Chloe Zhao’s The Rider: Authenticity & Identity

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was released in UK cinemas last week, and I was lucky enough to see a preview of the film, hosted by Birds Eye View. A panel including a brain injury survivor and an equestrian therapy facilitator talked at length, post screening, about the complexities of protagonist Brady’s condition, his role in the world and his identity post injury.

The strange world of The Rider is seen through the eyes of Brady, a rodeo rider and horse trainer. Though scripted, Zhao’s film blurs the lines between fact and fiction in a way that’s reminiscent of Samira Makhalmbaf’s work – in particular The Apple. The two young protagonists of Makhmalbaf’s first feature were really kept captive by their father, and their journey to rehabilitation in the outside world is a genuine journey that they are undertaking. Similarly in Zhao’s The Rider, Zhao follows Brady after a severe head injury sustained from riding the rodeo and films the actuality of his recovery.

Documentary or Fiction?

There is an increasingly thin line between documentary and drama – recently there’s been an influx (Kate Plays Christine etcetc), and Zhao’s film adds to this conversation. Zhao and Brady had formed a friendship prior to his accident, and Zhao had wanted to make a film about Brady’s intimate relationships with the horses he trains – after seeing this connection on a big screen, you can understand why. It wasn’t until after Brady’s accident that Zhao realised the film she wanted to make. It’s almost impossible to ascertain what is scripted or rehearsed in the film, but all of the main characters (particularly Brady) have an authenticity that feels like it can only come from genuine emotion and behaviour.

There is an innate desire for us to know what is ‘real’ and what is fiction – Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View explained that Zhao hadn’t scripted most of the film and simply let these situations play out in front of the camera. Yet Brady and his family have different surnames to their characters, the camera-work is stylised and not reminiscent of traditional documentaries. The nature of putting a camera in front of group of people automatically changes the authenticity and so, by the very definition of filming, no ‘documentaries’ are ever going to be ‘real’. There are degrees of ‘realness’, and there is what the filmmakers chooses to show the audience. Zhao has done just this within The Rider. She chooses to show, very specifically, parts of Brady’s life post accident which make the narrative more interesting. This doesn’t make The Rider any less ‘real’, it means that Zhao is curating the image we see before us. And the image is phenomenal.

“Man-up” – Masculinity in The Rider

Toxic masculinity is a prevalent theme throughout the film, hiding around each and every corner in Brady’s home, at work and particularly at the rodeo. The phrase ‘man up’ (partner up) are used continuously throughout the film – often by Brady’s father or brothers and directed at Brady. The rodeo is a sign of ultimate masculinity and when Brady sustains his injury, he is told that his life will be in danger if he rides again. He attempts several times to ride, but this results in Brady becoming physically sick and developing a clenching reflex in his hand.

The only time that Brady is outwardly emotional is when he is with Apollo or his friend Lane, an ex bull rider who is now paralysed and suffering severe brain damage. It’s heavily implied that these injuries were sustained whilst bull riding, but this is never made explicit. In Lane, Brady can see a mirror image of what is life was and what his life could be if he continues down a path of self destruction, both at the same time.

With both Lane and Apollo, Brady is free to express a side of himself which doesn’t have to be strong, unfeeling or brave. Perhaps it is because these conversations are (in a technical sense) one sided. Lane and Brady communicate but in a limited way – Brady takes the lead in the majority of their exchanges. With Apollo, there is a clear connection but again, Brady is (literally)steering the dialogue.

In both instances, the non-verbal communications are integral to Brady being able to be vulnerable and feel his pain and anxiety about never riding again. During the Q&A I attended, the film was acutely praised by audience and panel alike for it’s depiction of disabled people, the non-verbal communication being a huge part of this. His character has an actual personality and is tangible, unlike many depictions of disable characters who generally treated akin to furniture.

For Brady, his current situation actually goes beyond the expectations of masculinity. Brady’s entire life has orbited around the rodeo and horses. During the Q&A, there was talk that Brady had been sat on a horse at just 15 days old. It’s always been his dream to ride the rodeo, and for a while he was living his dream. Now, if he tries to live it – he will almost certainly damage himself further, and possibly even die. In addition to this, it becomes clear during the film that Brady’s rodeo winnings (and money he made from breaking in horses) are integral to the families upkeep. His father has a gambling problem and seems incapable of caring for his younger sister alone. Letting go of the rodeo also means letting go of financial stability, which in turn is another marker of being a man – the ability to provide for one’s family.

