Let me open up this review with a disclaimer – I’m a Chris Morris disciple. It’s been too long since the unique vision of one of the most efferous of comedians has been seen on terrestrial UK screens, the news that Morris was instead constructing his big screen debut that would be tackling the controversial theme of Islamic terrorism was warmly welcomed by devotees as a return to subject matter with more of a current affairs dimension, particularly in light of the lukewarm reception of the under-rated Nathan Barley series. Having cut his razor-sharp satirical skills on a series of radio stations throughout the late eighties and early nineties Morris formed a central strut of a great era of UK comedy around the turn of that decade, along with his contemporaries Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber, Armando Iannucci, Julia Davies and Peter Baynham (last seen as a writer on both the Bruno and Borat movies) going on to define a particularly intellectual and confrontational strain of humour that revelled in a surrealistic grappling of wordplay, capriciously exenterating the political, cultural and moral hypocrisies of contemporary life – it’s a comedic phase that our sceptred isle has not bettered since. After the entire HBO/BFI weekend collapsed due to some idiot called Eyjafjallajokull somehow grounding every flight into the UK, preventing that events glittering cast of LA demigods to beguile us with their presence it was nice to have another excuse to get over to the NFT again, it seems curious to me that American TV seems to thrive on producing controversial and so-called ‘challenging’ TV material at the moment whilst their cinema remains mostly meek and subservient to the powers that be, a position reversed in the UK where our TV geniuses can’t get commissioned due to concerns with causing offence to Mr. Disgusted of Milton Keynes and therefore turn to the big screen to reach an audience. Is Four Lions the In The Loop of 2010, just to pre-empt the media pigeonhole? Well, it’s certainly as farcical as Iannucci’s recent triumph, for shorthand purposes I’d say it was Spinal Tap meets Syrianna, by far the funniest comedy of the year so far – it’s quite simply a blast.
Imagine if you will a comedic examination of the four lunatics who conducted the 7/7 London Underground bombings, their fanatic beliefs and inspiration, their maniac ideology all explored and exploded with gelastic glee. Cell leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the head of a bumbling jihadist cell in Northern England, his partners in crime being the mentally challenged Hassan (Archer Ali), the vaguely bewildered Waj (Kayvan Novak) and my favourite of the bunch, the conspiracy spouting Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a Caucasian convert to the crusade against Western debauchery, an evangelical berserker who blames the mechanical failures of his car on ‘Jewish spark-plugs’. Whilst Omar and Hassan make a buffoonish trip to a Pakistan training camp Barry is secretly at work on his own ambitious plans for a homespun jihad, the masterstroke of which being the bombing of his own mosque to inspire the dormant, beguiled Muslim brothers to arise and take up arms against the wretched kafirs. After the foreign mission is abandoned in the wake of an accidental bombing of their own camp Omar decides to lead his bickering colleagues on a domestic targeted atrocity, selecting the London marathon as the ideal target for an impressive ‘spectacular’ that should ensure their elevation to Jannat paradise….
I can see why the film got such confused reactions out of its Sundance premiere in January – it’s a very British picture populated with British slang, UK cultural references and Northern England accents which even I, as a native Englishman found difficult to follow at certain points. It’s dexterously mischievous comedy that ensures you are missing two gags whilst doubling up in hysterics at the first, as well as the machine-gun dialogue more subtle juxtapositions are constructed for their ironic jocularity. The opening scene presents Hassan ineptly recording his post-bombing video message to the unbelievers, a task being constantly interrupted by his bickering cellmates complaining about the size of his AK47. Omar reviews and edits his political rants against poisonous consumerism and the empty, vacuous ideologies of the West on his sparkly new Laptop in his modern four bedroom semi-detached dwelling, Barry’s absurd speeches on Christian hegemony and his conspiracy theorist clamor grow increasingly manic, at certain points appearing to elope out of a David Icke soliloquy. Whilst the emphasis is on the demented jihadists the forces of the State don’t escape from the film unscathed with glowering incompetence being seen as endemic on both sides of the holy war – it may sound incongruous but one sequence which I won’t ruin here involves the best Wookie gag in celluloid history.
