If there was a glimmer of joy in what will go down in history as one of the most shameful, scandal drenched periods of the moving image industry it was of course David Lynch and Mark Frost’s triumphant return to our screens with Twin Peaks, a mere twenty four years, 6 months and 21 days since the domestic release of Fire Walk With Me. Spectacularly unburdened from any creative molestation from the studio suits and granted an impossible to believe complete freedom of expression it is pure, unadulterated Lynch, bookending his incredible career with another epochal upending of the traditions of formal visual storytelling , as well as serving as simultaneous celebration and summation of his entire forty year career. Can we now speak of an expanded Lynchian Universe™, as per the current vogue for entire franchise landscapes populated by small and large screen spigots which suckle nourishing material for the parched fans of the DCU, Marvel, Star Wars or J.K. Rowlingverse? Perhaps not, but as a parade of his greatest collaborators over the past four decades (Badalamenti, McLachlan, Dern, Coulson, Watts, Stanton, editor Duwayne Dunham, casting director Johanna Ray and DP Peter Deming) it also served as a final cosmic stew of Lynch’s fiction fetishes, his celebration of dream logic, internal damnation and the power of ideas, of the eternal and colossal struggle between the light and dark rendered as starkly as the alternating zig-zag ziggurats slithering across the Black Lodge’s floor. A mere hour or so in its May debut I sensed just how much of this was going to explore the series mysterious interdimensional mythos, relaxing into a treat as we plunged over that Great Northern Hotel waterfall into pure Eraserhead era eugenics. I still can’t believe that something so abstract has permeated the strict hermetics of the TV formula even in this era of hundreds of channels and streaming services, but then again that’s exactly what he achieved back in 1990, only this time he’s really gone to fucking town,
For a show titled Twin Peaks we really don’t spend too much time there do we? For us Lynchophiles this was a, well, a dream, his cacophonous aesthetic which he honed with Mullholland Drive sharpened over 18 mischievous hours with final resolutions leaving more questions posed than ever answered – beware ye from going forward for here be spoilers. I loved that narrative threads and ideas are not even remotely metabolised, merely spun like a web from some crepuscular core to form a discordant yet umbilical patchwork of moods, incidents and trauma. Just as the 1990’s incarnation operated (at least on one of numerous levels) as a satire on the contemporary soap and TV drama format Frost and Lynch continue to toy with the core notions of narrative itself, of cause and effect within the fictitious headspace that we all conjure internally when we watch a film, read a book or even listen to a song. Like a bittersweet, slowly expiring dream fading from the purlieus of memory Twin Peaks: The Return was also riven with a sense of melancholy and tragedy, seeing Catherine Coulson (whose relationship with Lynch tracks all the way back to the early 1970’s) reprise of the Log Lady while in thrall to final stage cancer was deeply sad, not to mention the loss of both Miguel Ferrer, Bowie and Warren Frost before the series aired. Now, I loathe the entire social media tsunami outpourings of grief when a celebrity or public figure passes on, it is in no way relevant to the actual respect or affection that the figure actually engendered and is totally about the Twitter or Facebooker signalling their virtue and their self importance, but that said I am a little frustrated with myself for not remarking on the passing of Harry Dean Stanton given that he’s among my all-time favourite actors, so it was comforting to see him grace us with one final, appropriately moving swan-song;
So long HD, long may the code endure. The fact that a number of the Sight & Sound cadre of worldwide critics have selected it as among the best of the year has caused commotion, and it’s a testament to the merging of the small and silver screens, the usurping of streaming services over traditional media that such a venerable institution now actively seeks nominations from across the moving image realm and no longer restrict the entries from just the theatrical production model. As usual, the commentary has been terrific. One reviewer remarked of this year’s Silver medal winner that ‘It’s not TV or cinema, it’s an uncanny law unto itself’. Another identified the Jacques Tati influenced antics of Dougie as he navigated the perils of both the Las Vegas housing project he found himself unceremoniously materialised within and the corporate landscape populated by mobsters, quivering showgirls, and backstabbing colleagues. Others have noted how the live acts at the Bang Bang! bar act as a tonal bridge between episodes, while how Lynch confidently expands scenes and sequences simply to let the series breathe as much as he nonchalantly turns his back on the conventions of entertainment constrained into the traditional 43 minute plus 17 minutes adverts hour long units of corporate mandated time. It was quite a dizzying nocturnal exercise, staying up until the early morning hours of Monday morning for the UK transmission almost every week, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t simply stream an entire series in one bloated digestion rather than anxiously await each weekly instalment. Those first half run episodes were staggering, a truly avant-garde assault on the senses, causing me to giggle like a sleep deprived hyena that this could pass for popular entertainment in today’s formulaic firmament – yeah, so it is reasonably clichéd at this point but I have to ask, ‘gotta light?’;
Throughout the series Lynch folds space and time like the melange addicted Navigators of Dune, the very first scene inciting queries and compulsions which were partially revealed 5 months and plateaus of space and time later. Frequently time as a narrative construct is elongated and compressed concertina style not just over episode arcs but also in individual scenes, Sarah Palmer in particular the victim of some malevolent daemon manipulating her reality for its own, abstract amusement. Alongside the mourning Twin Peaks also offers a mediation on the passage of time between 1990 and 2017, all the characters have aged, wizened and most have suffered some tragedy or loss, a gloomy ideology punctuated by the series final piece of dialogue when Cooper puzzledly inquires ‘What year is this?’
So you may have noticed I haven’t really delved into the story that we were presented with, the twin alignments of BadCoop evading the clutches of the lodge while being pursued by the Knights Templar of the FBI, while amnesiac reconstructed GoodCoop wrestled with his new found identity as a Being There akin Mid-Western insurance officer. That decision is fostered by the fact that I don’t care, reason and logic sacrificed on the altar of mood and tempo. The plot was secondary to the overall experience of the show, of simply letting the images and ideas wash over you without any intellectual inspection, as it was quite clear from episode one that this was a work that operates primarily on Lynch’s instincts, occasionally steered through the turbulence of incoherence into the blue skies of logic by co-pilot scribe Mark Frost. I do have my personal favourite moments to be sure, and it was certainly fun to inspect the numerous fan theories and theorising on-line, but there are simply no definitive answers other than those that you as viewer bring to the table which for me is the function of truly great works of art. To isolate one example of hundreds in the show is it significant that the terrifying head-crushing, zippo seeking woodsmen has a similar visage to Abraham Lincoln? Undoubtedly. Is Lynch going to explain what he means by that (and in fact does he even consciously know)? Of course not. To explain is to destroy, to evaporate the magic and diminish the audiences interpretation, forging a fixed path of cognition which serves no master;
Still eerily terrifying, no? The techniques were also a summation of the Lynchian aesthetic, yes we were subjected to the atypical strobing effects, the frankly terrifying omni-dimensional audio mix, the over and under-cranking chittering film speeds, and his utterly unique Norman Rockwell Americana perverted through the lens of 20th century European surrealism. But these techniques seemed refined and finalised in this coda defining work, concocting a witch’s brew that left me in awe – the shift of space and place via B&W and colour photography alone is majestic. I can’t think of many filmmakers who can oscillate through nodal points of the same themes without getting stale and repetitive, but his deployment of Doppelgängers, a binary light dark motif he has instructed through Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive and Inland Empire remains fascinating and interesting, curdled with bouts of remorseless violence and trauma which the most legendary of horror directors can’t equal. OK, yes, I’ll admit to being a little conflicted at some of the decisions, the entire Las Vegas mobsters / GoodCoop arc didn’t entirely work for me, series primary antagonist Bob being dispatched by a Cockney armed with green washing up glove seemed somewhat anticlimactic, and the lack of resolution or indeed illustration of Audrey Horne’s story was frustrating, her suggested mental cage hinting at deeper, comatose horrors following the climax of Season 2. But we were blessed with this transcendent moment which operates as simultaneous tribute to her popular persona in the original series and a leitmotif of Lynch and his work, a fallen angel weaving narcotically in the throes of (to steal a phrase) some sort of ‘Bunuelian limbo’;
There is a nice documentary on Dave’s early career doing the rounds by the way. I will keep my gunpowder dry for the moment on that sequence in Episode 8, the cement of an hour of intravenous information which has instantly instilled itself as among the finest hours of television ever broadcast in any period from any country, a sequence I aim to include on my final ever entry to this blog – there is a method to my madness. It is rare but sometimes you just know when watching something for the first time that you are witnessing a potential masterpiece, an immediate entry into the cultural lexicon (the last time I remember thinking this was during the Under The Skin premiere in Toronto) and its detonation is a masterstroke which evokes Stan Brakhage, Mark Rothko, and dare I say it Stanley Kubrick, the terrifying resurgence of a species threatening event which we had hoped been stunned into hibernation at the alleged conclusion of the Cold War. Similarly the last two hours of the series were among the most gripping I’ve spent in front of a screen over the past few years, literally returning to the scene of the crime to reconceptualise and reframe the entire series and its wider cultural phenomenon. As I’m sure you’ve heard the final scene was shot at the real world Palmer house location with its real, present day 2017 occupant answering to Cooper and Laura, igniting a final, horrific, howling primordial scream – guillotine cut, run muted titles & a silent whisper, then get thee to a nunnery. Was Twin Peaks: The Return a momentous statement, apt for our current oppressive and apprehensive times? You betcha, but there is always hope among the darkness, like the dream of the Robins, two souls offering some relief, among the encroaching dark;
Well fuck me it’s darn weird being back here again, after many, many months of neglect. I could barely remember my password let alone the functions of writing a blog post, so please bear with me as I reconnect with an old but terminal exercise. The good news (I guess) is that I’m going to commit to a few year closedown posts of timid length and analysis, the bad news (if anyone really cares) is that this will lead to a final execution of this ten year project once and for all as the day job has officially overtaken this now redundant blog. What have I been doing? Phase 2 of this. What am I involved in from January 2018? This. As such I need to be spectacularly careful of my digital footprint, wary of the press for reasons myriad and numerous, especially since I’m more than positive that some of the comments and jokes I have made on here could easily be located and exploited out of context with horrific consequences. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, here is the usual December montage which isn’t particularly transcendent, and as such representative of a rather average year;
I have been relatively active over the axial orbit movie going wise, but due to project pressures I completely missed the LFF this year (didn’t see a single screening or event) as my schedule simply didn’t gel with other priorities. Ironically I am on target for seeing over 500 films this year on various eyeball assaulting formats, and have managed to cram in some mini seasons on Eric Rohmer, all of Soderbergh’s 21st century material, a revisit of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, all of the Jarmusch films on Amazon Prime, Ōkami’s Lone Wolf & Cub series and even a revisit of a John Cassavettes box-set. I still don’t chime with the love for him, as much as I can appreciate his ground-breaking achievements in championing independent American filmmaking before Sundance was a faltering glint in Robert Redford’s azure eyes. More montage mischievousness here;
So in order to temper expectations here are my films of the year thus far, presented without commentary or debate and in no particular order – make of this what you will ; Wind River, Personal Shopper, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Moonlight, mother!, Lady Macbeth, The Death Of Stalin, Logan and maybe Malick’s Song To Song and the eerily prescient Nocturama. Alas I didn’t see The Florida Project, You Were Never Really Here, Brawl In Cell Block 99, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Good Time, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer nor The Shape Of Water, some of which I’m sure could have arisen to the 2017 Menagerie pantheon if I’d seen them at the LFF. As it stands the ultimate event of 2017 was of course David Lynch’s spectacular bookend to his incredible career, maybe there more there will be more on that……later;
One of my all time favourite actors, 80 years young today. Hang in there dude…..
Thirty years ago this month, UK boozy cult classic Withnail & I was released to an unsuspecting audience. Here is a excellent revisit to some of the movies classic scenes and moments, which you can revisit through the magic of cinema here;
‘You never knocked me down Ray…‘ I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Even if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what addicts term ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.
Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring. At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….
Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders. The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences, so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.
Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character through a specific American lens of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot, the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.
After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches. Seen now the thundering editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.
At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;
OK you fucking mooks, OK, I feel bad about this, I’m feeling especially guilty and useless at not posting anything concerning my Scorsese blitzkrieg over the past few weeks. Truth be told I have six or seven full reviews in the pipeline, but wider considerations have fumbled my intent, and it has proved difficult to find the effort or inspiration to continue this increasingly monumental effort – real life can sometime intrude. Nevertheless I’ve only got one more full movie to see in the season which on a whole has been a revelatory season, there is just one more of the classics to finally see on the big screen, so I keep telling myself to wait until that is absorbed until I get chained to the keyboard. Until then here is some more adjunct material which is fascinating, one of the core figures in recent Amercian cinema whom would not exist, as we known it, without Marty;
As is my idiom, I do like to post some ancillary material when indulging in a director season, so I thought it best to keep the flow running with some acclaimed non-fiction material which is often overlooked in favour of Marty’s crime epics or spiritual sojourns. The BFI, as usual are doing a comprehensive job by showing many of his documentaries on the big screen alongside the movies, but I’m not inclined to spend precious resources in catching these on the big screen when I can barely keep up with the January new releases and tackle big, iconic movies such as a certain boxing picture which I have tentatively begun assaulting. So, courtesy of the inter-webs here are a couple of his highly regarded pieces, modest little examinations of his family in the first instance and a colourful acquaintance in the second, to keep things ticking over while I catch Manchester By The Sea this week and hope to bring you the story of brutalised boxer by the weekend;
I should say that this exercise has ballooned out of all proportion as I have committed to and made great inroads into re-watching every single Scorsese movie on my HD home A/V system, which has included upgrading some films to high definition from their mediocre DVD masters, thus so far I have powered through Gangs Of New York, Cape Fear, The Age Of Innocence, Boxcar Bertha, Hugo, The Aviator, Bringing Out The Dead and The Departed – not bad for a weeks work, with more still nesting on my watch-list. Anyway, here is his interview with the rather squalid Steven Prince, star of one of the key scenes in Taxi Driver you’ll recall, and his O/D story which Tarantino lifted for that sequence in Pulp Fiction;
You might be as bemused as I was to discover that we have a recent sequel, well if you consider 2009 as ‘recent’, that you can see here…..