I went into The Rider knowing nothing about the film or it’s narrative. I naively expected a typical Western, with overblown cowboy stereotypes, lassoing and chaps. What I found instead was a near perfect film, one which gently explores the idea of identity – particularly what it means to be a man in a particular context – but also one which explores what it means to be human and to have dreams. The Rider is as majestic as the horses on-screen, and as authentic as the humans it portrays.

The Rider is out in UK cinemas now, and to find out more about Birds Eye View, click here.

Black Mirror Season 4 Round-up

Season 4 of Black Mirror, the TV programme designed to crush whatever part of your soul may have survived the past year, has landed back on Netflix just in time for 2018. As with the last season, below I’ve rated each episode from worst to best (in my humble opinion). I have to admit that I wasn’t really digging Black Mirror this season. Since coming to Netflix, it seems to have lost of a bit of it’s punch and, particularly in this season, individual episodes often take an unexpected twist seemingly for the sake of having a twist, rather than making sense in the narrative.

Watching the first five episodes, I felt a bit cheated. Instead of being left with a feeling of utter despair and a new found fear of technology, I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It was only on watching ‘Black Museum’ that I felt as if I was actually watching Black Mirror – the show which has previously left me reeling on my sofa.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the shock factor that makes Black Mirror what it is. A sudden twist or a blind reveal do not a good episode make. No, the successful episodes of Black Mirror turn the tables on us, the viewer. They do not force an agenda, but aggressively encourage us to interrogate our own ideologies. They do not pull off cheap tricks, favouring in depth character study and study life-changing technology on a micro-scale. The greatest episodes (think ‘15 Million Merits’, ‘Be Right Back’ or ‘White Rabbit’) investigate the horror of living in a world so close to our own. In its worst moments, it merely asks us to fear dying – a much easier concept to grasp.

So, from worst to best (and I am fully aware that this may be the most contradictory list to any others out there, but hear me out)

Crocodile

(aka drink driving is bad)

Crocodile is odd, to say the least. Part scandi-noir, part anti drink-driving campaign, it details how one minor mistake can alter the rest of one’s life forever. Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) are driving through snow capped mountains, after a big night out partying (drugs included). After hitting a cyclist on a deserted road, Rob quickly decides he would rather not go to prison, and Mia reluctantly assists him with disposing of the cyclist into a nearby lake.

15 years later, Rob and Mia meet again. Mia is now a big time career woman in the architecture world, and Rob has shown up to her hotel bedroom whilst she is away at conference. He’s feeling guilty about what they did and tells Mia he is planning to turn himself in. Mia, who now has an established career and a family, is not down for this idea. She, in a predictable turn of events, kills Rob in the hotel room and disposes of his body in a building site of what we assume is going to be a building she has designed.

So far, so Scandi-noir thriller. Unfortunately for Mia, a determined insurance investigator by the name of Shazia is about to make things a lot harder for her. Shazia is on a mission to get compensation from a self driving pizza van company and is collecting the memories of everyone who was around Mia’s hotel that night. I say collecting because Shazia has a sort of memory machine where she can record the subjective memories of the person she is interviewing. This is bad news for Mia as the pizza van incident happened mere moments before she killed off Rob for good. So what is Mia to do?

I’ll give you a hint. It involves Mia evolving from accidental bystander in a drink-drive fatality to full blown child murderer.

‘Crocodile’ got a lot of good press (some people claiming it was the bleakest episode of Black Mirror ever) but for me, it was far too predictable. There’s very little that is interesting about a successful white woman going on a killing spree to stop her life from being destroyed, and Mia’s downward spiral was etched in stone from the moment she killed Rob. It was also disappointing to never get a clear idea of Shazia’s character before she was cheaply disposed of. The brutality she and her family endure (a mixed-race family vs a successful white woman) at the hands of Mia also feels cruel rather than nuanced in anyway. Brutality for the sake of brutality is never a good idea. The reveal? Also predictable, but has made me think that having a guinea pig might be quite useful in future…

Hang the DJ

(aka Tinder is bad)

It’s a shame that ‘Hang the DJ’ has landed second to last on this list as I enjoyed the vast majority of the episode. However, the twist at the end only serves to do two things; firstly it removes any kind of sincerity the episode had, and secondly it’s the technological equivalent to ‘they woke up and it was all a dream’. Let me explain.