Morris has been researching the project for almost four years, delving into the murky realms of Muslim extremism by developing a network of friends and colleagues which enabled him to interview members of the security services and prospective jihadists, gathering a balance of knowledge that was fed into the carefully crafted and reverently scrutinised film. This commitment to balance and accuracy will no doubt be glossed over in favour of some inevitable accusations of racism once the film gets its full release, no doubt these will emanate from the ignorant cretins of all religious beliefs and skin tones, as Morris said ‘You don’t have to mock Islamic beliefs to make a joke about someone who wants to run the world under sharia law but can’t apply it in his home because his wife won’t let him’. The Daily Mail moral outrage headlines almost write themselves although the film may slip under the radar of the General Election aftermath and World Cup preparations, one hopes not as any altercation will inevitably drive up ticket sales. Morris is no stranger to controversy having made one of the most complained about programmes in UK Television history and one can imagine the moral majority gleefully welcoming the opportunity to ejaculate their parochial, inaccurate and jingoistic opinions into the bloated womb of the mediaverse, missing the slightly larger point that perhaps killing people is not the best and most constructive way to convince people to adopt your opinions.
I’ve particularly enjoyed putting this post together as I haven’t revisited the work of Chris for quite a while, you can begin with a few radio excerpts from his broadcasting career - 1:15 onward is brilliant – before moving on to some of the hysterical moments from the precognitive The Day Today, then there was the accelerated beauty of Brass Eye before things turn a little somnolent and surreal when you delve into the murk of Jam in both its Radio and TV incarnations – comprehensive material here. My comedy heroes are few – Monty Python, Bill Hicks, The Marx Brothers, Warner Brother cartoons – and I’m happy to report that the Morris’s position in that pantheon has been further cemented with this latest, thoroughly entertaining parade of absurdity.
In the midst of the most ‘exciting’ UK General Election battle of recent memory I thought it apt to reference the greatest film on media manipulation (allegedly), incidently it’s also one of Spike Lee’s favourite films trivia fans:
The link is Paramount, the studio that released both Chinatown and Ace In The Hole. In the words of the great R.J Macready ‘I’m too tired’ to comment further, thankfully in the midst of all this media drivel there is some comedy on the way – watch this space….
Another review, another homicidal psychopath stalking nubile young teenagers – professional help is being sought. As part of the aforementioned ‘Psycho: A Classic In Context’ season one other film leapt out at me to see on the big screen, if Psycho was the proto-slasher then John Carpenters 1978 classic Halloween was the film that invented and cemented the defining ingredients of the genre that have been ceaselessly stolen and butchered over the intervening thirty years, not only in similar franchises but also in no less than 10 spawn of the Halloween cycle, the last of which was the execrable Halloween 2 which coincidently I saw last week – safe to say that it’s widely held position as one of the worst films of 2009 is justified. Filmed on a shoestring budget of $300,000 the original film took in over $80 million dollars in domestic takings alone, making it the most profitable independent movie until the release of The Blair Witch Project twenty years later – funny how it’s always horror movies that steal these financial accolades eh? It seems we all like to be scared…
It was the night he came back, October 31st, Haddonfield Illinois. In a bravura opening Carpenter introduces the first of the genre tropes, in a smooth, single, hand-held Panaglide take (the Steadicam system was still a couple of years away) we are taken into the killers perspective as he stalks and eventually butchers a young girl, a design that makes us complicit in this horrendous act which concludes with the shocking revelation that *gasp* the culprit is a young boy – the legendary Michael Myers has begun his reign of terror. Fifteen years later during a stormy and menacing evening Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is travelling to the local Sanitorium to escort his patient to a legal hearing to discuss his case for parole. Michael clearly has alternate plans and breaks free from captivity, making his way back to Haddonfield with Loomis in hot pursuit. Meanwhile the young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her breakthrough role) is preparing for a quiet Halloween with her friends, babysitting the local kids whilst the adults all make their way to various parties, it will certainly be an evening she will not forget…
Well, it has to be said that the film has not aged like a fine Bordeaux throughout its compact 91 minutes. It is unquestionably clunky in places and some people, me included, were cracking up at some moments that have not aged well. That said however it still retains a powerful sense of anxiety in other moments, even when you know where and when the scares are coming some nervous laughter would echo round the venue which was swiftly punctured with yells of shock from some of my fellow compatriots - I of course remaining resolutely stoic throughout. Retrospectively speaking the films strengths lie in its nervous atmosphere, unlike its misbegotten kindred, those Friday the 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street franchises the film does benefit from it’s All Hallow’s Eve setting, those autumnal hues recreating a more realistic small town world that seems to operate on the cusp of a fairy tale with those Jack O’ Lanterns and seasonal decorations discreetly populating the imagery, the embedded references to older horror and SF movies being viewed by the young kids prior to the attacks suggesting a rich seam of genre film-history that Halloween was aiming to continue. This is all heightened by perhaps the most memorable aspect of the movie, what else but that unrelenting score which along with Carpenters masterful manipulation of the diagetic sound elements contribute to much of the films gruesome success.