In order to provide the most comprehensive cover for this seminal season we have to delve down into the lesser known, more neglected films in the Scorsese canon. Rifling through the material in my film book library there is unsurprisingly a wealth of anecdotes and analysis on the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but I could barely glean a half-dozen pages on the making of The Color Of Money, the loosely grained 1986 sequel to sports classic The Hustler which starred a fresher faced Paul Newman in one of his iconic roles. Curiously to me, the 1980’s have usually been considered as Scorsese’s wilderness years, the period where he fell from the pedestal of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation following a litany of incredible pictures, even managing to recover from the annihilating reaction to his tribute to the Golden era Hollywood musicals New York, New York with what is widely considered as one of the greatest ever post war American films – Raging Bull. He kept working throughout the following decade, kicked the debilitating coke habit that landed him in hospital for exhaustion a number of times, but it wasn’t easy to convince the studios to fund his uncommercial projects. Sometimes however the movie gods would smile and the talent would approach him with opportunities, as Newman did when he raised the prospect of a return to the life of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool shark turned wholesale liquor salesman, a quarter century after he abandoned the life. Personally I love 1980’s Scorsese so we will be lavishing a particular emphasis on this period during this season. Even within that enclave this is perhaps his most overlooked picture which crackles with that whip-crack energy and emphasis on character and conflict, yet another man writhing in an existential web of regrets, half-imagined hopes and degraded dreams, with one more elusive shot at glory a chance to transcend their personal purgatory.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this film for a number of reason which I hope to unpick here. Unlike some self-important directors, slowly casting their imperious aspersions over the numerous scripts that pass through their aides fingers and only committing to a prestige project every four or five years Marty decided he wanted to keep working, to keep learning, to collaborate with new and established talent and to expand his repertoire – I admire that. Maybe some of this was commercially minded as we all have bills to pay, but after a cursory glance through the material and one assumes the chance to work with Newman he thought ‘yeah, fuck it’ and committed to the project – I get the same sense of instinctive decision-making arising from his remake of Cape Fear which enabled him to get his full Hitchcockian anxieties exorcised into another project. Paul Newman plays Felson a quarter century on from his rejection of the fugitive life, longer in the tooth and more temperate in his dealings, he initially senses a money spinning opportunity if he can harness and mould the skills of the volatile Vincent (Tom Cruise) and manage the possessive instincts of his girlfriend and partner Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Shot during a grim Chicago winter Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus straddles the film in shivering greys and whites, the palette coming to life when the road-movie plot reaches Atlantic City, just as Eddie’s slow awakening and new-found faith in his own prowess coalesces in a conspicuous climax. Along the way we see the internalized mechanics of the con, of the sweet nectar of the hustle which I’ve always found fascinating, the psychological games and feints which Newman has prior pedigree in one of the all time great grifter movies The Sting. However, unlike more straightforward con movies like House Of Games or Nine Queens which rely more on their serpentine plot mechanics The Color Of Money strives for a deeper purpose, a character study of a man in the twilight of his career lamenting past glories, wondering and yearning if he can recapture his youth which fate and his own foibles snatched from him a generation ago.
As character study The Color Of Money is a picture which rests entirely on the quality of its performances, and Marty shepherded an Academy Award winner from Newman, and buttressed Cruise’s emerging screen persona as a cocky, charismatic all-American boy. This was released just as Cruise had just broken the sound barrier of superstardom, already a hot property after the previous years Risky Business, blasting into the fame stratosphere launched by Top Gun which opened five months earlier. Of course the box office receipts weren’t remotely comparable but he carries his purpose in the picture with his usual chutzpah, this scene the perfect encapsulation of his arrogant adolescence. The associated energy comes from the spectacular exhibition shots and the skilled montages dropped over the various games, I’m not a particular fan of sports films as, well, I’m just not into sports, but the skill on display is fascinating and gripping, all the more impressive as with the exception of one spectacular jump shot every stroke in the film was conducted by Cruise or Newman. Far more interesting is the hustle, that fine psychological game of convincing your opponent that you are an inferior player while slowly coaxing the prize money higher and higher, the act of losing while your ego demands revenge, the ability to walk away and nurse that hunger for revenge until you revisit your mark months later with the bookies odds stacked heavily in your favour. That’s where the characters come to the fore and the intrinsic drama of the film lurks, that struggle between male posturing in Vincent and the venerable wisdom of Eddie’s street smarts, although he isn’t totally immune to his ego obscuring his intellect. These nodes are the pinions of the screenplay by the always brilliant Richard Price – an acclaimed urban novelist in his own right whom has also written episodes of The Wire, Clockers and cult gang movie The Wanderers. Through his research and life experience he has developed a real ear for the argot of the street, for the genuine hustles and scores that this sub-class have developed, all of which gives the films a fascinating authenticity as backdrop to the internal ideological struggles. There is some fine supporting turns from John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a portly prestidigitator, and keep an eye out for a youthful Iggy Pop making a small cameo as another ignorant mark.
The towering presence isn’t Scorsese’s direction or the economic script, the real bounty is of course the lamented Paul Newman, a real screen legend who managed to laminate his late career with a scattering of incredible performances, see also Lumet’s The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool for how you populate the latter stages of your career with some incredible punctuation points. His reprisal of Felson is an aging chancer with a twinkle in his eye, slowly coming to terms with his own mortality and declining opportunities, hell-bent on one last blaze of glory before his star inevitably must diminish and fade. In terms of style Marty winds up his camera like a taut cluster of vivacity, before detonating the mechanism to dizzyingly orbit the baize battlefields as the games commence, tracking the ricocheting balls and thrusting cues like some general monitoring the forward deployment of his assets and his opponents ambushes and counter-strikes. The narrative is clean and compact, a linear journey which educates Vincent and Carmen in the various skillsets of the hustle across a frigid landscape of smoky pool halls and dive bars, as Eddie regenerates his mojo and confidence in his own ambitions. Scorsese’s usual darting coverage, long-takes shifting from perspective POV to mise-en-scene is just so skilful it brings a smile to the eyes, and as I’ve said before and will say again it drapes his films with such an effervescent energy, I just love the technique which makes his films such as joy to watch and revisit again and again. This time around what I found truly compelling, away from the insight into the street was the shifting motives of the characters, and Eddie’s conscious or unconscious use of Vincent to put himself back in the game and rekindle his dwindling confidence. Cleverly, the script probes that grey landscape between being confident enough to throw a game, to build confidence in an opponent before fleecing him with your superior skills, and not being hustled yourself by a stronger player, turning your own ego against you in a more devious and surreptitious manner – that’s the query that the film alights upon yet never definitely answers, wisely leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. This was another well-preserved 35mm print, overall a minor Scorsese perhaps but no less rewarding with its spiritual self-flagellation and adrenalined aesthetics, so rack ’em up;
The long road to penitence begins here. Almost three decades in the making Martin Scorsese’s latest, and potentially penultimate picture is finally anointed in the church of cinema, if he keeps to his recent comments about hanging up his viewfinder. This passion project has been adapted by Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter collaborator Jay Cocks from the celebrated 1966 novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. This is not the first time this striking story has been brought to the screen, in fact it has been filmed twice before, once by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 and by João Mario Grilo as The Eyes of Asia in 1996. I’ve seen neither so we’re not operating from a position of comparison, but I can assume that analysing all three could be a fascinating exercise as they emanate from the perspectives of the host and interloper countries – Japan and Portugal – with a neutral approach provided from the US with this latest translation. Anyway, that’s a whole other exercise, Silence has already been compartmentalised as the final entry in Scorsese’s so-called spiritual trilogy, mused in theological trysts alongside 1988’s controversy baiting The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1997’s zen like Kundun, neither perhaps Marty’s most celebrated works but both harbouring an essential and central ingredient of his entire cinematic oeuvre – the spirit and faith, and how our physical actions connect with the divine via our morally constructed maelstroms.
I’ve mentioned it here before but after growing up in those ‘mean streets’ of Queens and later in his childhood the Little Italy enclave of Manhattan Scorsese was submitted to the Catholic seminary at age 15, a path of devout clemency being laid before him. Thankfully for us heathen cinephiles he didn’t take to his studies and instead turned to the cinema, where he has spent a career examining men – and the fact is that it is nearly always men – wracked in some lacerating mortal or spiritual torment, sometimes finding some sort of redemption or transcendence, and sometimes….not. These themes find themselves at the heart of Silence which reminds one of Apocalypse Now given the similar trajectory into a pagan Heart Of Darkness, a clandestine pilgrimage into the hostile unknown of another culture and country, in order to resurrect with a lost mentor, to rescue an almost saint like idol. It’s 17th century Portugal, and Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are advised by their superiors that a letter has fallen into their hands from a colleague long thought lost to the lord. A Dutch trader, one of the rare merchants from Europe allowed entry to the isolated Japan of that era has passed on correspondence from their inspirational mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the wonderful news of his mortality is coated with concerns, as the liaison also slanders Ferreira by claiming that he has since renounced the church and turned away from god. Refusing to believe this both Father Rodrigues and Garupe decide to follow in their teachers footsteps, and risk torture, death or worse in the mysterious Orient, where the practitioners of the Christian faith are lethally repressed since an earlier flowering of the faith was crushed by the Shinto / Buddhist majority.
This is an aesthetically beautiful film, a late flowering of a great master marshalling his frequent collaborative choir to beautiful crescendos, but the final effect rests on your own plinth of faith and belief, so speaking as a lifelong atheist I worshipped the craft but rejected the credo. Silence is set during a period of imperialistic colonisation of other corners of the globe by many Judeo-Christian sects, so their arrogance with converting others from their native beliefs, the prideful righteousness in enforcing their ideology on the poor and disenfranchised made me harbour zero sympathy for either Fathers journey, but we’ll come back to those dimensions shortly. Nevertheless as a historical backdrop the film is fascinating, following my visit to Japan a decade ago I have absorbed a little of Japanese history and was au fait with the shift from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration, 17th century Japan being a near hermetically sealed culture and society. The fact that 300,000 converts had been raised and then been suppressed was a revelation, so there is much to enjoy from the sheer historical framework of Scorsese’s spiritual sociology. The design of the film is exquisite, from the gilded costumes of feudal Japan to the harmonious architecture of the dynamic dojo and seething peasant villages, garnishing Dante Ferreti (this is his 9th collaboration with Scorsese) a guaranteed Academy Award nomination. The colour palette is dominated with the frail and pale, the mist choked and mysterious in the opening sequences as slowly DP Rodergio Piasto infuses golds and flickering harbingers of light into compositions, as the Priests are tested and their religious odyssey requires a more frantic grip on their Jesuit faith. The camera movements are discreet, Scorsese’s usual inquisitive, darting minnow guidance through scenes shifting from POV to isolate specific sectors of interest, but there is no showboating here, there’s no Copacabana centrepiece, as Silence is a much more pious visual experience – although some of the landscapes are spectacular. In penitence to the title the soundtrack is also sparse and diagetic generated led, cloaking the auditorium with the chirping cacophony of the Japanese flora and fauna, enveloping all the senses in a pre-industrial Oriental Eden. Oh, and for you cult movie fans out there yes that is Shinya Tsukamoto – cybermind behind the Tetsuo pictures – who appears in a reasonably large part as one of the diligent and devoted faithful.
Can we elevate Scorsese to the other great spiritual seers in the vestry, alongside Bresson and Dreyer, Bergman and Malick? No, his faith follows the poverty of Pasolini, finding the struggle in the street among the dispossessed and depraved, although his style certainly apes the celestial. When his name is uttered the first thoughts are usually of the machismo oozing urban malaise of New York, his energetic and fluid camerawork, all set to a rocking soundtrack of baby boomer classics. I’ve long linked his work to a quiet moral authority, they might be buried under the cinematic chutzpah of Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas but without wasting my powder on my review of that masterpiece (with hopefully a special guest attended screening if I can get tickets) there is always quiet moral sermon underpinning his character odysseys, a search for asomatous nourishment and solace, although the conclusions remain intangible and as etherial as a wisp of smoke from a tabernacle candle. These enigmas are dropped in Silence which is more studious, slower paced and contemplative, whose maker is uncharacteristically wearing his heart on his sleeve. Despite its beauty and the dense theological and ethical debate it elevates this for me is where Silence comes unstuck. Usually Scorsese is too skilled and wise an artist to ever make his position so oblique, but questions of faith such as the priests insistence of their holy righteousness are dressed with a solemn endorsement. More problematically the dire consequences of the theocratic insurgency the Jesuits are fostering are explored but through the cinematic syntax it is clear where the sympathies ultimately lie. That was my reading of it and I don’t find that comfortable, although more pious souls may arrive at different conclusions. Still, like the best of ambitious, passion projects I’m sure these reactions could change or warp with age, Garfield is convincing as a man stretched to the absolute limits of his faith, and his climatic scenes are extremely powerful, dramatically and emotionally in the same category as Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation. I have to confess I have no intention of catching the film again at the cinema which should also speak volumes, as a major late period work by arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the past fifty years it of course remains essential viewing, even if Silence won’t be golden for everyone;
It is already a cliché to open any assessment of the year with the distressing roll-call of tragedy, catastrophe and loss – Bowie, Ali, Prince, Princess Leia and the Reef, Brexit, Aleppo and Tru…no…no, I still can’t stomach even mentioning his name here, as I fear that even any subsequent deep-digital scrubbing would fail to dissipate the stench of brimstone. That’s just scratching the surface of course, there have been plenty more losses in this wretched year among the entertainment and artistic spheres, and the world seems to be plunging down a very frightening right-wing trajectory the likes of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. I am still horrified by the resurgence of the intolerant and ignorant in society, the traditional rules and customs of behavior obliterated by a new acceptance of bigotry and misogyny, all cheered on by a corporate mandated press who have dredged new levels of bile, hatred and sheer, unimpeachable falsehoods to further their propaganda aims and objectives – it is fucking sickening. In my accidental and unintentional path to be some super-powered contrarian I on the other hand have had an absolutely spectacular year, probably the best of my adult domestic and professional life. I moved to a new place quite unthinkably fantastic just a few short months ago which I’m still enjoying, I significantly upgraded the Audiovisual entertainment equipment and with my newly acquired entry level Whitehall security clearance I have unlocked vast lucrative veldts of contracting opportunities, although I have to say it took me a while to assimilate into the culture and tempo of the environment – it was certainly much more this than this. If we don the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia for a second I wistfully remember walking to the shops one day as a teenager gentle reader, my mind idly turning over as one’s mind does one’s dreams and ambitions for the future, during which I believe a trio of competing instincts surfaced – a) To become a member of the BFI, to write about cinema and enjoy seeing films on the big screen, as god intended – b) To work in Whitehall, to see the reality behind the facade and witness the mechanisms of the levers of power behind those political edifices and c) Make sweet, sweet lurve with Sherilyn Fenn. Well, as a forty(coughs)something two out of three ain’t bad, and when’s that 2017 UK based Twin Peaks cast reunion again?
