I’ve been on something of a Michael Mann trip recently, given the acquisition of the glorious Blu-Ray of Thief and the release of the criminally underrated Blackhat, so here is an interesting little comparison;
It’s slightly unusual to see a US studio backing such a limited appeal domestic project, but the notorious source material has propelled it as the most lucrative Argentinian domestic opening of recent memory. El Clan concerns a well-heeled Buenos Aires family who abducted people from their own neighborhood, demanding hefty ransoms, before executing their victims upon payment – ugly stuff to be sure. The twist of course is that this is based on a true story known to the population if you are of a certain age to recall the crimes, which occurred from 1982 to 1985;
After Wild Tales international success this seems like an ideal and organic continuation of possible breakthroughs, although given the saturated market I doubt that this film will get much more than potential festival exposure in our hemisphere. Still, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled as the profile of Pablo Trapero rises, more on him and his superb work later in the year…..
A quick detour into TV courtesy of Mr. Soderbergh, I’m only three episodes into his Cinemax sponsored series The Knick and I think we’ve diagnosed the best series of the year. Set in a turn of the 20th century New York hospital the period design is incredible, with a fantastic coterie of characters with some very promising futures.
I also love the Clint Mansell score which in its seething electronica contortions should be incongruous with the period detail, but it works perfectly, in a very odd way. Soderbergh (who directs every episode of the ten episode run) also manages an absolute miracle, dissecting a charismatic performance from Clive Owen, who so often is something of a vacuum on screen – he plays a brilliant, visionary surgeon, who just happens to be a severe heroin addict. Be prepared through as it horribly gruesome, it doesn’t skimp on the horror of the period when it comes to medicine, racial and social conditions, and thankfully the second series has already been commissioned. Can’t wait to burn through the rest of the season…..
So we perambulate to one of the great masterpieces of our age, a film swirling within the heady apogees of humanities artistic achievements, equal to the doomed, hexed romance of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of Welles mosaic genius and structural synthesis of Kane, or with Kubrick’s epoch sprawling visionary science fiction odyssey – a poor fella and his kid look for a bike in Rome. First of all no, this isn’t a bio-pic of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France winning team circa 1999 to 2005, the first time I saw Bicycle Thieves was as part of the syllabus of my Film Studies A level, when the whole apparatus of Italian neo-realism formed one arc of four coursework strands. As a rather immature adolescent the prospect of a black and white, foreign film with subtitles and no-one famous and everything filled me with nothing but crushing boredom, and if watching the damn thing wasn’t like so completely unfair then the prospect of writing a 1,500 word essay on the film ignited howls of ‘I hate you’, slammed doors, sour faced pouting and bursts of screaming suicide threatening hysterics. Naturally I was wrong, there are clear and compelling reasons for the films enduring legacy, so as part of an impromptu exercise I thought I’d pop down to the South Bank* and revisit the film on the big screen. As his highest profile masterpiece the film is the centre piece of a retrospective of Vittorio De Sica, one of the key figures of early post war European cinema, whose subsequent films such as Two Women, Shoeshine and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini have charmed generations of filmmakers and critics, if not always finding much of an audience beyond his Neapolitan homeland or the dusty tomes of some vintage movie periodicals.
Shot in post war Rome on furtively sourced odds and ends of discarded film stock De Sica’s humanist masterpiece is the inverted antidote to the Hollywood blockbuster, a film which rushes a peloton direct to the heart with nary a camera trick or subtle plot curve to divest it of its simple, elegant energy. The story is as modest as its characters threadbare shawls – a distraught father Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) anxiously seeks work and recompense in order to feed his family amid the poverty stricken slums following years of conflict. One modestly lucrative method of employment is as a bill poster, traversing the city to glue announcements and adverts upon shivering walls and within dust choked plazas, as the capital slowly attempts to regain its feet and regenerate from many years of damage. To conduct such work the employers insist on a form of transport, to be able to fulfil their contracts all across the city, so the family sells their final meagre possessions to be able to purchase a bike and hopefully secure a more stable financial future. As you may guess from the title Antonio’s bike is stolen, instigating an anxious search of the city with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow, leading to a heart-breaking climax which is up there with E.T. going home, Mr. Lowry’s psychiatric retreat into fantasy in Brazil, or the terrorists massacring millions of innocent public sector workers in their intergalactic 9/11 known as Star Wars. Goddamn Rebel scum……
I think it was the great Stanley J. Kubrick who made the insightful distinction between form and content, recognising that Eisenstein exemplified the former with montage, with the cutting, the grammar of film indicating political affiliations to connect meaning and emotion through a sequence of associations. On the flipside Chaplin was all content, all pathos and humour, the drama steered through plot, the human condition writ large on those mournful, searching eyes. Bicycle Thieves follows this path, plucking at the heartstrings through simple emotional connections, as a desperate search for something as pedestrian as a bike takes on near mythic proportions . The film and the entire neo-realist movement is a remarkably organic volte face to the so called ‘White Telephone‘ cinema of Mussolini’s reign, the cinematic equivalent of 1980’s American soaps, as muzzled melodrama and status obsessed classicism obscured a culture in the thralls of fascist suffocation – see also the Nazi regime mountain films.