It’s difficult to watch seriously considering all the clichés – the POV shots, the doubled ‘false’ scares, the indestructible maniac – but you do have to bear in mind this was the film that invented all those clichés, it’s not the first US slasher, that dubious honour probably goes to the inferior Black Christmas, (well that’s a Canadian production but you know what I mean) but it’s certainly the most influential I’d argue and probably the most fun. I’ll also add in a love of Donald Pleasance in the film who is catastrophically over the top to a hysterically funny degree, it somehow fits though as he elucidates the presence of Michael Myers as evil personified, a nightmare with all human dimensions expunged, an almost elemental force of nature which is a much more chilling prospect than the redundant introduction of an abused background in the woeful Rob Zombie remakes which I stress again really should be avoided at all costs. Lets close with a couple of documentaries, one specifically on the film and one on the great Mr. Carpenter himself, one prays that his return to the screen, The Ward which is currently in Post-Production will be worthwhile but I ain’t exactly holding my breath.
The Thing prequel started shooting in Canada last month and the Escape From New York remake has moved on so whilst we’re on the subject of revisits and sequels let’s take this opportunity to tackle some recent developments. Would I prefer it if they just left the whole fucking thing alone and preserved some sense of mystery and ambiguity around the original and best entry to the franchise? Yes. Will I be queuing up to see on opening day? Of course I fucking will, although I stress I did avoid, wisely as it panned out, seeing any of the Versus Predator abortions at the cinema. Years ago I’d be in a fan-boy rage about this sort of thing, these days I just don’t care and with Ridley involved the project might have some redeeming qualities, however it still sounds pretty lame at this point. Now, if they revisited the once mooted Weyland Yutani manufactured infestation of Earth by the ravenous Xenomorphs, well then you could be on to something….
Forgive me for reverting to indulgant diary mode as I doubt that half an hour of two old blokes messing about with their MacBooks will be of much interest to most of you. I enjoyed my first gig of the year on Sunday at the O2 in Islington, the side project of musician Alan Wilder that began when he split from Depeche Mode back in 1994;
Not much else to say other than it was a fun experience in an intimate venue. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Recoils output, despite owning most of his albums they’re not very often on the playlist but then again nothing is as I gravitate to listening podcasts more in my old age. Anyway, here’s some more:
Some DM material was appropriated to the crowds delight:
And some more to close…
Sometimes coincidences strike and a film can find its modest release enveloped in a maelstrom not of its own making. Roman Polanski’s new film The Ghost arrived in US shores just as a certain ex-British Prime Minister found himself under questioning for past events that some have alleged as war crimes – that’s number one. Prior to this event a public figure, reviled in some quarters found himself under house arrest for unconvicted crimes a continent away – that sounds familiar. Thirdly, just a a few weeks ago our previous figure of scorn announced that his blood spattered memoirs would be published (vomit inducingly called ’The Journey‘, I may have added the blood bit) in September of this year, an announcement made a week or so prior to The Ghost’s wider US release - how’s that for life imitating art? I’m almost as mystified by the change in the films title, normally the truncation from The Ghost Writer to The Ghost would be an amendment made for the American market to reduce any audience interpretation that it was a film about literature and therefore dull rather than the reverse, perhaps its lacklustre performance in the US – $12 million and counting after a month in wide release – has convinced its backers to do everything it can to recoup its budget. In preparation for this early awaited and slippery new film I embarked a mini-season of Polanski’s work – Bitter Moon, Frantic, Repulsion, What? and The Pianist – as well as tucking into this well-regarded and even-handed biography. Whatever you want to call it The Ghost is an intriguing and arresting piece of work due in part to its contemporary resonance as well as its expertly handled delivery, this is assuredly Polanski’s most directly entertaining film for years.
