of this daunting undertaking, our genius child biohacker heroine stretches our credulity – quite literally – to the ends of the Earth. (Plot spoiler ahead!) Are we really expected to feel genuine, well-grounded satisfaction when this 13-year-old, with a brain the size of Saturn by all accounts, pretty much saves the world with something she stitches together while fending off assaults on her makeshift hovel, assisted only by a computer or two, an assortment of super-duper biomaterials and more than a little duct tape?
Films like these show the perils of jumping too readily on a generic bandwagon. They also show us that it is not enough to tell a story. We need one that stands out and draw us in. We demand, each and every time, a yarn like no other – exquisitely told. We demand, in other words, what is virtually impossible. So full credit to the movie that sort of delivers! Full credit to the filmmaker who accepts the challenge, watches her instructions self-destruct, and goes to work! To be fair, these latest coming dystopias deserve some qualified praise for their efforts.
Axiom, on the other hand, comes exhilaratingly close to fulfilling its mission. Characters appear, their lives unfold, and their personalities take shape, but uncertainly, deceptively. We are thus intrigued: we want to know more; our desire is awakened. At first, we are charmed by Julius, confident, interesting Julius: he has the gift of the gab; he has clearly been around the block; he is probably lots of fun. Or then again… The plot progressively reveals the darker depths of character, the hidden flaws, certainly, but also the texture, the frailties that make someone human and, in the end, worth getting to know. We wouldn’t mind knowing Julius, even if we couldn’t trust him as far as we could throw him.
Such excavatory qualities parallel another standout production from the festival, Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland (2022). Pálmason digs down to a much deeper sort of darkness, however. We witness the trials and tribulations of a young priest as he treks across the barren landscape of 19th-century Iceland, to the remote community where his new church is already under construction. Step by painful step his character – warts and all – emerges from his torments, his vanities and his cruelties, which seem to echo the very harshness of the landscape. This feels like a brush with, at best, unvarnished human ugliness, at worst, pure evil.
The hallmark of a strong narrative is a sort of doubling effect. We experience events on one level, but as further developments transpire, new revelations alter our perspective. We remember, reflect, and see them afresh. This is the miracle of a sort of narrative Gestalt-switch. The new guy in town – or at the gallery – is Erik. He seems shy, maybe even a little slow, yet we, the spectators, soon begin to suspect him of hidden depths. It is Erik who takes the initiative to call the store at the marina to find lifejackets for the planned outing on Julius’s family yacht. Julius has rejected out of hand the possibility of managing without one. He of course has brutal first-hand experience of the dangers! Since there is no family yacht, the conveniently missing vital equipment takes on a whole new significance. We are thus prompted to reappraise Julius and his actions but also, in a more subtle way, quiet, unassuming Erik.
Still waters run deep, by all accounts, and Erik clearly doesn’t miss much. This is dramatically revealed when he unluckily shows up at the very moment Julius is weaving one more elaborate lie about his line of work. Without a blink of an eye Erik calmly and seamlessly adapts to the deception. He takes this in his stride because he knows all too well that Julius is a compulsive liar. Perhaps more surprisingly, he likes Julius all the same, and is willing to protect him. He reminds Julius – and us – how he defended him against the others on the ‘boat trip’ when they attacked his religious beliefs.
The more we learn about Erik, the more we learn about Julius too. The scope of his urge to invent lends itself to a certain generosity and tolerance. Naturally, he has an affinity for one of the grandest narratives of all, aka The Greatest Story Ever Told (see George Stevens’ film version, from 1965). Moreover, Julius himself is at heart a creator, which led him to chafe under the shackles of the mere custodian. He is almost bound to appreciate the concept of an ultimate creator.
Axiom may not be ‘the greatest story ever told’ but it is a rich potpourri of narrative layers, a sort of Russian doll to be unpacked, layer by layer. Within the cleverly constructed story of Julius is a series of substories, artfully told by the teller of all tales himself. In this way the visual narrative is leavened by the contrast and complement of the spoken word. We see directly events on-screen, but also more subtly, by unlocking our imaginations, events in the mind’s eye, as we listen to the words of our self-narrating con-artist antihero.
Great narrative certainly! But where is the narrator? Jöns..? Well, he’s where he should be, in the background, handling his material with the lightest of touches, allowing events to unfold as if of their own natural, internal logic. He never intrudes, never sits in judgement, and yet allows questions to be raised, those intriguing loose ends a good story need never tie together. What are the limits of the human aspiration to strut upon the stage of the world? Julius’s story is the story of our society, of its liberal individualist values in action. His crisis is our crisis, as respect for all authority evaporates, and rival schools of outlandish ‘thought’ proliferate like gangs of squabbling children among the ruins of civilisation.
Does the governing ideology not tell us we can be whoever we want? Should we blame Julius for taking this a little too far? In any case, isn’t he a tad more interesting than the one who just does what it takes? Julius is the true artist and ‘custodian’ of the human spirit, by his very creativity, by choosing not to do what it takes but take what he can anyway. Like any artist worth their salt, Julius makes his own reality, in broad strokes, and enriches our lives with the startling verisimilitude of his one true, high and mighty, highly personal trajectory through the world.
We live in an age of creative awakening. This is the flipside, the upside of ‘post-truth times.’ We know not where this leads but it behoves us to make the best of the journey. The alternative is dystopia – and we all know what that is like!