But I digress as it is a little gauche to wallow in one’s success, on November 9th I was erring on the mindset of ‘fuck it, burn it all down’, and gave serious consideration to abandoning this now ten-year gestating, quiet corner of the internet. That was my knee-jerk reaction of continuing to interact with the on-line world given the culpability of social media and associated technologies in our new world order, where it seems that video documentary evidence of one thing being said is rejected as an objective, truthful event if the opposition denies it vehemently enough, where dangerously insane figures actively promote views that the mass murder of children was a government conspiracy have the ear of the White House regime. Do we now exist in a post-factual society where incontrovertible scientific truths such as climate change are dismissed as heresy, a annihilating position which essentially has doomed the next generation to tsunamis of human misery and suffering throughout the rest of the century? Probably, and I can only see it getting worse with disorder on the Korean peninsula, Soviet incursions into Eastern Europe, a terrified Iran risking a new cataclysm across the Middle East, and an utterly incompetent ego driven corrupt billionaire ‘serving’ as the leader of the western world. We. Are. Fucked. Heh. Happy New Year, eh? Still, I have talked myself back from the ledge and cooler heads have subsequently prevailed, when it comes to the movies however I don’t think I’m being too controversial in also asserting a very poor year, in some kind of unholy alliance with the ominous developments in communications, politics, socio-economics and the global culture in its wider scope. There has been some soaring achievements that we’ll get into a little later, but I have genuinely struggled to source ten top movies this year, given the paucity of material on offer – the summer was particularly dire.
Now, some of that may be due to my woeful festival attendance, I only got to the LFF this year and due to competing pressures caught maybe 60% of what I had planned to see, so as always there is always great material out there if you spend the time and resources to search it out, but on overall aggregate it has not exactly been 1939 or, say, 1999. From my perspective I’ve also neglected my retrospective screenings, I didn’t really conduct any small screen ‘seasons’ this year, but I am committing to a revisit of my Cassavette’s box-set and to take another run at Eric Rohmer next year via this, as frankly re-watching just about any movie, even the old ones on my new upgraded system is quite a different experience – I saw James Toback’s The Gambler a couple of weeks ago and digesting this up-scaled version from a pretty poor DVD master was like feasting on an entirely different and more precious artifact. Later in the year we will also launch my Kurosawa season, if we have managed to reach the summer without immolating the globe in a radioactive death-shroud. When I scan through what I have completed this year on the big screen I’m actually a little more positive – we gnawed through two Carpenter seasons which has essentially covered 99% of all his films I ever want to cover, with only They Live remaining outstanding from a review point of view – as a major Menagerie icon this is a milestone. Then we caught three crucial Spielberg’s, a couple of Godard’s, some Alan Clarke and with that Scorsese season on the horizon we shall also be busy for the next two months. So let’s get moving as time is a wasting, normally I’d also touch on the best TV but I’m not so inclined this year other than to say I loved The Knick, Penny Dreadful Season 3, Hannibal Season 3, Ash Versus Evil Dead (Lee Majors and bringing Cheryl back was fucking genius), Daredevil 1&2, and something else we will discuss later. So as always in no particular order here are the best films I’ve seen, in no particular order;
The 2016 Films Of The Year
The Witch – (Robert Eggers, USA, 2014) First of all, let me share a quote with you from a podcast review of this nefarious chiller that made me howl with laughter – ‘Katherine Heigel takes her baby brother to the woods for a game of hide and seek. The baby wins’. Heh. When the depraved debutante Robert Eggers decided to open his movie with infanticide it was fair to assume that all bets are off, even if the slaying is seen off-screen – well, kind of off-screen – a minuscule horror that sets the tone for the subsequent hecate hectoring histrionics. On a pure craft and atmospheric level this is an incredibly assured introduction, a compelling metaphor for America’s troubled genesis.
Arrival – (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016) First of all, read this, it sucks any wind of my sails, but beware of severe spoilers. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see this again at the flicks, but I am anxiously awaiting the Blu-Ray release in the Spring, primarily to interrogate that Möbius structure and unveil some of this astounding films secret techniques. Arrival is a real rarity, a genre situated film with a realistic fidelity to its dramatic situation, intellectually perplexing, with exemplary work being delivered at every level of the departmental totem pole – sound, editing, script, design. It is unafraid to grapple some big, hulking ideas – free will, destiny, perceptions of time, mortality – in the arena of the modern SF blockbuster, and defiantly throws the gauntlet down to Chris Nolan’s feet in terms of nesting challenging material within a multiplex pleasing carapace. Probably, if I had to nominate a single winner, the Menagerie film of the year.
Midnight Special – (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2016) Whilst I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away with this on a first viewing my affection accelerated upon a second viewing, it still reeks of bureaucratic interference but some beautiful and moving moments spear through the studio inflected fog – those Bradburyesque suburban prairies of the mid-west, the symmetrical elegance of the hidden mirror realm concealed amidst our own, a fractured families final, wordless, loving embrace. The comparisons to Netflix smash Stranger Tides are inevitable. That series was fine, but little more than a collection of fun and worthy influences Xerox imposed over each other to no emotional effect (and shamelessly ripping off Under The Skin along the way) while Midnight Special resonates with a parents unconditional love for their son whatever his origin, instead of mere postmodern posturing and playing to the nostalgic instincts of the internet cultural crowd. Maybe my selection is partially influenced by a movie with a positive conclusion of others which seems literally worlds away from what the path we are staggering down, and we can all dream, no matter how desperately, for some sort of celestial salvation ….
I, Daniel Blake – (Ken Loach, UK, 2016) Truly, we approach the end times when the seas will run communist red as the seals are broken and the trumpets are heard across the earth, as we elect a Ken Loach drama to our films of the year list. I exaggerate of course, I like many of Loach’s films although the Menagerie doesn’t naturally feel like a fit with his particular strand of cinema, but this brutally effective swan song is simply phenomenal, devastating, and a worthy summation of a career made of critiquing the establishment and agitating for social justice. The performances are brutally honest with the only small snag of some plot strands threading off inconclusively, yet for my money it has one of the most thunderous and staggering scenes of recent cinema history which burns itself into your brain.
Dr. Strange – (Tim Manners, USA, 2016) It was a close run race between this and the mischievous Deadpool, as quick slices of irreverent, distracting fun you usually can’t beat a well constructed Marvel film. Yes, they do dissipate in the light of any stringent analysis, and have difficulties with giving their female leads much to do, but they are highly entertaining in that greasy cheeseburger and a refreshing coke kinda way. I loved the depiction of the mystical Marvel omniverse, Cumberbatch surprised me with a well toned metamorphosis into action-hero, and it had a hexing brew of jokes and mystical melee.I might even go and see the next Thor picture if he’s in it, which is high praise indeed…..
Elle – (Paul Verhoeven, France, 2016) It will be interesting and potentially explosive to see how this film fares when it goes on general release in early 2017. The notion of a Paul Verhoeven crafted rape-comedy is not exactly for the fainthearted, but although that’s how the film is being marketed Elle is something far more nuanced and provocative, through an incredible cinematic case study. Isabelle Huppert.demonstrates again why she is one of the finest actresses drawing breath, her courage to take on such challenging material speaks for itself – every American actresses approached for the part declined which is why Verhoeven had to turn to Europe to make the film. It’s one of those texts that I’m sure will reveal more of its craft and subtlety on a second viewing, and brave enough to forge new paths in uncovering the depths of human complexity and behaviours, especially when we are at our absolute worst.
Certain Women – (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016) – It’s difficult to articulate what I enjoyed so much about this which serves as a compelling double bill with the next film on the list, an emphasis on the hidden enclaves of America perhaps, the modest blue-collar population eking out their frugal but no less fascinating and moving lives. This is very much a slow burn, a film which eases you into its metronome and hypnotic pace, with subtly finessed performances from Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone. Reichardt it seems can do no wrong with her affecting, socially attuned and minimalist style, eschewing the overtly dramatic for character authenticity, dissolving some of those barriers between the imaged movie world and how people really act when they interact with each other.
Hell Or High Water – (David MacKenzie, USA, 2016) – Given this years catastrophic upheaval it is all to easy to embrace a work whose purring plot engine is powered by corporate maleficence and economic depression, particularly one set in the so-called flyover middle American states. No doubt we’ll start to get a raft of ‘this TV show is post Obama’ or ‘this sequence of movies encapsulate the new political temperature’ style of cultural analysis over the coming months. That’s fine, it is justified and worthy of debate, but what has stuck with me is the sheer craft and lasting impression of this terrific little genre film, the solidly cast characters, the draining atmosphere and quiet rage, and a story which isn’t too shackled by its trappings which could still harbor a surprise or two. That Jeff Bridges can be matched by the likes of Chris Pine and Ben Forster proves that everyone was working at the peak of their game, and quite frankly it was simply a solid, old-school comfort compared to the regular tsunami of comic-book & franchise product……
Victoria – (Sebastian Schipper, Germany, 2015) We’ve all been there right? Skull stoked, whizz shamed, burned and buried deep into the night that should never end, until it does with fatally unintended consequences. Well, I exaggerate of course, as I’ll always support an ambitious approach when the material matches the subject, so this one-shot, single camera picture must be celebrated for its technical audacity as much as its viscous vertie. Victoria is a picture that snatches the Euro-cinema relay baton from Noe ad Refn just as they move into the mature phases of their career, with the new young pups adopting some of their ambitions in disrupting tradition in the margins of the form. Those initial urban orange tungsten lights signal a descent into a European underworld, although it does take its time to establish character, place and tone. Is the entire one shot approach distracting? Yes, as a film nerd you are almost dared to spot the stitches, but the technique can generate a unique energy, with some beautiful moments of indiscriminate immediacy. This Sebastian fella is officially on the Menagerie watch-list, I look forward to see what he’s up to next….
Mr. Robot – (Sam Esmail, USA, 2016) For me, the spectacular highlight of audiovisual entertainment of 2016 was Mr. Robot. Yes, yes, before you bark your protests I know it’s not a fucking movie but I’m adopting the Sight & Sound excuse of celebrating audiovisual storytelling in whatever format, especially for such a prescient show given the various dimensions of 2016’s most calamitous events. It’s a show about anxiety, about technological isolation and rage, about how the world can be inverted from a keyboard, and how no-one, absolutely no-one knows how it will end and the ultimate consequences. Quite apart from the insurgent politics and reflections it also has fantastic performances, but primarily the craft of the show is stunning, the visual and sonic storytelling the equal and better of its cinematic big-brother overlord. It really is the equivalent of Nic Roeg’s schizophrenic cartography merged with Kubrick’s sterile, mortician autopsy of the subject, subsequently cremated with Fincher’s nihilism – high praise indeed but the framing, the direction and design work ooze in perfect harmony with the story and its intellectual instincts, just like cinema at the peak of its powers. There has been a quiet electronic war occurring for a decade (at least) between nation states which is only now coming to the worlds wider attention, where superpowers as well as rogue states have routinely been infiltrating clandestine territory, which for the first time in history doesn’t require the physical penetration of borders or the seizure of tangible, physical assets – and like this magnificent series central character no-one seems to know where the fuck this leads. It’s also a show with a distinct corporate agenda and haven’t all those Panama Papers / off shore tax haven revelations faded from public exposure, as the media engine juggernauts onto new outrages whilst vomiting manufactured propaganda – which has finally enabled the seizure of the highest political offices. This is the real deal, the only media entity that really gnaws at our modern world Venn diagram of institutional corruption, propaganda, and the collapse of the last few decades of world order, with an imminent generational insurgence which is primed and on its way. I’m calling it now but I fully believe that we will witness mass civic unrest in 2017 and beyond, I grew up during the Cold War and remember some of the fears that that period engendered, so to see the rabid right-wing demagogues cosy up with their ancient enemy is just….well, it leaves me speechless. Still, may you live in interesting times I guess, so Mr Robot is an entity that reminds me why we should be glad to be alive, because admidst the hellions there are some people out there on the same wavelength, monitoring the same algorithms, creating and commenting as the future spirals out of control……
U-Turn – (Oliver Stone, USA, 1997) Is this Oliver Stone’s most overlooked film? Some of us remember when he was a genuine, slightly exciting figure to follow, before the recent slide into mediocrity with the likes of The Savages, World Trade Centre and from what I’ve heard Snowden. Back in 1998 however he seemed to have an abundance of post Natural Born Killers, whip-pan film-stock shifting energy to get out of his system, retreated to what on the surface seems to be a stock neo-noir thriller which is elevated to a delirious and deliciously grim black comedy. The cast is the initial joy, from Sean Penn’s perfectly sleazy gambler in thrall to the Russian mob, Nick Nolte’s grizzly bloated patriarch and senorita seductress Jennifer Lopez , through to cameos from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thorton (playing against type as a knuckle dragging redneck mechanic) Powers Boothe, Jon Voight and Claire Danes. It represents the best of neo-noir which was enjoying something of a renaissance in the late 1990’s, transported to a morally parched and barren Arizona where everyone has an angle and secret agenda, as they all struggle in their tangled and nihilistically fatal webs of seduction, greed and murder. The style gives it the energy required to propel the usual ‘femme-fatale, please murder my wife and I’ll split the insurance’ plot, from usual Stone DP Robert Richarson’s off kilter framing and haloed source lights, to the cartoonish cruelty of both the performances and coincidence critical narrative – some times a guy just can’t catch a break. Shot with a twitchy hurry in 42 days it’s one part peyote psychedelia to two parts sleazy sangria, quite the brutal brew.