In Ewan McGregor’s best performance of recent memory he is a nameless, London-based ghost writer, a vaguely insolent hack who is usually drafted in to scribe the biographies of inconsequential sport or media figures. Ewan hits the big time and a change of career direction when his agent lands him an interview with the prestigious Soho production house that is handling the memoirs of Andrew Lang (a curious but ultimately miscast Pierce Brosnan), a recently retired British Prime Minister whose embrace and slavish devotion to the War on Terror ™ has left him an isolated figure on the remote peninsula of Martha’s Vineyard. Our ghost is despatched to recast the uncompleted manuscript at this eerie archipelago with only the assistance of the ex-PM’s Chief of Staff Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and redolent wife Ruth (Olivia Williams in a film stealing performance) to rely on, a task that is soon overtaken by a series of allegations that exposes Lang’s alleged collusion in ordering Al Quadi suspects to be tortured after extraordinary rendition flights are allowed to bypass UK airspace. More sinister tremblings are afoot when the Ghost begins to unearth the unconvincing circumstances of his predecessors apparent suicide by drowning and a slowly evolving conspiracy begins to be illuminated….
It’s nice, for a change, to be treated like an adult at the cinema. The Ghost takes its time to establish a sense of tone and atmosphere which one assumes is lifted from the Robert Harris penned source material, it is quite a liberating experience to luxuriate in a film that takes care with its poised compositions, a film with the nerve to let scenes build and breathe, a film with restrained and almost classical technique as opposed to the dizzying, multi-perspective fast cutting designs that remain the contemporary standard. As you can see in that HD trailer linked above the film has a de-saturated sheen which provide a chilly tone to the unsettling proceedings, an achievement matched by the films exterior photography all being achieved through CGI techniques to combine to the two elements as seen in the first photo above. In a manner similar to the opening of Shutter Island and the computer engendered journey to the island this signals a slightly unreal friction to the viewer’s perspective, something is not quite right but you can’t quite identify the source of the disruption. The film is funnier than anticipated, particularly with Ewan’s dialogue and his unsuccessful flirting with Amelia being constantly rebuffed and there are a few gags made at the expense of Bliar, sorry that should be Lang’s falsity of demeanour. The film works best as a mystery story, a brooding tale told through the eyes of the ‘ghost’ without any exterior knowledge or perspectives from other characters, we only see and experience what the ghost sees and discovers as to not deviate from the dark and dangerous journey that our avatar is progressing. As a conspiracy expose its final revelations are as dodgy as the infamous dodgy dossier but as an entertaining, engrossing thriller then this ghost can’t be busted.
Some spoilers in this paragraph so beware – There is an undercurrent of covert menace that put me in mind of certain movements in Eyes Wide Shut, one scene where the ghost hesitantly interviews a subtly intimidating Tom Wilkinson is quite creepy, particularly as in a moment of Hitchcockian inspired genius our hero has been directed to this isolated woodland abode through the last GPS recorded movements of the hire car that his predecessor followed before turning up dead. It’s a great use of technology to drive forward the plot and the film also feels realistic with its use of web searches, a sense of authenticity that is all too rare these days as some of those horrendously designed conspiracy theory sites crop up as the investigation deepens. The Macguffin is the manuscript, according to Harris ‘a character in its own right’ within which the films mysteries are contained, a simile I suspect that Polanski is using to suggest the submersion of truth and fiction in the written word, (with obvious allusions to the manuscripts presented as the justifications for conflict and theft) the battle of alternate interpretations of the same material, the idea that even authorial intent cannot be regarded as the beacon of universal truth in a post-structualist universe – there are some curious connections to his underappreciated The Ninth Gate here I’m sure. It was also a pleasant shock to see Eli Wallach – the Ugly - crop up in a short cameo role as a wizened inhabitant of Martha’s Vineyard and an almost unrecognisable James Belushi appear in an opening scene as one of the publishing executive – it took me a good thirty seconds to identify him and boy does he look different. In a rather rushed but still effective fashion the film culminates on a very bleak, dare I say it Romanesque note that puts one in mind of the denouement to Chinatown, he’s clearly a man who hasn’t lost his cynicism with his advancing years.