Neo-realism is a film movement which literally sprang phoenix like from the askes of the previous regime, using non-professional actors, shot on real Rome streets with real exteriors and locations, awarding the dramas a physical immediacy and social conscience which has been imitated and extended all across the world. One of his De Sica’s primary skills was in crafting performances, his films are all about the actors and the characters journey, so the films focus on common people, their interactions and struggles appealed to a broad audience, particularly in those difficult post war years as Antonioni and Bruno’s poverty stricken journey rang a chord within many countries and communities. Their frantic search offers the city in microcosm, as they attend church, neighbourhood meetings and even a brothel in a closing scene, but the sense isn’t to make a political point of the crushed proletariat scrabbling for morsels among the debris, less than a objective truthful presentation of the world as is, for once focusing on the common man and his son, bonding through a shared struggle. This is a small, quietly affecting film which appears as a conscious rejection of fascism and fantasy, when you’d have thought the exhausted societies of Europe might have been clamouring for a heady draught of escapism such as was offered by Hollywood in its musical heyday. It remains the most consciously political genre of cinema, purely by virtue of its environs – usually the proletariat, the social order under examination, with its oratory finding sympathetic ears in Iranian cinema, with the Dardenne brothers, through some Argentinean directors (see my new find of 2015 Pablo Trapero) and Indian cinema, or just think about Ken Loach’s socially aligned work here in the UK as another localised example.
I do have a long term ambition to cover the frequently lauded all-time greats here at the menagerie, not because they are necessarily my all-time favourite movies, but perhaps more as an intellectual challenge to pit my puny rhetorical wits against the commonly accepted global canon – although there are variations across the various polls a handful of films almost always make appearances. We have covered Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane and 2001, and one day I’ll get around to Potemkin, The Seven Samurai (next year gentle reader), Greed, The Searchers and La Règle du jeu, although having re-watched that on DVD again last year I honestly can’t see what all the fuss is about – evidently I’m a philistine. As you might imagine Scorsese is a huge fan of the neo-realist canon, a movement emanating from his ancestral home just as he was born in the badlands of the Bronx, and with the likes of La Terra Treme and Rossolini’s trilogy (Paisan, Rome Open City & Germany Year Zero) you can see the echoes in some of his films – you can learn more in his comprehensive documentary My Voyage To Italy. Bicycle Thieves is clearly a masterpiece of world cinema, like Chaplin its design and definitions hum across the decades and crucially across cultures and creeds, as we all have families, we all squabble, we occasionally experience financial woes and have parents who must at some stage fall from their childhood erected pedestals. Personally when we studied the neo-realist cluster I was more deeply moved by Umberto D which took as its story the travails of an elderly man wandering the same decaying environments, attempting to retain his dignity amidst the squalor, but I haven’t had the courage to see that again for almost twenty five years so perhaps the time is ripe for a revisit. Time’s a funny old thing isn’t it? I expect it took me weeks of torturous foot dragging and indifferent research to write my coursework piece on the film back then, whereas now I can vomit a 1,500 word piece in a few of hours. Talk about getting on your bike;
* Brucie bonus – as I quietly reading my book, waiting for the previous screening to conclude I was rather amused to see Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay exit NFT1, having just concluded a Q&A on their new film 45 Years. Which was nice.