Looker – (Michael Crichton, USA, 1981) With everyone hooked on HBO’s latest triumph Westworld I coincidentally ‘looked’ back to an earlier Michael Crichton effort, the little seen Looker. Puns aside the film acts as curious bridge from the social commentary of the 1970’s to the commerce driven self of the 1980’s, postured as simultaneous corporate conspiracy thriller and evolving media satire. Albert Finney stars as an inquisitive Beverley Hills plastic surgeon – yes, I know – who becomes enmeshed in a series of murders of the beautiful models who frequent his surgery, once they have been contracted to undertake the most minuscule corrections possible – 2mm sheered from the arc of a nose, a slight percentile adjustment of the earlobes. All roads lead to the ominous Digital Matrix corporation who are replacing humans with digital clones, with even murkier intentions to conjure and parade facsimile future presidential candidates – hmmm. It’s no classic, the plot is erratic with the authorities spectacularly interested in the mounting body count, and some of the dialogue is a little on the nose (joke intended), but as an artifact of that shift into the ‘me’ decade obsessed with commerce, self-worth, surface and the all-conquering propaganda grooming of product it is a prescient harbinger of the next few decades. The SFX are also kinda clunky, but the film holds the dubious prestige of being the first film to feature 3D CGI textured shading, and the Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses (L.O.O.K.E.R.) weapons are kind of amusing, it would be worth a remake but alas I doubt it’s to obscure
Threads – (Mick Jackson, UK, 1984) I swear, hand on heart that I had already re-watched and selected this terrifying blast of my childhood prior to November, given subsequent events I don’t think I could face watching it again. Even before the increasing tensions between the superpowers (and I’m referring to China in that contemporary mix) this most disturbing and distressing portrayal of the prologue to epilogue of a global thermonuclear war still transmits sheer, unalloyed terror through a certain generation who came of age during its 1984 BBC transmission. In those perilous days of the Cold War, when operation Able Archer had almost prompted the paranoid Politburo to push the button we all lived with that radioactive shroud lurking over our heads, and isn’t it just dandy to see it coalescing back into its nightmare form some three decades later? Threads remains just as harrowing in its sheer, matter of fact brutality and utter rejection of pulling punches, as the entire global civilization disintegrates into medieval barbarity, when the unseen umbilical links between society are obliterated during one, limited exchange. Seen initially through a specific focus on a almost quaint 1980’s Sheffield the narrative zooms out to report the near annihilation of the UK, following a genocidal nuclear winter and the solemn procession of years and decades that follow attack day +1. Shot through with that bleak, 1980’s Play For Today format which invokes early Ken Loach or Alan Clarke it is the absolute dictionary definition of bleak, with the BBC spokesman voice-over communicating the unsparing statistics on incinerations, food stock depletion, radioactive casualties (in the tens of millions) and civil destruction – total. For amusements sake that consideration, projected thirty years ago, is not remotely comparable to the weapons that currently exist. Compared to the much more saccharine American version The Day After which was transmitted in 1986 this is a brutalist classic, a useful primer on post holocaust survival, and an inducement to prayer of being vaporized in the initial MIRV exchange as a comparative mercy to the hell on earth that follows – Not Nice!!
Films To See In 2017
Ghost In The Shell – (Rupert Sanders, USA, 2017) Already, there has been something of a backlash against this, not only the whitewashing allegations of the main character, but also the claims that the trailer makes the project look like some Underworld, Equilibrium or Resident Evil quality B Movie. I’m not sure if we’re actually viewing the same material as I can see a much deeper visual dexterity in those designs and SFX, but maybe I’m being hoodwinked at the prospect of finally getting something resembling a decent cyberpunk film on the big screen – to date much of the programming has been atrocious. OK, the director doesn’t have much of a pedigree, I wasn’t crazy about his previous effort, but there was some skilled integration of effects work in there, and as that weird glut of fairy tale re-imaginings of the past few years goes it was probably the best example in that odd little sub-genre. I’m no huge fan of the original manga but am familiar with the source material, it was one of the zeitgeist peaks during the adoption of anime in the west back in the late 20th century, alongside the trailblazing Akira, which was followed by the likes of Ninja Scroll and the notorious Urotsukidōji – Legend Of The Overfiend. Is this just a poor excuse for some ScarJo male gaze titillation which she so effectively challenged in Under The Skin? Maybe. Will this have any more depth than some post Lucy, Matrix IV clone with some cool action sequences? Possibly not, but that might be enough for me if we simply get drenched in cyperpunk soaked metropolis, pal around with around some vat-clone manufactured corporate ninjas, and the casting of Kitano Takashi is cult movie-fan genius.
Blade Runner 2049 – (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2017) On similar lines as the world is usurped by corporate tyranny can a classic be potentially reborn? If there are two cultural artifacts I am yearning to see before the planet is plunged into a pan-axis China / Iran / USA conflagration then it’s the chance to see both the Twin Peaks return which is all shot and been in studiously post-production for many months, and of course the long-awaited return to that dystopian neon-cloaked Los Angeles of the 21st century. My antipathy has thawed following Villenuve’s recent rise to success and the marshaling of such genuine powers as Deakins on camera, Jóhann Jóhannsson on music and original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and welcomed the distant involvement of Scott given his latest debacles – I’m not holding my breath for the next Alien movie which I’ll see of course but that trailer wasn’t very promising. For me the original Blade Runner will always be an instrumental part of my life and nothing can ever besmirch that, not dissimilar to The Thing and its pathetic prequel, so even if this return is terrible – and I suspect it might be mediocre at the worst – we’ll have always have the Bradbury building, the Ennis-Brown House and the 2nd street tunnel….
Silence – (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2017) The early word is extremely positive, with numerous commentators citing it as Scorsese’s 27 years in the making obsession worthy of the long trek to the screen. With both Malick and Spielberg treading water with their last couple of pictures I just can’t wait to immerse myself in some of the last fading gasps of that generation of American auteurs, and what better way to start a new, ominous year with a near three hour intellectual feast? Alas, in some quarters the stupidity of our current culture has already tarnished the project as a perceived Oscar-grab, a patriarchal produced translation with it’s central triumvirate of three white men, with agitators complaining there are few women, people of color or orientation diversity in a tale about three 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests. Give me a fucking break, it’s that sort of ridiculous sneering which has assisted us in getting to where we are today, and maybe we should just wait and see the film when it is actually released before making any pronouncements on its alleged diversity credentials? Stories are located in particular times and places, and while I celebrate more diversity and more stories from other positions (I’m looking forward to Moonlight given the stellar reviews) these complaints are counterproductive, and only serve the enemy. In any case I am excited by this as an adjunct to the BFI Scorsese season, and it will be interesting to compare and contrast this as an alleged summation of many of the themes and obsessions which run throughout Marty’s work, as he inches toward eventual retirement. This opens on New Years Day so will be the first visit of 2017….
Dunkirk – (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2017) I’m such a fanboy, aren’t I? Nolan’s first historical picture should be an interesting counterpoint to his puzzle movies or reinvention of the iconic origin story, in fact if you crane your ears can already hear the growing cacophony of post Brexit thinkpieces and 1939 – 2017 similarity pieces rattling from the typewriters/laptops of journalist and commentators workstations before this pushes away in the early summer. A quick, perhaps unrelated aside – as a contractor in the Cabinet Office we get free access to the Churchill War Rooms, and I was struck while wandering through the exhibition how he deliberately brought the major political factions of the UK together in his War Cabinet to oppose the greater threat, including some of his most ardent, native, virulent opponents – a combined approach of unity in the face of potential annihilation. Hmm. I suppose the notion of a major defeat and rout being historically spun into a strange sort of victory holds a contempoary volume of dramatic water, and the previous emphasis on major battles such as Stalingrad and D-Day might make any major A list director wary of treading a similar path. I like the ticking, the sense of impending doom, and the stark visual sheen of this glimpse, a full trailer will follow shortly I’m sure…….
Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 – (James Gunn, USA, 2017) Jesus Christ in a sidecar we need some fun in 2017, eh? Some colourful, psychedelic amusement to look forward to? A sequel was inevitable after the surprise success of Marvel’s least established character properties, which for me is probably the best and most genuinely entertaining issue in the entire frenetic franchise. I loved the oddball companionship and camaraderie that the original Guardians managed to conjure among its group of prismatic oddities and exiles, and Chris Pratt in cheeky rogue mode can be a quite a charmer. The secret weapons is both James Gunn’s mischievous sense of humor and the Kirby/Dikto influenced intergalactic back-drops, injecting a bit of lysergic lunacy into that staid old space opera blue-print. I’ve not read any details on plot which I can only assume will delve into Starlord’s past and link into the whole Thanos sub-plot, I just hope, although I wouldn’t bet a single Kree credit on it, that they finally manage to introduce a nefarious and charismatic villain which seems to be a malevolently misguided miracle that still eludes the mighty Marvel Movie Multiverse……
There’s plenty of other potential nuggets if you beat your chest and roar loudly enough, Skull Island might be fun in a ironic big budget B-Movie way, and the next installment of the surprisingly effective Planet Of The Apes series ambles into multiplexes in June. John Wick 2 will hopefully correct some of the failures of the first with some explosive set-pieces, It really looks a banner year for SF as alongside BR2049, Guardians 2 and Ghost In The Shell various other projects are warping in, The God Particle could be interesting, where there is Life there is hope, Alien Covenant drops in May, after the supernova disappointment of Promethea I have re calibrated my excitement sensors accordingly, and having seen first hand the vehicle designs of Ready Player One littered around the Barbarian in August I can only assume Spielberg’s return to SF feels like a close approximation of a 2000AD strip. Auteur wise Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled is apparently a move back toward her dreamy debut, World War Z 2 which allegedly Fincher is directing, and both Stephen King adaptations The Dark Tower and It finally get their big screen iterations, well aligned for a world plunged into global uncertainty and terror. Comic book wise I’m not spectacularly excited by either Logan or Wonder Woman but I’ll probably go and see ’em, I’m really not interested in the Justice League nor the next Thor film, I am surprised to see the next Spiderman movie is set to hatch in the summer. Despite some relative media silence P.T. Anderson’s 1950’s fashion world set reunion with Daniel Day-Lewis might darken multiplexes in 2017, a new Haneke is promised, and my regrettable LFF omission Manchester by The Sea is absolutely essential from the more studious sector of film-making. Finally of course have another Star Wars movie, should we survive the first twelve months of the most stultifying incompetent and corrupt leadership the western world has seen in my lifetime, coupled with a sabre-rattling Machiavellian psychopath in the Kremlin.
So as always I like to close on some swift reflections on the wider world of cinema, and her current trends and developments. so lets talk about the digital versus analogue screening experience. Well, I have nothing against digital projection, that is the now not the future but the ubiquitous present, but yes I still harken for a film projection of certain screenings depending on the movie in question. Heck, while I vaguely looked into the two options for Interstellar it was never a particular concern, and it’s not as if I ever bother, new release wise, to check on the format that the picture I’m seeing was produced. Similarly I did enjoy The Hateful Eight just from a special event perspective, the specialist 70mm screenings did drape a whole special sheen over the experience considering only one or two cinemas in the country were capable of the technical feat, and I can’t imagine going to see film in any other situation while retaining my film nerd credentials. I do however have an issue with seeing certain films, of a certain pedigree, usually at the BFI or other retrospective hosting venue on a format which doesn’t map to the subjects…well, lets’ call it’s ‘aura’ for want of a better phrase. The purist in me can come to the fore, and I’ve lost count of how many screenings which have arisen only for me to dismiss them when I noted that they were going to be little more than Blu-Ray projections on a large screen, which is a slight con that some of the less reputable London cinemas can occasionally commit. When you see an older film at the cinema the lights dimming and the curtains parting feel like more of an event, when the cigarette burn spark into life, when the screen starts to distort around the reel changes and the dialogue and sound track get a little stuttered the entire experience just feels more tactile and genuine, which is ironic when you’d presume the purpose of a film is to keep you mentally grounded within its self-generated, illusory, fictional space.