Polanski is a curious figure, he is the director of one undisputed masterpiece – Chinatown – and a raft of superb films, Repulsion, Frantic and The Pianist which having watched again I’d argue is a stronger and more affecting Holocaust film than Schindler’s List by virtue of not entertaining any of that films more crass moments. There is a vein of the macabre, a melancholy that coupled with an emphasis on sexual neurosis and jealousy that runs rampant throughout his work make for an uncomfortable but enticing marriage, having got half through that biography its not difficult to see where those fascinations spring from – he was and is a dirty old bugger. He was also something of the Tarantino if his age, appearing on the celebrity talk-show circuit and cropping up in the tabloid press with regular aplomb, often to the detriment of his projects. On set he was one of those tyrant directors, considering himself above mixing with the gaffers and grips, delegating such unpleasant interactions to his AD’s. He was also one of those tyrants, a director who was unafraid to wake up to an actor or more frequently actress whom he felt was not providing the necessary emotional investment in a scene, slap them across the face to provoke a reaction, walk back to his chair and bark ‘Action’ – nice. For my money his achievements are equalled by his failures, Bitter Moon is a terrible, almost embarrassing piece of work and if memory my puny memory serves both Pirates and the clumsily titled The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me But My Teeth Are In Your Neck are dull misfires. Make sure you give both Rosemarys Baby and Death & The Maiden a look if your interest is piqued. So, that’s the end of another season, inspired by my recent The Wild Bunch Blu-Ray revelation I’m embarking on a short Peckinpah season, there are a couple of movies I’ve never seen – Junior Bonner and The Ballad of Cable Hogue which seem apt to connect with revisits of Major Dundee and Ride The High Country for a wider retrospective.
Before I resume my efforts on some recent reviews I’d be remiss if I didn’t honour the passing of Dede Allen, a fantastic technician who ’revolutionized imagery, sound and pace in U.S. films’ – apologies for the horrible site design but the text is well crafted. Some audio here, here’s some visual examples:
Best sports film ever?
Her breakthrough project:
A New York classic:
Lets close with a surprising entry in the CV:
There are many other examples to choose from of course but the next round of the UK Election debate is about to begin so I’ll just recommend this as a fine documentary, featuring Dede, on the unseen art of film cutting. EDIT – Well, if you’ll excuse the obvious, some better history here.
Last weekends cinema activity is proving difficult to craft I’m afraid, having spent all day writing reports at work I’m finding it difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to sit in front of the computer for another couple of hours when I got home from the seething tundra of the Thames Valley. I’ll try and get both reviews posted on Friday, just before I embark on another full weekend of activity which will in turn take some time to report on as I’ve just secured a three-month contract extension and I’m going back to a full five day work week as well. So lets celebrate with some good news on a running gag – we finally have a release date, but alas no new trailer. So you’ll just have to make do with the old one;
I’m a little surprised that the direction duties are being shared between Rodriguez and his editor Ethan Maniquis, still a cast of Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Rose McGowan and, erm, Linsday Lohan make this one to circle in the diary….
From Faye Dunaway in Network to her tortured performance in Chinatown, a link that should dovetail nicely into my imminent review of Polanski’s The Ghost which I’m looking forward to seeing tomorrow during a well deserved day off. My plans for that review are getting a little unwieldy so it’s a nice opportunity to break things up with some early commentary, I’ve been reading this biography which is far from being a hagiography of the pint-sized tyrant, I’m only 100 pages or so in and it’s already exploded a few myths about his early career and provided some interesting background to his breakthrough Repulsion which I revisited last night – it was good.