‘Hang the DJ’ revolves around the world of app-dating. Couples meet in the same restaurant, check their expiry dates on their app and go from there. When Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are paired up, they get on pretty well but are only given 12 hours remaining for their relationship. Instead of having sex that night they innocently hold hands, a small gesture but one that solidifies their chemistry.  Over the next year or so, both of them are set up with other people that the system has chosen for them. Frank is in an incredibly unhappy relationship with a woman who seems to hate him for no reason other than the fact he was late on their first date, and Amy ends up discovering annoying ticks about the  man she is paired with. Eventually, after a series of short relationships, they are paired with each other again, but not for long. Frank, unable to stop himself from checking their expiry date though they had agreed not to, kickstarts their countdown clock which goes from five years to just several hours. Eventually, they both decide to try and escape the system, only for the audience to realise that the Amy and Frank we have been watching are merely a simulation occurring inside a dating app. The simulation has been run 1000 times, with 998 sims ending in the two of them choosing to reject the system to stay together.

Though Campbell and Cole are fantastic as the technology-crossed lovers, ‘Hang the DJ’ manages to completely undermine anything we felt for the characters with its final twist. We’ve become invested in these characters for the entire episode and to essentially erase them from existence to introduce the ‘real’ Amy and Frank left me with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It almost seemed like an entirely pointless exercise – though cynical of the system, the real Amy and Frank still choose to follow through on it.

Metalhead

(aka robot dogs are bad)

Episode 5, ‘Metalhead’ can be summed up as Maxine Peake running through various landscapes whilst being chased by K9’s evil alter-ego. It’s pacy, it’s racy and it doesn’t hold back. Two of the three characters in the entire episode are killed within the first five minutes, leaving only Peake’s Bella to try and survive her ordeal.

Peake does give a phenomenal performance (as is usual) as the isolated Bella running for her life. The stand-out scene in terms of tension comes when the robot dog traps Bella in a tree, revealing it’s only weakness: it can’t climb up the tree with it’s broken paw. Bella decides to wait it out and soon realises – with no verbal communication to convey this – that if she continually keeps it awake, it’s battery power will deplete. It works and Bella escapes, for the moment. Later, Bella comes across an abandoned house, home only to two dead bodies who appear to have committed suicide. Soon enough, the dog has tracked Bella down, and though she succeeds in destroying the machine, it leaves her with a final parting gift – a tracker lodged in her neck. Knowing that the tracker will lead even more dogs to the house, Bella makes the excruciating decision to end her own life rather than let the dogs at her.

Whilst ‘Metalhead’ is a fast and remarkably furious episode, it could do with a little more context. We gather snippets of information at the beginning – the pigs are all dead because of the dogs – and Bella speaks on the phone to various unknown people. In these moments, it’s hard to care much about the conversation because we have no idea who Bella is talking to. Are they other survivors? Is there a safe refuge? How many humans are left? Is someone controlling the dogs or have they risen up like a robo-rebellion? At the risk of ruining a bit of the mystery, ‘Metalhead’ is lost in a bit of a void.

I think ‘Metalhead’ would have made an incredible feature film. I am just not sure how I feel about it as part of the wider Black Mirror universe. Perhaps this is me being pedantic, but it makes little sense in the wider world – how does it fit in to the chronology of previous episodes? As a stand alone film, the lack of context would have been exciting and would have kept viewers wanting more, but in the middle of a series? It felt like something was missing.

Page 2 for the next three episodes!

The Box: What I’ve Been Binging Recently (#2)

 MINDHUNTER

From the creative talons of David Fincher comes Mindhunter, a new Netflix series exploring the behavioural sciences unit within the FBI as they attempt to categorise a new brand of murderer: serial killers. It’s not as boring as that synopsis makes it out to be, I promise. Based on real life events and real serial killers, agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany)) are set on a journey into the psyche of some pretty awful people.

It takes a few episodes to get started, but when it does Mindhunter is compelling viewing. Once we start to see the resistance of the Bureau to putting any of Holden and Tench’s research into practice, the much needed tension arises. The addition of Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) partway through the season also gives us another perspective on what Ford and Tench are doing – and is it right?

I struggled with parts of Mindhunter (if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably know which parts I mean). I have a serious issue with the way women are portrayed, discussed and victimised. It’s tricky because the series is predominantly about men that murder women, but I had hoped that we were past simply treating women as canon fodder. It’s why Carr’s character actually turns the show around – it runs the risk of being a bit on an unchecked boys club (a bit like Ford’s tactics on interviewing subjects) but has so far steered just about clear.