However, it’s more complicated than that still, as part of the imminent Scorsese season Taxi Driver alongside Goodfellas have both been blessed with new 4K digital transfers. I am spectacularly excited to finally see them both appropriately projected but I can’t help but feel that some authenticity is lost from a physical, chromatic print, despite the technical increases in image density and stability, colour timing and quality that a new transfer can deliver. But it doesn’t feel as ‘real’, you want to see a seedy, slightly distressed print of Taxi Driver, the equivalent of which would be screened in the seedy Times Square grindhouses of 1970’s New York in which the film was made, right? I refused to see Night Of The Living Dead on digital as it just seems…wrong, having its ugly and taboo breaking serrated edges sheered off with some bright, perfectly balanced grain dulling texture. So, my choices are formed of an arbitrary decision I make depending on the films inherent qualities, in any case it can be a revelation to see a film projected in whatever format, in the correct aspect ratio intended by its technicians and designers, which is where even a frequently viewed text can spark in new magnificent life, and that is the continual wonder of the big screen. Is there a point to all his confused cerebral rambling? Probably not, and with new 4K system at home we do seem to be moving onto a new gradation of quality domestically speaking, but that will never beat the experience of an intimate cinema screening, with a theater full of appropriately expectant strangers which will always be the Menagerie favored optimum format in which to experience the continual magic of the movies – while it lasts;
The celestial saviors seem to be descending into our atmosphere thick and fast at the moment, and judging by the increasing venality and corrosive incompetence of our political ‘leaders’ their arrival is not a moment too soon. Two years after his exhausting failure of The Thing oozed from the screen Carpenter needed a hit, and with the popularity of certain non-belligerent aliens in the cultural firmament following a certain Spielberg behemoth he had a stockade of studio scripts to pick from. Karen Allen, still a hot property after her appearance as the spirited Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark stars as Jenny Hayden, a young, working class Wisconsin dame whom is mourning the recent loss of her husband, genial handyman Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges). A miracle arrives in the form of a downed extraterrestrial entity whose craft is disabled by the suspicious USAF, the creature replicating from hair follicles the DNA and physical appearance of the deceased Scott, a simulacrum for the intelligence to explore and experience our environment. The cherubic civilization from which the so-called Starman hearkens has stumbled across the Voyager probe whose co-ordinates led them to our meek and wet planet. Contained within the craft was its multi-lingual United Nation peaceful greeting which doesn’t exactly mirror the interstellar interloper’s experiences of our cruel and primitive species, as he and Jenny embark on a desperate road-trip rendezvous at a vast Arizona asteroid blasted crater, before his avatar succumbs to the poisonous plumes of our atmosphere. So far, so traditional when it comes to the cycle of misunderstood aliens, their morals and scientific discoveries centuries beyond ours showing us the error of our ways, which can be traced back to the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Starman however also comes equipped with a romantic sub-plot which is quite the change of pace for Carpenter, whom is more likely to extract beating hearts from their exoskeletons with a maniac wielded kitchen knife, rather than with a tear-jerking SF-Rom-Road-Movie-Com.
Is there something in the water for the Menagerie after Midnight Special, Arrival and now this retrospective screening? It’s pure coincidence of course, and its a nice thought to think that there is intelligence out there more refined, less violent and intolerant than ours, if they don’t succumb to the plausible sounding Fermi paradox if the trajectory of our upright shaved apes journey is anything to go by. If I was going to be a little unkind I’d reduce Starman to E.T. with adults, it ambling trajectory mapped to the open, almost existential possibilities of the road-movie, tracing an episodic structure which provides the framework for Jenny to overcome her initial disorientation and warm to the savior in her midst. There is some padding with this design and a few issues with pacing toward the final splutterings of the film, Charles Martin Smith’s good-guy scientist whom is sympathetically on the trail of the visitor feels a trifle undeveloped (not dissimilar to Adam Driver in Midnight Special), while the wicked NSA Director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) is channeled directly from 1980’s, mustache-swirling, WASP villain central casting. Nevertheless for the most part it works as a modest chase movie and there is a modicum of chemistry between Allen and Bridges, with the alien’s half dozen magical silver ball bearings the instruments of his divinity and narrative deployment markers, performing miracles on earth such as resurrecting felled animals and walking not on water, but through flame. If you so choose there are further biblical allusions which serve the semiotic theologies, the consummation of Jenny and Scott’s relationship in a modest hay carpeted railway car with no crib for a bed suggests a certain festive myth, not to mention the holy one’s seed performing an immaculate conception on Jenny’s infertile frame……
As usual Bridges is great, a masquerade in human form, aping birdlike figure movements and seeming fully uncomfortable and, well, perpetually itchy in his newly acquired body. Remarkably he received an Academy Award nomination which is as rare as a SETI communique for a SF film, apart from Bullock in Gravity I can’t recall another genre SF film which has been blessed with such a performance driven accolade. Whatever happened to Karen Allen? A good question as after this with the exception of Scrooged her screen presence diminished, before returning to the A list with the ill-received third Raiders sequel in 2008. It seems she tired of the industry and went into the theater while pursuing other interests, having rejected the machinations of the Hollywood culture, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was only offered the wives or girlfriends roles given her age and demeanor, which quite rightly didn’t satisfy her ambitions or expectations. This being JC we naturally have to talk about the soundtrack, right? Well, this was the second film in a row that Carpenter abandoned scoring duties. With The Thing he relinquished the critical task to Ennio Morricone, possibly as the studio wanted a ‘big-name’ to herald the quality and prestige of their assimilating horror. I’m not sure a similar contract provision wasn’t enforced here, as although Jack Nitzsche’s score remains memorable like the now legendary Morricone piece it does sound like an initial draft was filtered through Carpenters emulator equipment, giving a more synth based pulse to proceedings. In any case it still works well and provides a choir chanted commentary on the narrative, particularly in the celestial, tear stained finale. Less successful are some of the bizarre plot contortions toward the end of the film, where contrivances seem to conspire to get our heroes in position for the final climax – I’m not sure why a young Arizonan native would suddenly become a petrol bomb hurling diversion for a woman he just met in some remote dust blasted diner, grabbing the authorities attention while they slip away down some poorly guarded storm drain, no matter how cute she is. Now, in terms of style let’s set some context, so here is a concise primer on Carpenters specific visual permutations;
It’s interesting, I was watching the new Blu-Ray of Christine last week and that stabilizing style and coverage leapt from the screen in certain sequences, the use of the widescreen framing coupled with the character gliding viewpoint really buries you into a scene and thus the film as a whole once the metronome plot gets ticking, although his more expressive flourishes do seem reigned from, say the dramatic eruptions in Halloween or The Thing. If he seems to have been reigned in, then this is a self-conscious decision rather a studio mandated dilution, a couple of SFX flourishes aside JC knows to step aside and let the blossoming relationship between Jenny and Scott to take center-stage, as empathy rather than any political or metaphysical theme is the primary drive of the picture.
Screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon went on to pen the beloved Stand By Me two years later which is a testament to their ability to harp on the heartstrings, even if some of the plot contortions stretch character credulity. SFX wise the film holds relatively firm, there’s some fairly obvious travelling mattes and fragile optical work in some of the sequences, but the opening Voyager assimilation is convincing in its celestial purity, and its also a bit of an oddity in utilizing the unholy triumvirate of Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith on design and execution duties during the reasonably convincing birth sequence. In terms of the most amusing trivia my research has revealed that there was an ill-fated TV spin-off which aired for a mere season in 1986, featuring the never to be taken seriously Robert Hays in the title role, somehow I don’t think I’ll bother tracking that DVD down. Naturally the film is being considered for a remake with Shawn Levy in the directors chair according to announcements made back in April of this year, I don’t think I’ll be re-calibrating my google sensors to trace every excited development of that pre-production pathway. Is Starman a classic? No, and at best is second tier Carpenter, but for us acolytes it is a genuine thrill to finally catch these oft-seen projects on the big screen, in full anamorphic 2:35 scope which can be a revelation after decades of poor quality pan-and-scan VHS and DVD transfers. I’ll never forgot the first time I saw the film and was devastated by its absolute killer ending, with a haunting mix of score and simple, appropriate close-ups which I’d champion as one of Carpenter’s most skillful and considered climax’s – stop the world, I wanna get off;
As we stumble toward the end of the year the studios always start to unveil the previews of their big guns for the period ahead, and we’ve waiting a while for this one;
Marty’s been anxious to make this for twenty or so years, I can’t say the subject matter particularly inspires me, but that’s quite a cast, it’s Marty, and that is quite a trailer. First essential viewing of 2017, and a perfect context setting multiplex release for the BFI season. Excellent.
One of the myriad joys of a well curated film festival is not simply the non-fiction, documentary strands of programming, but also the chance to see some new, detailed and affectionate documentary on a potent aspect of cinema itself, usually focusing upon a specific section of its long and illustrious history. Such material can set the tone for the overall feast of the form, where some hungry participants gorge on two, maybe three or more screenings a day, staggering out of the various West End screening venues into the Autumn sunlight, bloated with a visual cacophony of different worlds, characters, incidents and adventures. If you think that’s a vaguely pretentious fashion to continue our coverage of this years London Film Festival then I would remind the honorable gentlemen and ladies that we are talking about French cinema, arguably the most important nation to have ever contributed to the Seventh Art, beginning with its embryonic inception with the Lumiere’s and Melies in the late 19th century. Arguably no other nation has moved through so many artistic movements and forms, from the Poetic Realism of the 1930’s personified in the cinematic titan Jean Renoir, through to the colorful, self-aware explosion of the radical New Wave of the 1950’s and 1960’s, generating the early pangs of formalist post-modernism which still casts its long tricolor shaded shadow over European and American independent cinema to this day. This is the path, with a variety of detours, that our host Bernard Tavernier follows in Voyage à Travers Le Cinéma Français, a lavish love letter & viscous valentine to the cinema of his birthland, through this affectionate and exhaustive three hour documentary.
The LFF always seem to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to select on film, last year’s Hitchcock/Truffaut was another vaguely academic but accessible piece on one of the key print media treatises on cinema. This piece occupies the same intellectual space, concentrating from a historical perspective on a structured appreciation of French cinema, interspersed with long, detailed extracts from the texts themselves which are illuminated with Tavernier’s academic analysis – editing strategies, camera compositions, content versus style – and how these all fit into the contemporaneous political and cultural temperatures of their period. An immediate touchstone is Scorsese’s 1990’s Personal Journey series where he explored both American and Italian cinema, functioning as teacher, lecturer and interpreter, a feat which Tavernier equals with his similarly affectionate and passionate overview across French figures and incidents both obscure and established. As well as grazing such seminal moments as the 1969 Sorbonne riots or the Second World War occupation for all you anti-auterists out there Tavenrier doesn’t just restrict his attention to the monocle sporting riding crop tyrants, he also lavishes time and attention on certain performers on either side of the camera, including the musical composers of the early sound days, and figures such as Jean Gabin, and his tragic rise to the crest of the form with La Grande Ilusion and subsequent, post-war slip into B-Movie obscurity.
As well as simply relaxing back into a long, luxurious celebration of the art form which is always a beguiling concept the main joy of the journey is discovering new names like Claude Sautet for example, whilst the name Jacques Becker has crossed my path I can’t say I could mention a single film of his, yet Tavernier makes a passionate case for his elevation to the great pantheon, primarily how he quietly blazed a tail for his comrades to come. At the other end of the scale the titans receive their supplicant offerings, perhaps most generously in the case of archetypical humanist Jean Renoir. He is arguably France’s most cherished film-maker who receives a detailed examination but no mere simple hagiography, with our narrator not shying away from his alleged acquiescence to the Vichy regime during the occupation. In other sections Tavernier favours those colleagues whose path he crossed earlier in his career, from publicity advisor to Godard around the release of Le Mepris, or early flirtations with production assistance with one of his great mentors Jean-Pierre Melville during the latter phases of his life. The personal enters the picture when Tavernier recants a youth beset by illness and periods of physical inactivity, leavened by visits to the cinema where his imagination could soar into the silver screen. Knowledgeable scholars may recall that similar reflections have been offered by Francis Coppola who suffered from a serious bout of polio as a child, or Scorsese and his breath-raking asthma, and as someone who was also something of a sickly child, suffering from similar ailments you can’t help but wonder on the psychological coincidence…..
Although the run-time is a generous three and a pinch hours with such a broad church to cover they couldn’t possibly have time to appreciate everything. Personally I could have weathered much material on both Bresson and Truffaut whom are name checked but hardly examined, as I’d argue their influence as being as instructive and influential as it ever was, from Boyhood to the entire career of Wes Anderson, and the whole sparse efficiency of recent world cinema’s decade long deference to austere, slow-cinema. Still, it was also fantastic to learn of the career of Eddie Constantine, perhaps his most famous role as the trench-coated in Godard’s SF hybrid Alphaville, as he has appeared in an entire, long run of French noir-influenced policier which look fantastic, and serve as an ideal companion piece to jean Pierre-Melville’s oeuvre which receives its rightful and respectful liberation in the final hour of the project. A postscript reveals this is the first of two pieces which should have the aggravated cinephiles whose French fancies haven’t received adoration, it closes roughly around the late 1960’s before the advent of Deneuve or Depardieu, Huppert, Adjani or the rising young starlets of the cinema du look, although given Tavernier’s penchant for more classical, immediate pre-and-post war instincts I very much doubt they will get anything more than some immediately short thrift – he’s clearly more connected to Carne than Carax, more Bresson than Besson. For the next segment we can expect more emphasis on Jacques Tati, Cocteau, Louis Malle and Henri-George Clouzot among I’m sure other figures I’m currently ignorant of, something for any cinephile to salivate for in Cannes, Venice or London ahead in 2018;
And there was me thinking I’d be taking it easy this year, as a mere demobbed civilian liberated from the trenches of the press corp. Well, despite resisting the frequent requests to sign-off for this years festival as a journalistic freeloader my greed has got the better of me, as I’ve still gone a little crazy and outlined a mere dozen or so films and events to celebrate this years London Film Festival. I embarked on something of a pincer maneuver, sending in a BFI members ticket ballot to get a jump start on the box office while also risking the on-line, experience, where the books are opened 24 hrs before the doors are thrown open to the general public. Notoriously the system usually breaks down or stalls due to the strength of demand, but I have to say I experienced no problems at all, and managed to smash and grab the five tickets I’d left off my ballot so as to not replicate the paper application. I can’t say this was in any way a financially astute decision, as I’ve shelled out something in the region of four times what a press pass would have cost me, but this way I get to attend the films with living, breathing audience members, and naturally I have engineered this around the day job and my perfect location in the beating heart of Westminster – I’m roughly ten minutes walk to the West End and Southbank screening venues. So here is what’s on offer gentle reader, I’m spectacularly excited about one special event that I’ll save for the end, and will open up the schedule with what is quietly being heralded as the greatest film of the year, and in some cases fervently whispered as a masterpiece;
Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2016) I know, I know, that trailer is pretty terrible but I believe my esteemed fellow cinephiles when they state that it in no way represents the final film, which like Lonergan’s last film Margaret has been slightly butchered by the usual interfering studio executives. I’ve gone full red carpet gala on this one, so I guess I’d best get my tuxedo mothballed eh?