The elephant in the room of course is the controversial rape trial that hangs over any discussion of Polanski’s career so let me be clear – he should have gone to jail. Regardless of his horrendous childhood, the impossibility of his achieving a fair trial in the States and the so-called ‘liberated’ atmosphere of the Seventies you don’t drug and have sex with a thirteen year old girl - it’s indefensible, stomach churning and throughly reprehensible. How’s that for stating the obvious eh? Not wishing to sound flippant however it does provide a bookmark to any reading of Polanski’s career, the prevalent themes of sexual neurosis and the macabre atmosphere that permeates his movies throughout his forty-year career, he is unquestionably an incredibly talented director (which again I stress is not suggesting a defence for his behaviour) and such events should inform but not derail any analysis of his work – that’s my two cents. So, moving on, Canne has had its line-up announced with no sign of either a potential Inception or Tree Of Life premiere (although there are six pictures still to be announced), there are a few interesting entries including some new projects from the likes of Kitano, Tavernier, Iñárritu, Nakata and Godard whom I’m not terribly excited about but was surprised to see was still working, it could be his last film which should be interesting. The US productions – Wall Street 2 and Robin Hood leave me cold. Right, I’m off to watch The Wild Bunch on Blu-Ray, that’s American cinema you can get excited about…
One of the bonuses of this world-wide web malarkey is that you get to hear about foreign movies long before they strike distribution deals and potentially make their way to UK cinemas. In the case of Samson and Delilah, a wonderful Australian indie film that focus in on the native Aboriginal contemporary experience I was given a heads up on the movie by an old college friend of mine who has emigrated to Melbourne and saw it there last year, it was a reasonably safe risk to sacrifice a sunny afternoon to the movie as I have to say next to myself he is the biggest and most knowledgable film nerd I’ve had the privilege to discuss cinematographers with and as expected his recommendation bore dividends. I had studiously avoided the trailer, rejected any reviews bar one brief interview with the director on the Guardian’s Film Talk podcast a couple of weeks ago which did pique my interest, nevertheless I had preconceived a notion that the film would be some moving romance between two alienated, indigenous protagonists. Well, in some sense I was correct but the scope and purpose of the film is far wider than that limited vision, the method in which the film was textured really wasn’t quite what I was expected and it is a strong contender to Un Prophete as the best foreign film of the year.
Do you remember that Simpson sketch when the dodgy lawyer, Lionel Hutz states that this is the most blatant case of misleading advertising since his case against the producers of The Never Ending Story? Well, the idea that this is some charming antipodean rom-com pretty much matches that accusation, albeit in a good way. Samson & Delilah is much closer in tone and presentation to Visconti’s La Terra Trema than Romeo & Juliet, its much more of a subdued neo-realist rage which is primarily set in a remote desert Aboriginal community where the relationship between two teenagers is explored. Samson is an undisclipned, unfocused young man who spends much of his time sniffing petrol and being lost in music, his counterpart is the disciplined Delilah, a young girl who is tending to her ailing grandmother. When she dies Delilah flees the ramshackle community for the big city with Samson in tow, he undergoing a forced exile after a bout of violence that has left a few of his neighbours bloodied and bruised. The two struggle in a hand to mouth existence, aided only by the colourful vagabond Gonzo who takes them under his wing in the homeless districts of Alice Springs…
This would make an interesting double bill with Baz Lhurmans Australia (which incidentally I consider the most offensive film since Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ) as it would deliver a critical broadside to the formers horrendous cultural representations, in Samson & Delilah we are delivered an an Australia which is light years from the picture postcard adverts we see of enduring sunshine, majestic veldts, cheeky kangaroos and some form of Edenic paradise. It’s a world of exploitation and ignorance, a society where the youngsters heroes wander almost invisibly through a first world country as third world denizens, turning to whatever narcotics are available to quell the boredom and lack of opportunity. There is perhaps four or five dozen lines of dialogue in the whole 100 minute film and it is all the more powerful for it, a confidence in direction that generates volumes of underscored emotion. You intimately sense Samson and Delilah are outcasts in their own country as they drift from one shoplifting spree to another, the film being as much a call to arms to the aboriginal community to take responsibility for their youngsters as it is a damnation of white Australia’s indifference or hostility.
The verisimilitude is stunning, both the perennial employment of non-professional actors in the key roles and even the director using his real life alcoholic brother as the duo’s street smart saviour – first time director Warwick Thornton wrote, edited, photographed and directed the film as well as writing some of its music. In one interview which I have to share with you Thornton responded to the inevitable criticisms that he is reinforcing a cultural stereotype of the addictive, deadbeat Aboriginal youth by presenting him as a monosyllabic petrol addict – he dourly replied ‘yes Samson sniffs petrol but the whole bloody world is addicted to petrol….’ – nice. It is not all some dour, realistically lit gloomfest though, it looks terrific with a vividly coloured environment and a detailed attention to the sound design which juxtaposes with the low-key dramatics in superb synchronicity. Part Alan Clarke themed social documentary, part grim comedy, part unconventional romance Samson & Delilah is the finest Australian film since the devastating Rabbit Proof Fence and comes highly recommended.