Mindhunter has also taught me that maybe the FBI just attracts people with weird sounding names – Holden, Tench, Mulder, Scully? I’m seeing a pattern here…

THE GOOD PLACE

This lovely little show snuck up on me without me even realising. Before I knew what was happening, I was six episodes in and loving every moment.

Mike Schur, creator of Parks & Rec and Brooklyn 99, brings his talent for fun ensemble cast shows to The Good Place – a TV show about heaven, hell and all things in between. Kristin Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, who has recently died. She is welcomed by Michael (Ted Danson) to the Good Place, an afterlife where people who have been morally good throughout their lives have earned the right to spend eternity. The only problem? Eleanor is not a good person, not even a little bit. Whilst the first few episodes are a bit slow, The Good Place is highly addictive watching. It’s funny, easy to watch and the characters are completely lovable. And Adam Scott has a cameo appearance. What’s not to love!

The Good Place doesn’t hit the comedy highs of B99 or Parks and Rec, but it’s a different creature. It’s a comfortable show, which plays with it’s premise over and over again to wonderfully inventive results. The Good Place feel intent on bringing joy, hope and friendship to our screens – which I feel we could all use a bit of right now. It’s the perfect show for snuggling up under a duvet whilst pondering existentialism. Bonus – if you have ever studied philosophy, you’ll really appreciate some of the jokes. Also, Janet is the greatest character ever. Fact.

BETTER CALL SAUL

Series 3 of our favourite spin off returned to Netflix this summer and I’ve just got round to finishing it off. I absolutely love Better Call Saul (as can be witnessed in my essay for Bitch Flicks here) and I think it’s just gone from strength to strength each season.

This season focused on the aftermath of Jimmy’s confession to Chuck about the Mesa Verde documents he had forged to incriminate Chuck. The two brothers have never exactly been close, but this season they are about ready to kill each other. Chuck’s condition worsens, Jimmy ends up being struck off from practising law for a year and there’s a story-line about a senior citizen losing all her friends, which made me sob like a baby.

Kim, for me, has been a real highlight of series 3. She’s already been established as a damn good lawyer,  a loyal friend and someone who you’d want on your side if you are in hot water – but this season we get more of Kim’s highs and lows, making her feel more human. Equally, the introduction is very exciting, and it now feels like we are gearing up to something explosive in the fourth season. Can’t wait!

 

MY MAD FAT DIARY

My Mad Fat Diary is a 2013 Channel 4 comedy centred on Rae – a teenage girl who has just been discharged from a rehabilitation centre for young people with mental health issues. Yes, it doesn’t sound like a comedy, and sometimes it’s not at all funny, but My Mad Fat Diary is the show I so wished I had to lean on when I was a young, insecure teenager.

From explicit discussions of masturbation, to the stark reality of mental illness and eating disorders, we journey through Rae’s life in recovery as she writes her hopes, dreams and sexual fantasies in her diary – as instructed to by therapist Kester. Fortunately, she quickly makes a new group of friends (with a few boys for her to faun over) but she ultimately struggles with the freedoms she has living in the ‘normal’ world.

The show’s frank and brutally honest portrayal of just how awful being a teenager is, in addition to the messages of body positvity and sex positivity are what makes it so remarkable. My Mad Fat Diary is both progressive and utterly hilarious at the same time.

The entire box-set is streaming on All4 now, and it’s perfect for snuggling down in your duvet with a cup of tea with.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE

You know that feeling where you can’t work out if a TV show is a beautifully shot work of sexy art, or whether it’s beautifully shot pornography? Yeah – that’s The Girlfriend Experience. Joking aside, there is a LOT of sex. Think how much a lot of sex would be, then double it. That’s how much sex there is in The Girlfriend Experience.

It’s not just about sex, though you would be forgiven for thinking so if you have only watched the first four or so episodes. The story-line only really picks up after episode five as the first half of the series seems to exist to lure us in with semi-pornographic sex scenes and then jump us with a pretty complicated narrative in the second half. Still, for the most part it is easy watching. I mostly appreciated that The Girlfriend Experience is smashing the stereotypes surrounding women, sex and sex workers themselves. The main character Christine, clearly enjoys having sex and she enjoys being paid to have sex even more. Instead of portraying her as a victim, creator Amy Seimetz allows her to have autonomy.

And you will definitely start doing research on exactly how one becomes an escort…