A Journey Through French Cinema (Bernard Tavernier, 2016) – You cant beat a good movie documentary at a film festival, and although there are no less than two David Lynch documentaries screening this year I’ve opted for a rather more languorous three hour stroll through our Gallic cousins contribution to the seventh art, with of the esteemed Bernard Tavernier as our illuminating guide. Featuring more Jeans – Cocteau! Renoir! Vigo! Gabin! Jacques-Bieneix!! – than a third world Levi’s sewing factory….
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook, 2016) – I’ve not been privy to how this has been received on the festival circuit so far, and although I wasn’t a fan of his English language effort Stoker this is after all an auteur with an impressive career, and that trailer looked deranged enough to give him a chance. I’m just wondering with that with its 144 minute run-time he hasn’t fallen into similar traps than his other films, where he really seems to drag out his stories by at least twenty minutes too long….
Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016) – I’ve already mentioned this a couple of times so there isn’t much more to say, other than a little genuine bite and controversial baiting will be a welcome addition to this years dreary crop of cinematic product. Neon Demon aside this year has been far to god-damn safe, and I’m ripe for my liberal sensibilities to be mocked and offended. More on Mr. Verhoeven a little later….
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016) – A blind buy purely on the strength of he director alone, she’s one of my favorite directors currently at work so the fact that she has a new film was a joyful surprise.
Lo And Behold… (Werner Herzog, 2016) – Speaking of favorites, Werner’s new documentary hasn’t exactly been setting the community alight, its a strong and interesting piece of work I’m told but not equal to some of his soaring masterpieces, but I’ll take average Herzog over anyone else just about any day of the week. The subject matter of our modern, interconnected technology globalized world fascinates me anyway, so I’m sure I’ll get something out of this, I just hope he doesn’t follow the usual route of cultural figures of his advancing years generation and sneer and dismiss current cultural and technological dimensions as being beneath his almighty heyday….
Dog Eat Dog – (Paul Schrader, 2016) – Nick Cage, Willem Dafoe, Paul Schrader and an Eddie Bunker source novel? What could possibly go wrong? I’m really looking forward to this, allegedly Schrader’s best effort in over a decade, a stone cold caper movie with some very dark black humor to alleviate the ride.
Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016) – A small risk this one, but with a strong cast and and the bittersweet perfume of neo-noir permeating the scant promotional material I thought I’d buy this dame a drink. No trailer as yet, so above is some Venice visuals….
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016) More night-time activities with French provocateur Bonello, the infamous director of The Pornographer – I think the title might give you an idea of the subject matter – and House Of Tolerance which is set inside a seedy Parisian bordello. I’m not entirely sure what this film is about other than some sort of disenfranchised gallic Fight Club, but I’m curious to find out. Now, speaking of provocateurs….
However, we save the best for last. Yes of course I have applied for tickets to see the almighty Herzog in Q&A mode, but having already worshiped at his presence a couple of years ago the chance to see the venerable Paul Verhoeven in the flesh will probably be the Menagerie event of the year, unless the BFI convince Carpenter to make an appearance. The tyrant behind Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers is a genre molesting living legend, not to mention the notorious likes of Showgirls and Basic Instinct, one of the key Hollywood provocateurs of the last few decades whose lacerating satire has been sorely missed. This might be a good excuse to go on something of a retrospective of his early Dutch films, and maybe the infamous 1980 Flesh & Blood…..
Just checking in to say I’m immensely excited at some localised movie news this week, coinciding with the arrival of this months Sight & Sound and the programme for this years LFF which just peeked through the virtual letterbox. Firstly, we have a expansive article on JC which looks like a lot of fun, and more power to his raising stature in the critical firmament. From the postscript of this piece I have learned that the BFI are devoting a full two month retrospective to his work in the Autumn, no doubt timed to coincide with the live soundtrack gigs, although the prospect of a Southbank Q&A remains elusively unconfirmed – I’m sure they are working on it. In other news the LFF schedule is fairly interesting considering my self-enforced civilian status this year, I’m aiming at about ten films I want to see that I have churned into the ballot, I guess we’ll see how that goes. There is one specific event for which I am praying for tickets however – I’m not going to elaborate for fear of a jinx other than to say this. I’ll try to craft something a little more substantive on the whole LFF schedule after the weekend, but until then, this;
I was thinking of saving this for my rematch coverage at the end of the month, but why deny ourselves such sumptuous pleasures?;
How many great directors has this perpetually miserable and wind swept isle produced? Well, there are two genius grafters who intrinsically transformed the form, and I’d wager that Hitchcock and Chaplin will remain in the pantheon as long as there are movies. Scouring the next tier down we chance upon those whose critical status ebbs and flows with the passing of the years, both David Lean and Michael Powell have veered from discordant dismissal, both them the great mid-century directors whose epic visions also harbour a certain ‘Britishness’ in their social class, character centered stories. Further down the firmament we get to the outliers, the ‘cult’ filmmakers like Nicholas Roeg, Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, the mavericks whose polyamorous mosaics draw in core influences from other art forms like literary form, graphical and classical art and theatre into their padded cinematic cells. In this sacred sector I’d also include Alan Clarke, the great screen chronicler of the Thatcher years, who is currently being blessed with an exhaustive retrospective of his TV and screen work at the BFI. When you lie back and think of England in the cinemascape of the 1980’s the initial images that surface are of the so-called heritage pictures of Merchant Ivory, pushing the so-called ‘museum aesthetic’ which is an amusing new phrase my research has discovered. These production cartels mined Blighty’s rich literary history across diverse regency periods to build suffocating period dramas featuring stately homes, lavish production design, suppressed sexuality and courtly intrigue, all nested within a peculiar fascination with social aspiration and cultural mobility. Depending on your upbringing however your life experience might be less attuned to seeing Emma Thompson or Anthony Hopkins emote between a heavy padding of Bronte birthed witticisms, than it is to witnessing some deranged member of the underclass kick a tramp around a rain-sodden Lewisham Council estate. Clarke’s grim, socially vicious work runs in the same vein of British radicalism as the post-war ‘Kitchen Sink’ New Wave, a strand of socially conscious cinema that bleeds through to the agitations of Ken Loach and to a lesser extent the Mike Leigh, a man whose films and formalism I’ve never particularly embraced. Clarke was a social anarchist who ironically worked within the confines of the state sanctioned BBC, and displayed a rare talent in shepherding a new generation of British actors to the screen – Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone all got major breaks under socially snarling tutelage. That’s quite a different roster from the current crop of Eton and Oxbridge educated thespians like Hiddleston, Cumberbatch and Redmayne isn’t it? I’ll just park any further thoughts on the growing void between privilege and equality of opportunity here…..
I grew up with Alan Clarke’s films I distinctly remember watching some of the transmission as they originally went to air, and its impossible to have been raised in a largely working class comprehensive school system and not be privy to many of the notorious scenes and dialogue exchanges of the still shocking and BBC banned Scum. This season starts at the end with The Firm, Clarke’s final completed project before he was cruelly cut down with a heart attack at the age of 54, a mean, vicious film which on the surface concerns itself with a particular British invention which thankfully seems to have been eradicated – football hooliganism. Featuring an absolutely blistering performance from a pre-Hollywood Gary Oldman The Firm is less about male machismo and posturing than the ‘me’ generation finally embedding itself in post Big-Bang Britain, as we follow Bex, a successful London Estate Agent leading his crew of football hooligans into battle with two vicious rival, each cell jostling for superiority in order to lead a combined crew into Europe for a major international tournament. Bex is married to (Lesley Manville, Oldman’s wife at the time) and a inquisitive toddler in tow, but rather than being a more mature alumni of the skinhead youth culture or a protégé of National Front politics some of his crew are black and some are white, an immediate provocative clash with the board chattering classes consensus of these hooligans social standing and economic breeding.
If you’re of a certain age then just the supporting cast is fun to spot, Benny from Grange Hill tickled the nostalgia node, even Phil bloody Mitchell makes an early appearance as one of the knuckle dragging Neanderthals. Oldman anchors the piece with his gimlet eyed ferocity, he’s a total psychopath who is dangerously charming in the vein of Alex Delarge, indeed one scene where he goes to visit his childhood bedroom is reminiscent of an early scene in A Clockwork Orange, with both subjects plastering the walls with objects of his youthful obsession and an array of lethal weapons and illicit booty sequestered away from prying parental sight. It’s fascinating to see London of a certain period as the backdrop to the tale, a historical artefact as well as a social document of the transition of the new, upwardly mobile working class, as the ruling politicians proudly proclaimed that ‘there is no such thing as society’ then acted all shocked when their ideology incubated an entire generational tribe of selfish fucks who have eagerly pulled the aspirational ladder up with them. On a personal level Clarke’s work is just so intrinsically British, down to the pitch perfect argot and the ways in which we mock and joke with each other, all leaping from the carefully crafted page – although you’d assume the material is improvised given the immediate intimacy of the films he was very precise with the dialogue, all the way down to the professional ability to take the piss out of each other. The social commentary hums with the revelation that the main players aren’t ‘chavs’ although they spring from a working class pedigree, a new breed of ruthless Thatcherite aspiration who wade into combat in chinos and herringbone shirts, not garish gold chains, reebok tracksuits and Mulberry hats. The overall feel is grim and relentless, almost oppressively so, leavened with particularly British flourishes of black humour, insults and unflinching vérité violence. It’s impossible to watch Clarke’s work and see the impact on the likes of Shane Meadows, a near lone working class voice in British cinema who also has an ear for the genuine lives and tribulations of his subjects – I just wish he’d move on from repeatedly returning to severe sexual abuse as a plot and character mechanic in just about everything he’s done for the past ten years.
Starting a season with a directors final film may seem like a strange choice, but there was a method to the BFI’s chronological madness. The version of The Firm we saw was a recently excavated answer print of the film which has only recently been identified and liberated from Clarke’s archives, complete with film-stock quality changes signaling the fragments that the BBC excised from the transmission due to language or violence concerns. This made the screening experience quite unusual, as whenever the stock degenerated the smirks lengthened as you knew someone was gonna say ‘fuck’ or inflict a rival with a loving and adorable Glasgow smile. The post screening panel discussion was with Phil Davis (memorable as Yeti, the albino leader of the rival crew), Clarke’s screenwriter David Leland, his producer and daughter as well as some of the The Firm’s supporting actors who turned up in the screening crowd, chiming in with their amusing and illuminating reminiscences and recollections. The debate was a little stilted but it provided an insight into Clarke’s exacting style, his slavering over a groaning Steinbeck for hours on end until he got the tempo of scenes exactly right, and demanding numerous takes of his carthorse Steadicam operators to craft his stylized and brilliant tracking shots – extremely unusual for TV in the 1980’s. If I wasn’t working so damn hard at the moment and preoccupied as Jules said with some other transitional activities I would have made more of an effort with this season, I do have another screening programmed but in an ideal world I’d be seeing as much as possible as Clarke is one of my favourite home-grown talents. At least we have a box-set to look forward which includes stuff unseen by me, including a David Bowie piece which sounds…..interesting;
Ah, the indulgent pleasures of a middle-aged man writing 2,000 words on a bloody Batman / Superman movie. So we all know the drill, as we move hesitantly into the millennium Marvel / Disney has successfully transformed a near bankrupt pantheon of media entities into a juggernaut cinema franchise, resorting to its Z list creations to continually feed a ravenous fan-base across formats and platforms. Meanwhile over at Warner Brothers their 1989 acquisition of Detective Comics and the subsequent plethora of Batman and Superman projects have faded into history, as the new executive business plan is to realise an entire cinematic universe, in order to best exploit those merchandise and licensing deals that can be programmed across a variety of delivery models including new media and streaming services. The battle line are drawn, Marvel are clearly winning, and DC/Warner Brothers are floundering in establishing a new iteration of their iconic intellectual property since Nolan’s Batman series was concluded a couple of years ago. Turning to the ‘comic-book guy’ Zack Snyder for 2013’s Man Of Steel seemed a floundering start, with its mere $700 million global haul and a something of a mixed critical reaction. Nevertheless his services have been retained for Batman Versus Superman which has nothing less than the fate of multi-billion dollar franchise on its bulging biceps, and the first bat-symbol of this years blockbuster season. As a strict spoiler avoider I couldn’t ignore the general consensus emerging from the preview screenings of the past few days, while pull-quotes like ‘this is a $250 million tombstone of the superhero genre’ struck an apprehensive chord, but like any good soldier I’ll take my punches, just as long as the experience was in the aggregate worthy of he pain. Despite my antipathy toward Snyder and a general disinterest in Superman as a character I surprised myself by unexpectedly enjoying Man Of Steel but I had set my frosty expectations fairly low for this given the trailers and the rumours emanating from what sounds like an exceptionally chaotic production, and whilst I don’t think it is quite as bad as some its detractors seem to be claiming in the turbulent media maelstrom it’s certainly not very good. How and why? Let me count the ways....