Dust off your fedora, pull on your crumpled trench coat and fire up a gitane, it’s time to stalk the mean, crime ridden streets of Paris. Even though it wasn’t included on this boxed set which forms the spine of our new directors season it isn’t remotely feasible to take on Jean-Pierre Melville’s highly influential oeuvre without covering Le Samouraï, the 1967 brooding crime classic which is curiously difficult to source in the UK – I had to go and score a South Korean Blu-Ray import. Cited by filmmakers as diverse as Tarantino, Christopher McQuarrie, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch and the Coens (surely this where they got the chapeau motif for Millers Crossing?) as core inspirations Melville is the crime movie consigliere, the epitome of indomitable will and stoic staging, carving his own fiercely patrolled and sculpted underworld throughout a series of ruthless movies from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. A fierce soul Melville distinguished himself fighting the occupation during the war, giving rise to probably the best French war movie of all time Army Of Shadows that we will breach later. He’s always been something of an outcast, an idiosyncratic figure who lies somewhere between the cinephilia of the post-war nouvelle vague and the James Cagney and George Raft pictures of the 1930’s, but where his peers embraced the likes of Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks he clearly embraced American gangster flicks as a generic inspiration rather than worship specific directors, inflecting the iconography with his own continental conscience, carving his own identity independent of popular critical movements and theories. Like his country man Jacques Tati he was utterly obsessed with controlling and building his own cinematic universe (both men developed and owned their unique production studios), while the key thread that runs through Melville’s work are concepts of honour and the imperative of a moral code, whether among thieves or robbers, assassins or insurgents.
Melville’s Paris has the pallor of a slow rigour mortis grey corpse, a sour and lonely place, as transactions are exchanged wordlessly between underworld members for the acquisition of vehicles and firearms, as the rituals of the game are played through with a semiotic symbolism. The capital of romance instead is transformed into a ruthless realm where you walk into a room, clip your target with two bullets to the head without any last words or final pleas of clemency, before exiting into the night like some spectral trench coated angel of death. That epitome of 1960’s French chic Alain Delon stars as Jef Costello, the ruthless ronin of the title who takes on a deadly commission to execute a nightclub manager. During the stealthy and immaculately planned operation he is nevertheless witnessed by sultry musician Valérie (Cathy Rosier), the house pianist who for some undisclosed reason declines to identify Costello in a hastily police arranged line up of the usual suspects. The film then concerns itself with Costello’s efforts to cover his tracks and neutralise any threat, while also attempting to understand his saviours mystifying motivations. The direct synchronisation of the plot find its weight through a domination of bold angles, of clearly delineated verticals and horizontals, indicating a hermetically controlled and rigid realm where both sides of the law operate within concurrent confining structures. It is a cold and ascetic environment, swathed in battleship grey interiors and exhausted urban exteriors, an underworld of conformity which figures glide through with an almost automaton assembly – this is a world away from the Paris of Renoir, Jean Vigo or Marcel Carne. Unsurprisingly Melville’s aesthetics have been linked through to the philosophical musings of his countrymen Sartre and Camus, the random purposeless of existence leading logically to man erecting his own purpose and rationale, in this case a moral code and ideology independent of any higher power or guide other than to ‘thine ownself be true’.
Also austere is the use of score, the majority of the musical struts in the film are diagetic, the in universe sound generated within cafes or nightclubs. When Melville does break with these designs it is at crucial junctures in the drama, at key character moments when the independent score swells to frame the proceedings, indicating that Costello is wrestling with an internal crisis such as when he struggles to comprehend why the musician failed to identify him in the police line-up. Unusually for the period and crime movies in general women are more than mere trophies to be traded or won, in fact the fairer sex are key plot engines with their own agency, motives and goals, as equal to the men in their obedience to the strict rules and criminal conditioning of the streets. Unlike traditional film noir which vaguely casts its looming shadow over Melville’s work (in setting and situation, if not necessarily style and substance) there is very little sex or indication of sexual drives driving tormented souls to the brink of obsession and madness, if any coupling occurs it would seem to be a fleeting and mechanical exercise, another ritualistic going through the motions instead of being lost in a swirling torrent of desire. Instead the tempo of Le Samouraï isn’t that of the woozy, sleazy streets but a metronome procession, as one sequence alone has our lone wolf traversing a series of hallways and tunnels in Paris simply to walk to a meeting, taking a good few minutes to establish the milieu through a synthetic control of geography, space and movement, a field surgeon dissecting his patient with careful precision, before exploding in a burst of unsheathed violence.