One of my favourite scenes here, appropriately enough in a different language. I could spend hours putting a better post together but alas I have a big day at work tomorrow and need an early night, thus I will finish with the obvious …
This might be cheating a bit as it’s a clip I’ve posted before, albeit under a review rather than the melody strand, but having seen the Murdoch press already lining up their targets as the UK General election is finally called there was only one sequence that demanded repeating:
The link is Ned Beatty who starred as Detective Bolander in the first couple of seasons of Homicide. This sprang to mind as it makes me almost incandescently angry to see our ‘free’ press at work and the unholy stench of that Australian billionaire wield his unwarranted influence on our countries political system. Mark my words, if the Tories win then the BBC as we know it will be gone in five years. Just to be clear, as much as I loathe and will never vote Tory it doesn’t mean I’m a Labour man, that particular boat, like many of my generation sank swiftly after 1997. Living n Tower Hamlets also raises a more complications with the likes of the Respect party to factor into my vote allocation.
It’s always quite interesting to be on assignment when an election kicks off and purdah cones into force, thankfully my current programme doesn’t have much if a party political bend to it yet. In the interim here’s to four weeks of madness, what can I say, I’m weird and to me this is more fun than the World cup….
From the moment those discordant strings roared around the auditorium I knew I was in for something special. To mark the 50th anniversary of Hitchcock’s proto slasher the NFT is screening a sparkling new print of Psycho in an extended run accompanied by a season of films that have been influenced by the macabre maestro’s most memorable masterpiece (heh), one of the most efficacious and dissected films of all time. Yes, there will be spoilers but considering the films half century vintage I think you can bear with me….
Phoenix, Arizona. Friday, December The Eleventh. Two Forty-Three PM, an accuracy of space and time begins. In an oft imitated opening sequence a parade of penetrating establishing shots incrementally moves into a bedroom scene where two lovers are sharing an illicit tryst during their lunch hour. Sam Loomis (John Gavin) discusses his financial woes with his partner Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), both are bemoaning the fact that neither of them have the funds to make a new life for themselves in another state. Returning to her bank cashier job Marion is presented with the opportunity to seize $40,000 deposited by a faintly seedy local businessman, our heroine seizes the moment and she flees Phoenix to a potential new life of happiness and financial security. After exchanging cars following a tense encounter with a suspicious police officer a day later Marion finds herself checking into the secluded Bates Motel during an ominous thunderstorm…
Just to be obvious on the big screen experiences such as this are a revelation, even when you know every story beat and scene that will materialise. The film is so compact, unfurling over a short few day diagetic period which builds an incredible texture, there is evidence of a master formalist at work with defined visual geometries embroidered into the film. From its opening titles with those tangent blocks bisecting the screen, a design aggregated by the score with its overwhelming violin strokes, through the lighting schemes in the opening hotel room scene that also replicate a cascade of order and constriction, from the squat Bates motel juxtaposed with the looming house hovering over the guests murder sites - the film is textured with a horizontal composition colliding with the vertical, the sane with the insane, the criminal with the lawful, all of which are ellipsed with the final fluttering light bulb and orbicular revelation of Norma’s statis. These techniques were partially coaxed out of Hitchcock by Truffaut in his celebrated study – here is the audio, all 25 parts which is possibly the best piece of research I’ve found since starting this blog. Outstanding.