For a film whose junket-jacked stars are constantly asserting the complexity of the plot when you boil it down the narrative is literally child’s play. 18 months after the catastrophic Kryptonite rebels attack on Metropolis the world has nervously accepted the presence of an omnipotent interloper in our midst, but the tide of support and public opinion is beginning to curdle as questions of authority and oversight start to be queried. As everyone predicted Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg in quite simply his worst performance to date) wants to co-opt the alien technology for his own nefarious ends, and initiates a plot to discredit Superman (a vacant Henry Cavill) as an immigrant alien, operating with impunity as a potential threat to our shared civilisation. An opening credit montage starts the film rather promisingly, reducing Batman’s (Ben Affleck, or Batfleck for short) entire origin story into five minutes which most films in this gladiatorial arena spend their entire run-time explaining, before shuddering into a jagged and disjointed melange of characters and conflict which is more gelignite than gel. For the first two-thirds I wasn’t loathing this despite the faint incompetence – certain scenes are completely unnecessary, Batflecks hatred of Superman is never appropriately articulated and the specifics of Luthors plot seem overly complex and confusing – but then a few spirited moments of super heroic semiotics raise the attention and amusement, scattered spikes of enjoyment among Snyder’s severe and sombre CGI sandpit. Some of the political dimensions and the moral cost of the righteous battling evil in our name (branding criminals so they get shived in the jailhouse yard?) are raised then resolutely disregarded as this is a film which is really only interested in as much as pixel pulverisation as possible. Mirrored to some of the more controversial breaches of character etiquette that Snyder violated in Man of Steel our new hero also employs tactics and techniques that don’t map to the ideological canon, chiefly concerning firearms and the modus operandi of thou shall not kill. I think that things move on, that these icons that arose eighty years ago need to move and flow with the currents of popular imagination and representation, in order to keep them fresh and revenant, and the notion of indiscriminate slaughter by those valorised as our protectors finds some contemporary purchase. Immigration is an obvious touchstone given Superman inherent origin, as is the 1% influence on our wider lives and security of an increasingly fragile social contract, yet within those frames some of the politics in this film are somewhat distasteful and its no surprise that Snyder is looking to Ayn Rand’s juvenile ideology for his next project.
With the exception of Diana Prince all the women are damsels in distress to be saved or scream which I really thought we were trying to move past, not to mention one rather odd shot and staged scene with a wasted Amy Adams as Lois Lane in bath-tub which seems more than a little crude and unnecessary. Henry Cavell who inhabited the haunted cloak and symbol rather well in Man Of Steel warps into a bland vessel in Batman Versus Superman, normally I’m quite efficient at separating fantasy from reality (even when costumed actors stride purposely through the sacred halls of government with gloomy gravitas and no-one sniggers) but every single time he popped up on screen unfortunately I just thought ‘twat‘ for his misjudged and loathsome comments yielded from what sounds like a catastrophic promotional programme. On the plus side Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman was engaging and intriguing despite the paucity of her screen-time, the first screen appearance of this character’s entire seventy-five pedigree – I hope that film passes the Bechtel test. As for Affleck, well, I suppose he was ‘alright’ as Bruce Wayne, his interactions with Alfred and general demeanour struck from an entirely different origins movie which hasn’t been made, but I wasn’t fond of the whole aesthetic of this Batman across the spectrum of costume designs, technology and gadgets, a much more physcial mountain of a character while I’ve always preferred the mysterious ghostlike entity using the environment and fear-inducing tactics to his advantage – one of the combat sequences was pretty cool though. Most hideous of all however is Jesse Eisenbergs Lex Luthor which is played as some ridiculous pantomime dame, easily the worst screen villain since Eddie Redmayne’s embarrassment in last years Jupiter Ascending. The finest criminal mind in the universe is reduced to some petulant OCD sufferer who is also afflicted with severe Daddy issues, and every second he’s on screen is simply agonising. There’s lots of trademark Snyder pose shots poised against obvious green screen mattes which aren’t remotely plausible, although to be fair the film does look like a film in terms of the lavish production budget, which points north of a gargantuan $400 million dollars when you factor in P&A yields. Oh, and the soundtrack doesn’t achieve the same seraphim styling that we wanted from the usually great combination of Junkie XL and the man they call Zimmer.
It’s not just the clumsy assembly of materials – for all its title championship bout title I was never entirely sure why these petulant orphans were having a pop at each other – and then there is the dirge of the dialogue. There isn’t a single solitary laugh (OK, maybe giving Scoot McNairy a scooter was funny) or kinda ‘cool’ hero line or quip for the entire 17 hours of this film, you’d expect a little more polish and finesse from one of the more accomplished superhero scribes David S. Goyer (Co-writer with the Nolan brothers on the worlds most privileged vigilante, the agreeable Blade trilogy) incoherently supported by Affleck’s preferred screenwriter Chris Terri of Argo Oscar winning fame. Like Man Of Steel there is a lot of sudden instances, of suddenly explosive events pushing the narrative forward, resulting in a dazed and shell-shocked audience staggering through the blizzards of collapsing infrastructure and dust coated carnage. Yes, as a self-confessed nerd or geek or whatever I’ll admit that there is some intrinsic pleasure in just seeing these characters on-screen (probably best exemplified in a deeply telegraphed but nevertheless awesome arrival of Wonder Woman), interacting, yelling and causing pandemonium and collateral damage that would make ISIS kryptonite green with envy. I know these are archetypes, they are icons of popular culture but there is also no sense of development or change for either character which is basic filmmaking 101, and the screenwriting hinge on which these antagonists decide to push aside their differences is idiotic in the extreme.
Snyder seems to equate murkiness and darkness with depth which is resolutely not the case. The film hints ominously at big bruising questions of power without responsibility, of outsiders acting with impunity of the state, of the deadly real-world consequences of life, liberty and property in a fiction where destructive deities dance through the boundaries of our physical world as if were crafted from paper-mache. In his directors arsenal he repeatedly deploys this technique of framing character development and even motivations in dream sequences which is lazy, he quite simply doesn’t seem to have the intellect or capacity to adopt a position or conclusion which leaves his films wallowing in some Nietzschean nirvana. His stock baroque religious framing is verging on parody (one is also instantly reminded of Deadpool’s ‘hero arriving action shot’ riffing) with all the finesse of a first year art student rifling through a coffee table imprint of pre-Raphaelite prints. I’d be lying however if one little insight into were the series might be going with a few unexpected glimpses of some other beloved members of the DC pantheon didn’t nuzzle my nerd bone, but when your strongest scene is a pretty lady watching some jpegs on her laptop you movie might be floundering. I’m not sure if the attendance of Nolan on the executive producer cadre is an influence but there seems to be a defiant use of grain in the film stock, digitally engineered or not (I assume the film has been shot electronically and can’t be bothered to research) which does drape a visual motif over the series, its pure aesthetics but I quite like the brooding and tortured tempo of the franchise in comparison to Marvel’s in-house cinematography. The final showdown did stir the muscles and started setting the film back on firmer blockbuster ground with the requisite excitement and pulverizing antics, y’know all the ‘cool superhero melee stuff’, but integrating this legendarium into a 21st century mythos remains problematic, the night and day dichotomy of the titular characters far beyond the film-makers capability.
For all the epic set-up the Wagernian conflict of the two titans arrives without appropriate aplomb, Snyder has not just Xeroxed Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns yet somehow misplaced the gravitas or decades of frenzied schoolyard debate (Who would win?), prompting the question of why don’t you make your own film and conjure your own imagery you bloody hack? He has also framed some of the material and mechanics of the admired Miracleman series, one of the only imprints I am genuinely overjoyed to see will finally get its Gaiman and Buckingham generated conclusion – I’ve been waiting twenty fucking years for that. When it comes to superhero shenanigans the highlight of the cinema visit was an initial viewing of the next X-Men picture which looks much more exciting than the previous promotional efforts, which tells you which graphic novel stable is still winning this multiplex melee. Naturally in the final stretch we are given a set-up for the next big bad which promises the debut of am exciting seditious DC legend (SPOILERS), but it’s only through some reading around this that an earlier signal in the film alludes to this future which again doesn’t say much for the films ability to communicate effectively and absorbedly – I think I’m in line for next years Wonder Woman picture though. Upon reflection I’m thinking this review reads more critical than the film probably deserves, I’m still an adherent to the grim/dark model of this genre as an opposition to the pop-art mechanism of Marvel’s machinations, and I think there is space for both despite the overall sense of exhaustion that the entire genre engenders. Sure, I was a little bored and twitchy at some points but I didn’t loathe Batman Versus Superman, it passed a few hours on a wet and windy Easter weekend, a three star shrug of a movie which has its nerdtastic moments while the mere mortals stumbled through the dust drenched debris. Hopefully a new director can muster a new creative team to take the reins for the next instalment (this looks pretty funny as well) and inject some fresh thoughts and designs into the format, as judging by this entry Warners are at least trying to distinguish themselves from Disney’s Marvellous box office mastery. As the first instalment of 2016’s superhero sequencing Dawn Of Justice is low density kryptonite that won’t be hard to beat, so roll on Suicide Squad and Dr. Strange and Civil War and X-Men Apocalypse and on and on and on…..
There’s nothing better than a new genre to get the mob’s dulled pitchforks and smoldering braziers in a howling twist. The latest addition to the paddock of pandemonium is ‘art-house horror’, as certain genre commentators have branded a loose cabal of recent features such as It Follows, The Babdadook and Goodnight Mommy. I was invited to a press screening of the latter but alas I couldn’t make it, but I did leap onto my broomstick to see The Witch, last year’s Sundance smash which netted itself a best director award for newcomer Robert Eggers. Labeling these pictures as ‘art-house’ in an implied derogatory fashion seems a little lazy to me. Just because a film doesn’t have a parade of semi-naked adolescents being butchered by machete wielding psychopaths and instead opts for some queasy commentary lurking under the shrieks doesn’t mean its instantly consigned to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, and occupy some pretentious affectation like a somber Bela Tarr or Carlos Reygadas picture. As a rabid horror aficionado I warmly welcome a change of pace to the so-called cattle prod cinema / found footage strain of screams which has dominated the circuit since Paranormal Activity opened in 2007, which alongside Insidious, The Conjuring and all those Platinum Dunes & Blumhouse Pictures productions have warped into the most predictable and lazy cosmology of horror since the Halloween, Friday 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street sequels back in the 1980’s,except at least those pictures actually delivered the slithering viscera and weren’t rated a family friendly PG13. For me littering your film with screeching asides and clumsy jump scares deflects from the central tenant of genuine, squirming cinema – is it fucking scary? Do they make you feel uncomfortable and queasy, does it quicken the pulse and hackle the hairs when you’re watching them? In the case of The Witch I can unequivocally assert yes…….(whispers) oh yes……
Late 17th century, the New World, and a charcoal gray sky hangs solemnly over the spine-tingling proceedings. In New England a gruff man named William (Ralph Ineson, best known as Finchy from The Office) is banished from a burgeoning colony, his crime being too penitent and righteous to tolerate the orders and instructions of the village elders in the place of god – this family is too zealous even for the puritans. With his family in thrall — wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) — the exiles eventually alight on a barren patch of wasteland, a new home abutting the edge of a deep and sinister forest. With the crop failing and autumn fading to winter the family feel under the glamor of an existential curse, a malison which turns to murder when Thomasin’s playful game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother Samuel sees the baby spirited away, with either a crafty predator or some unknown and malignant force responsible for the abduction. Suspicions abound as fear blossoms among the family, secrets are harboured and motives veiled, as it seems that even a sinless infant is not safe from the world’s wrath. I’ll say little more for fear of spoilers, but after Samuel vanishes the thumbscrews tighten in a fully immersive and richly realized historical world, oozing with sexual dread, menstrual exile and occult scripture…..
It’s rare to enjoy such a formidable, controlled and confident debut, but director Robert Eggers four to five year of research and preparation have paid off with this disturbing and delirium drenched debut. He is clearly an adherent to the old-school ‘less is more’ approach to abominable antics, leaving your imagination to horrifyingly fill in the blanks between menacing imagery that your mind can’t quite process, glimpses and half scurried visions of the unholy which ruthlessly garrottes the fear gland. The fidelity to costume design and setting is to be applauded for what I assume to be a miniscule budget, the Jacobean dialogue culled from era specific artefacts, tomes and codex which really puts the spell on a saturated mood of saturnine gloom. Someone has clearly been chugging on The Shining elixir with the atonal sound and chittering spirits assaulting the eardrums, with long fades to black operating as efficient editing punctuation marks which charge a tempo of slow, uncoiling dread. That Kubrick lore also feeds into the natural lit interiors, the devotion to the vernacular and argot of the era and like The Shining (Eggers is on the record as this film being a central inspiration by the way) The Witch is all about an aura of seething incorporeal terror, of shadowed threats lurking in the petrified purlieus of the imagination, before illustrating those fears with blood curdling tableaus that had me grinning like a gorgeously blooded maniac. The performances are note perfect and completely convincing, even comedy connoisseurs will find memories of Finchy swiftly dispelled as the storm clouds gather, and newcomer Anya marks her debut with a frenzied flurry. With the plunge into religious mania the film shifts influences from British folk horror classics like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man to more recent fare such as Wheatley’s Kill List and its sinister sister The Blair Witch Project, with even Von Trier’s Antichrist, Rosemary’s Baby and Ken Russell’s The Devils leaving their entrail soaked trail, particularly with the latter’s psycho-sexual marriage of mania and the macabre.