This detached formalism also invokes Bresson as a clear influence, his monosyllabic mannequins also serving as opaque vessels that glide through these emotionally deadened interactions, and I think these acrobatics probably affected the art-house austerity of Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont as well as genre gigolos Tarantino and Woo, with their emphasis on image and swagger. In that sense Melville emerges as something of a nodal point of cinema, a synthesis of early Hollywood Warner Brothers talkies, continental ‘chic’ formalism and a smattering of Kurosawa’s 1950’s samurai films, which post 1970 have imprinted upon ‘cool’ genre cinema within a pulsating, secret criminal underworld, visible all the way up to last years John Wick. There is not a single gesture, the flicker of any eye or speed of gait which isn’t significant in Melville’s universe, as the lack of any grand emotional discourse encourages the viewer to latch onto any small register as a significant event, a tiny hairline crack in the inscrutable façade of the career criminals and lawmen on their tail. Costello’s apartment has a single suggestion of a life beyond his job, a minor bird whose chirps suggest a small glimpse of humanity and a yearning for companionship. Of course this is revealed as another feint , the avian a canary in the coal mine, serving as a guard-dog in a brilliant plot machination which I will leave you to discover for yourselves. The film is also a fascinating social document of Paris in the 1960’s, of le metro, smoke choked cafes and the capitals numerous denizens, the swinging sixties this ain’t as the film has the mood of a sedative overdose rather than a sunshine kissed LSD labyrinth. In that sense its an interesting comrade to Boorman’s Point Blank which was released in the same year, both films sharing some common ground – a remorseless, granite hewn protagonist, remorseless stalking through an urban environment, shocking bursts of physical & emotional violence, a controlling moral codex – even if the criminal carapace takes on different hues on either side of the Atlantic.
Just from the random photos I’ve sourced you should get an idea of the washed out, pallid interiors, graveyard grey and slowly decaying, a truly cheerful start to this season and if memory serves this might be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Melville’s stripped down, hyperborean climate. I’ve seen all the other films in the boxed set but at indeterminate moments over the years, I’m almost 100% positive that the first time I saw Le Samouraï would have been during its 1990’s Moviedrome screening (ah yes, here we are) so I’m curious to see how they all fit together to construct an almost unique, carefully calibrated universe. I think I’ll try to keep the rest of this season faithful to chronology, meaning that next we will skip back to 1956 and Melville’s first crime film Bob Le Flambeur, which also served as a significant influence on Soderbergh’s first Oceans Eleven movie and was remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief back in 2002 – a rather underrated film as I recall. Le Samouraï scythes like its namesakes elite wakizashi weapon, razor-sharp, keen, elegantly balanced and manufactured for a singular, deadly purpose – to slay ones foes and retain ones honour, a grasp for purpose in a purposeless and implacable universe;
Oh pleassssse be showing at the LFF, could this be this years spirited entry to the centuries best horror films list, or does It Follows still occupy that perch?;
This was the spectral toast of Sundance this year, looks spooky huh? Makes a change from all the zombies, vampires, serial killers and the other exhausted horror tropes, although I assumed that about The Babbadook which didn’t connect with me…….
There’s been a number of technically minded articles recently quietly examining an exciting new technical phenomenon – drones. Some are citing is as potentially important as the introduction of the Steadicam in 1978, others, rather breathlessly, with the birth of sound in 1928. Major blockbuster productions are starting to get in on the act, and as you now longer require that pesky operator and his or her encumbrance of gravity – for example;
Pretty impressive huh? Well, apart from the arms but this is micro-budget piece which is more of a showreel for further work and investment. The futurists are predicting a whole new experience once the current drones chassis limited strength gets to the point where it can mount the latest generation of RED digital, or even 3D cameras. Interesting times……..
Announced as a London Film Festival Gala premiere today and followed up with this rather short trailer, next year’s best actress competition starts here;
This film devastated Cannes in the best possible way, with some muttering that it’s Todd Haynes merciless masterpiece. Me, I’m rather more excited at the prospect of a LFF screen talk with him, or Cate Blanchet or Rooney Mara as they are all confirmed as attending the festival in October.
I think, after nine months of Werner Herzog I deserve a bit of a laugh don’t I? So as we timidly enter the studios graveyard season, the August and September of the movie calendar where hesitant production houses unceremoniously dump their products and wares that they haven’t quite worked out how to market or sell, like a shamefully discarded bastard Victorian child. Some of the alternative blockbuster programing is hanging on in there, and for a change of pace I thought I’d give a comedy a try, a genre that has always been woefully unrepresented here at the Menagerie. Judd Apatow’s latest springs from the pen of writer & actress Amy Schumer, a star in the ascendant whom seems to be America’s new favourite funny lady. She stars as twenty-something New Yorker Amy who is enjoying the single life, sleeping around, getting wasted while juggiling her stressful magazine journalism career, as it seems that every twenty-something woman in every rom-com always works in the media don’t they? When she hooks up with successful doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader) the usual contraptions of the rom-com spring into position, the standard complications and obstacles to the path of true love, with just a little character background of family drama to frame a life which needs to evolve and transform if transcendent happiness is to be achieved – in this case a pregnant younger sister (Brie Larson) and increasingly frail father (Colin Quinn) whom is wasting away in a care home.