What more is there to say about one of the most admired and analysed sequences in cinema history? How the jagged editing mirrors the violent death strokes of the pendulous strikes of the deranged killer? How that visual arrangement is complemented by Bernard Herrman’s asperous score? How the sequence was shot in in seventy set-ups, in seven days, out of the entire films scheduled thirty-day shoot with his TV ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ crew? How chocolate sauce was used as the blood surrogate? How the debate rages fifty years later as to whether you see the blade penetrate the body? Yeah, film nerds can get a bit creepy about stuff like that sometimes…
The sense of dread engulfing the viewer when the bathroom door silently glides open and the silhouetted figure lurches toward the shower curtain is truly remarkable – you can see why people freaked out in 1960 as it retains a horrific magnetism and remains one of the best and most unexpected twists of cinema lore. So now our heroine has been brutally slain so what happens now? What about the $40,000 money McGuffin? Where can this picture go next? Understanding the contours of the film experiences Hitch slows the film down and crafts one of his most memorable sequences, the slow track from Marion lifeless eye to the Bates motel which again tells you everything that is happening and signals a change of perspective, the transmutation of protagonist from Marion to Norman, two uncoincidentally similar names…
The celebrated sequence was the crux of why Hitch wanted to make the picture, to disrupt storytelling tropes and make the audience shift their uncertain sympathies and identifications from Marion to the nervously acquiescent Norman, enabling Hitch to manipulate the audience and as the man said ‘I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ’. The decision to make a film due to one scene seems a little unusual today but you have to remember that this was a different era and the attraction of working in an admittedly deteriorating production system enabled Hitch to continue his experiments, as he did with Rope, with Lifeboat, with Dial M For Murder and with The Wrong Man (his first film shot on real locations in the US urban landscape), to coquet with the technical paraphernalia at his command. I’d forgotten the prevalence of black comedy in the film, it is funnier than I remember with a lot of subtle wordplay – ‘mother’s not feeling herself today’, ‘She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds’, ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes.’ The bird motif is quite interesting and of course it has prompted academics to make links to the avian apocalypse that was unleashed three years later, lines such as ‘You-you eat like a bird’ delivered by Norman in the motel pantry that houses a flock of stuffed birds of prey that loom over Marion before her imminent demise prompting some curious affiliations. The way that the film shifts its tone, the manner in which it displaces its protagonist – the final 40 minutes is populated by Marion’s sister whom we’ve never seen before - the way it shifts gear and constantly surprises is bewildering and almost unique, and on those terms it’s a masterpiece that irradiates most of current film-making, pure and simple.
I read Mark Cousins ‘The Story Of Film‘ recently which was superb, in one memorable section Cousins admires Hitchcock for his ‘erotic precision’ and admires the ‘systems of desire and anxiety that permeate his films’, that’s just about the best clutch of phrase I’ve read which encapsulates our greatest film-makers astonishing canon. In this golden age of his career which can roughly be parsed between Rear Window in 1954 to Marnie in 1963 you consistently see Hitch as the practitioner of what he phrased ‘pure cinema’, that is the story being told by the camera and music, not through extraneous, redundant, clumsy dialogue which harkens back to Hitchcock’s silent film pedigree.Personally my favourite moments are the groggy montage as Marion drives through the night before arriving at the Bates Motel, to me that fully signals the noirish plunge into this nightmare world, the aforementioned track from the murder to the house, then there is the staircase terror with its unusual, jarring construction and of course the final scene with that look to the camera. I did go and see Van Sant’s remake reimagining pointless revisit, I still fail to see any purpose in that redundant exercise although I’ll confess to admiring the chutzpah of such a ridiculous exercise.
There is a wealth of material floating around about the film at the moment, the Guardian in particular seems to be excelling in its coverage of the movies fifty year pedigree, I also stumbled across this superb photo shoot whilst researching this entry. Next weekend I shall be going to see Halloween at the NFT1 as part of the context season which should be a blast, fingers crossed I should also get tickets to see Strangers On A Train in May and most thrillingly a screening of The Birds with none other than Tippi Hedren in Q&A mode, I may also try and slot in a screening of this which sounds fascinating.
The link is the lovely Ensign Roe Michelle Forbes, a recurring character in Homicide who made a particularly perfect exit from that brilliant TV series, one of Mill’s greatest achievements. I grew up with the likes of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide and ER and it’s no surprise that its cadre of writers who proved how great episodic TV can be moved on to the likes of The Wire, Deadwood and Six Feet Under. Under that HBO stable they expanding the format of episodic TV into a more fertile arena, embracing a wider canvass of season led storytelling that cinema cannot achieve in a mere 120 minutes. I cannot do any of those shows justice here, out of context quick clips will make no sense, but yeah for you Wire fans in cold turkey pick up the Homicide box set as it rocks for the first few seasons….and doesn’t Munch rule?