Broadly speaking this works, there are enough laughs sprinkled throughout the airy romance to propel it through the rather clichéd dramatic longueurs, a path enjoyably endured mostly due to Schumer’s playful performance and intimate knowledge of the material given she is the sole screenwriter. There is a curious pastiche of a Sundance film within the film which oddly doesn’t resemble anything made since the era of Living In Oblivion or more recent mumblecore musings, and they even pay homage to Annie Hall toward the end of one city celebrating montage, a reverent moment given that movie is still widely considered as the apotheosis of the genre. So many of the scenes fall completely flat, without a single laugh being tickled out, but then a few big laughs can make you overlook some rather poor comedic dimensions – a homeless guy as recurrent comic-relief character? Really? The film relies on a number of American specific sports knowledge and cameos including an extended performance from Basketball legend LeBron James as Aaron ethnically diverse best friend, and that’s where I think some of the humour has been abandoned in the trip across the Atlantic. There is one scene where I’m guessing the American equivalent of John Motson is humorously commentating on the action between characters, which feels like an idea that would have surfaced around the Zucker movies of the 1980’s, not a bad gag on its own but the tone just doesn’t fit with the rest of this movies observational and character driven chuckles. But I don’t want to be relentlessly negative, there are about a dozen good laughs in here, mostly from the side characters which always seem to be the way with Apatow films. Amy Schmauer is a fine comedienne with a great sense of timing and a cherubic portfolio of serenely executed facial expressions, compared to the spectacularly unfunny The Interview which I also saw this weekend Train Wreck is like Life Of Brian or Duck Soup in comparison. Maybe also worth a look for an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as some antipodean, bronze perma-tan magazine harpy who makes Anna Wintour look like Mother Teresa, and a final physical gag which although you can sense coming a mile away had me and my fellow patrons roaring with laughter.
So from modern promiscuous New York of the 2010’s to the sordid debauchery of New York of the 1980’s, a sadly lost time before the Disneyfication of the Big Apple, when an enterprising young gentleman could see a blaxpoliation triple bill in Times Square, score a sweet needle of Dominican black tar heroin and purloin a back-alley blow job from a toothless transsexual and still have enough pocket-money left to catch the last A-train home. So welcome to Mike Dowd, one of the cities most depraved and corrupt drug dealing thieves, a fella who takes to embezzlement, blackmail, deceit and deception like a duck to water. There is one mild complication to this life of crime, primarily being that Mike is a cop, stationed at the notorious 75th District just South East of Manhattan. As an early context setting section imprints this was an extraordinarily dangerous environment, which in the 1980’s was awash in thousands of homicides a year as hundreds of millions of dollars of crack cocaine laid waste to entire communities and districts. This is one of those deft documentaries which is cut like a kinetic thriller, with a thundering action packed score punctuated with delirious montages, as talking head footage of a machine gun voiced Mike and his quieter partner Ken Eurell is cut between fascinating period specific photos and archival footage of their notorious crimes and the IAD investigations into their spiralling transgressions. As a keen purveyor of this type of urban depravity, as a degenerate dime-store denizen who digs the digressions of desperate dogs and worships at the altar of James Ellroy this is of course right up my graffiti choked alley, so if you find such material fascinating then this is a documentary for you. This is the kind of story that demands a fictional translation as it was born for the big-screen, although sadly Sidney Lumet has left us maybe draft in James Gray or Spike Lee to craft this tense urban thriller, as some of the scenes and scams that these guys got into are straight out of a Hollywood handbook, including international drug cartels, secret surveillance in the back of white vans, wild car chases across the East river bridge as the coke and booze flowed like a tarnished tsunami. The film would write itself with the cops own internal sense of omertà a powerful dramatic foil, as even if you know a colleague is up to no good you, never, ever, ever turn rat regardless of the circumstances. This is a solid rap-sheet, and is rather disquieting in the background of this years police brutality and institutional illness seen in Ferguson and Cleveland and North Charleston and Cincinnati and on and on…….
How about Global Thermonuclear War? Nominated by Mr. Gibson himself no less, via the magic of Twitter;