At an economic 90 minutes The Witch is a pinnacle of spine-tingling economy, like a well curated chiller murmured over a flickering campfire as the embers smoulder and the shadows creep in. The obsidian goat Black Philip is already this year’s Doof Warrior in terms of GIF’s and memes, in that amusing way that certain movie elements capture (or in this case curdle) the imagination of their audience. I’ll remain vague but I admired how ahead of the characters we are in terms of story information that slithers from Eggers seething script, it’s an interesting and definitive choice to be so up-front and bold where ambiguity could have better served the genre paradigms, so it’s a slight shame that some of the dialogue is difficult to decipher in a sound mix which has caused some grumbles of discontent. These fears are obscured by the fairy tale imagery which is potently charged, from the apple of sin to animals invested with a sinister intelligence and agency, to simply not going into the deep dark woods as something….something is lurking out there and it might be….hungry. Having slept on it I’m not entirely sure The Witch will linger or indeed malinger like some of those touchstones listed above, a second and subsequent viewing is essential to decouple some of the films deeper traits and designs, at the moment the impression is of a fine synthesis of previous terrifying triumphs rather than managing to forge its own unique path to something freshly frightening. Nevertheless this is a satisfying shriek of art house dread, a churning cauldron of sound design, economical camera work and period detail which scratches and claws at the permeable barriers between worlds, faith and fear, before levitating to the heights of glorious damnation. If Tim Burton hadn’t sold his soul to the studios and distilled his gothic vision into pointless and uninspired remakes this might have been the quality work he’d be churning out today, for the Menagerie it’s the first blood-streaked candidate in the coven for film of the year;
For the Kubrickophile it has been something of a week of mourning, Tuesday was the anniversary of his passing in 1999, and just a couple of days ago we learned of the sad passing of Ken Adam, one of Stanley’s key production design collaborators. Alas I’m too busy to really do his contribution justice, but here is a flavour of the screen talks he conducted with Christopher Frayling a few years ago – I was privileged to see an identical event at the BFI but I can’t find any footage of that specific evening;
Naturally some Kubrick related material has resurfaced due to the anniversary, here is one of the more insightful articles on his final and still mysterious movie that still strengthens and deepens with age. Alongside picking up the Oscar for Barry Lyndon Adams is still best known for the Bond movies of course, but naturally I gravitate to arguably the most relevant and terrifying black comedy of all-time – a certain US presidential candidate just slips easily into this nightmare vision of power and insanity doesn’t he?
As for this weekend I’ll try to crowbar in screenings of Anomolisa and The Witch among two other films which I think look intensely essential, not to mention wrapping up my Melville season, crafting coverage of a certain Menagerie mecca that I saw this week and then prepare for two imminent and essential BFI screenings as part of this before we get to Kurosawa in April when we suicidally unleash the dogs of war. Oh, and I need to find a new place to live in the next six weeks. Madness, absolute, end of the world madness….
‘The more you drive, the less intelligent you are‘ (Miller, Repo Man, 1984) Wiser words were never said, but before we jump into the driving seat of Jean-Luc Godard scathing Sixties satire I think we might all benefit from a contextual history lesson. In a blinding crash of stating the obvious the world was very different in those agitated, pre-internet days, the homes fires across Europe and North America smouldering with insurrection due to the twin instincts conflicts of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam catastrophe. It seems like a thousand generations ago but the emergence of a rebellious youth culture twinned with a virulent anti-establishment ideology swept across the education and cultural sectors, leading to violent altercations as the state enforced its iron grip against the left-wing insurrection , and although these flashpoints have been covered in numerous US baby boomer generation movies I’ve always thought that mirrored events in Europe have rarely made screen appearances – some might even say it’s as if such deviant discourse had somehow been suppressed. Just conducting some cursory reading around this shows the threatening detail that occurred across the channel, with 11 million workers, more than 22% of the total population of France at the time downing tools and intellect for two weeks which must have savaged billions of francs in economic activity. These frictions are predated by Godard’s 1967 Weekend, the only other Godard film I previously held any affection for, any my revisit has revealed further depths to what I recalled as a particularly Gallic vision of dystopian disfunction.
Despite this context Weekend is still eyebrow raising, as in certain stretches its nothing less than a ferocious political manifesto which actively agitates for armed insurrection, as a thought experiment if someone with the surname Mohammed made an identical piece today then they would shortly receive a call from some government officials who’d like to have a quiet word and extensive audit of their recent travel schedule. The structure is that of a surreal odyssey, as a deviant bourgeois couple Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) flee their apartment and make their way through a chaotic vision of the modern European state disintegrating into dystopian ruin, most famously exemplified with this long tracking shot which elicited quite a few giggles at the BFI screening. Interspersed with Corinne and Roland’s episodic adventures are cutaway interludes to Algerian immigrants and African insurgents, exemplifying the contemporary political concerns of Western imperialism and the legacy of first world exploitation which may have transmogrified over the past fifty years but essential remain the same in 2016. As the journey advances and the couples secret plans to betray the other comes to light the sense of the absurd and insane begins to accelerate, among the guerrilla snipers, the burning vehicular cataclysms and bizarre encounters with Lewis Carroll’s fantastical creations Weekend becomes like a Hogarth lampoon animated to 20th century life, in all its chaotic and derisive glory. The film doesn’t merely parrot a left wing manifesto without an internal ideological audit, in the final sequences Godard becomes equally scathing of the revolutionary affinities as the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ cliché goes, with splinter groups falling into infighting and score settling rather than joining ranks against the proletariat’s common foe. Despite the flippant, burlesque model if can also easily lurch into the horrifying, in one section a bourgeoisie family, including children, are mercilessly machine gunned off-camera, it might be a discrete massacre but that’s still executing innocent kids which, y’know, might be just a little harsh? In another aside Corinne is raped in a ditch while her husband listlessly lights a cigarette and shockingly fails to intervene, blasphemously offering his wife as property with an attached index linked economic value. The overall effect is of a churning, slightly deranged political manifesto which nevertheless remains amusing and infused with a certain cinematic sense of joie de vivre, even as it sanctions the mass overthrow of the capitalist hegemony, without offering any structured sense of a more equitable and balanced replacement – the Occupy movement a generation before its genesis.
As you may infer the film at certain points does begin to feel like Godard is hectoring a secret rally down at the docks, and depending on your politics you may find the systemic critiques amusing or exasperating, or maybe a little quaint given the intervening fifty years of globalization, the accrual of fathomless wealth and power within the hands of the then unquantified 1% and the deeper entrenchment of a supplicant propaganda belching media – comrades. Visually speaking the embedded colour scheme of red, white and blue punches through the screen as a clever subconscious affectation, probably a discrete reference to the tricolor, the Stars and Stripes, or even the Union Jack as an indoctrinating nationalism that deviates from the Marxist dream of a united plebeian front across borders and nations. Looking at the contemporary films of Hollywood in 1967 is quite an amusing exercise, as the radicals manned the ideological battlements and indulged in rehearsed protest Tinseltown was churning out the likes of Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire or Tobruk, a perfect palette of irrelevancy that the imminent 1970’s brats would supersede and surpass with their quietly political, character framed films, although this was the year of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde which foreshadowed, to use a screenwriting terminology, the shape of things to come. There is a sense of J.G Ballard who was just coming into cultural attention in 1967, I mean it’s just now possible to see the emblem of the combustion engine and the car are as a central metaphor in a dystopian landscape and not think of Ballard, Oddly the film also reminded me of Children Of Men with the rural tranches and infighting between the hapless, rudderless and naïve insurgents, and last years The Lobster clearly takes inspiration from the arch surrealism, of the squatting in the wilderness, shivering in the woods on the outskirts of society, as the polite façade of bourgeoisie hypocrisy demands the – marry and reproduce, a new generation of docile little consumer drones. There are also umbilical connections to this year’s High Rise which are apt as both texts operates in the same satirical, cruel atmosphere, of the bourgeois values and culture a bumpers breath away from cannibalistic savagery, which is the final grim film that the film closes upon, a spectacle of death and ending which is a binary reaction to the film’s opening, and the deviant discussion of a sex.
So like the irrelevant Gitane guzzling scamp himself let’s break with the form and close this review with the beginning of the film, a rather striking sequence that is a prelude for the political pornography to come. Throughout the film and indeed this phase of Godard’s career he indulged in sophisticated long takes, dollying horizontally so the perspective shifts from character interactions to ‘dead’ space, shifting focus mid-sentence as the discourse continues, a puzziling technique which is difficult to decipher – is this merely another cue that we are digesting an artificial construct? It is noteworthy that the camera doesn’t tilt or pan which would suggest a different relationship between space and the differing focal planes of activity, I’m still not confidently assured as to why this defiant movement is here, but that’s what makes these films on some level an intellectual conundrum to be solved. Through an uninterrupted single take the context setting prologue (I’ve searched for a video link but I’m damned if I can fine one) remains static along the x axis, shrouding a heavily back-lit confessional between the partially clothed Corinne and her interrogator Roland, urging his wife to comprehensively detail the sordid details of her recent sexual encounter with two partners. It remains unclear if this is a fantasy or reportage of a genuine encounter but the context is clear, a decadent liaison involving role-play and foodstuffs which was probably quite controversially lurid for its time. It sets the tone of the odyssey where those foodstuffs make alternative appearances, the series of vignettes moving through rural landscapes as the characters even mutter that everyone we meet in this film are mad’, again shattering the fourth wall with a court jesters jeremiad glee. This was a much richer film than I appreciated when placed in its political and cultural context, I’m sure for a younger and stupider Mint the original attraction would have been the dystopian, degenerate setting, while the ideological engine would have flown straight over my head which I’ll admit is a rather ugly combination of allegories. Like Alphaville, Godard’s homage to film noir detective stories which he crossed with a rather sour SF parable this was one of those texts which cropped up in SF film reference books, another entry point like Psycho from genre genesis to the wider world of international film appreciation, cinema as time machine across borders and epochs. With Jacque Rivette’s passing last week he’s one of the last standing founders of the nouvelle vague along with Agnès Varda, the pop provocateur whose manifestos on class and culture remain as discursive and divisive as they were in 1967;
You might think I need my head examined, committing to a BFI season in the midst of probably the most intense month of new release essentials I can recall since I started this blog, but what can I say other than here we are. Despite two or three essential new films hitting multiplexes every January weekend (next weekend alone has the choice of The Assassin, The Big Short or Room) I was also drawn to the BFI’s exhaustive Jean Luc Godard season, mostly to challenge myself and my previously conceived cinematic palette. Like a lot of boisterous cinephiles I spent my late teens and early twenties seeing as much of the officially recognized ‘canon’ as I possibly could, mercilessly devouring as much Dreyer and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa as I possibly could, a crash course in self-taught film studies which didn’t necessarily operate within a competent or robust framework of film history and its technical and formal evolution. Like any starry eyed celluloid wetback I wasn’t mature enough to fully digest the vast majority of what I was seeing, and many of my early formed opinions and peccadilloes have remained imperviously intact – Lang, Lynch, Leone, Bresson, and Malick will never be unseated from the Menagerie hall of champions, plus the immediately embedded likes of Carpenter and Kubrick who remain the all time unimpeachable omnipotent titans. I used to think for example that Francis Coppola, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone were among the greatest directors to have lived, now I recognize their fantastic individual contributions are not remotely in the same league as the overwhelming achievements of Tarkovsky or Powell, Wilder or Hitchcock. It’s only as you get older, as you mature and are exposed to a wider menu of material and crucially revisit key texts with the benefit of life experience that previously underwhelming figures begin to make sense, as initial antipathy starts to thaw and previously impenetrable styles or statements slowly unveil their treasures. Now that’s not to say that I don’t reserve some critical faculty, I don’t find every director quoted on the Sight & Sound list as above reproach, and despite ‘getting’ Eisenstein and Fellini to name but two I can admire their essential contributions yet don’t particularly care for their work on any emotional or personal level, although with the former I’d be surprised if anyone found his formalist breakthroughs even remotely ‘moving’ like, say, a Frank Capra or a Truffaut picture. They are different beasts with different prey, with fur and talons that hunt through different ecosystems, their repeated themes and styles preferable to some and not others due to our own individual movie musing constitutions – I loathe musicals even when Scorsese makes one, and no doubt some equally passionate cineastes dislike horror pictures like Psycho or just because the subject matter doesn’t map to their personalities. This is all my extremely roundabout and exhausting way of saying that I’ve never particularly cared for Jean-Luc Godard but was aware of his importance, but in the spirit of a new year I thought that revisiting some of his better known works on the big screen might be an illuminating experience – and it was.
In that light I’ve decided to restrict myself to a light touch when it comes to this season, and I’ve only selected two films, both of which I vaguely enjoyed when I first saw them on TV, for this hesitant return to everyone’s favorite nouvelle vague crypto Marxist provocateur. Godard adapted Contempt from the 1954 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, in what is widely considered as one of his most personal films, which despite its lukewarm response was come to be regarded as a masterpiece of 1960’s European cinema. The story, as much as there is a conventional story rests on a disintegrating marriage between Parisian screenwriter, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot at the apex of her international fame and sexpot popularity. At the time Godard’s marriage to actress Anna Karina was also in a tabloid covered turbulent difficulty, with Godard accepting this directing commission from producer Carlo Ponti without final cut or complete control of script or casting. In the film Paul is summoned to Rome, to the glorious Cinecitta studios in order to spruce up a screenplay for a prestigious adaption of Homer’s The Odyssey that’s floundering in production, directed by the great Fritz Lang who plays himself in an early and beloved instance of intertextual tinkering. The puppet master of the drama is Tinseltown producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), a blustering personification of Hollywood’s baser commercial instincts, who becomes quite excited at the prospect of more scantily clad maidens, battlefield mayhem and murder and its box office potential instead of Lang’s high minded classical fidelity to the ancient text. Suspicions arise that Paul is engineering a dalliance between Jerry and Camille in order to secure his employers fiscal affections, dismissing her reluctance to be pimped out despite the couples poor financial position. So the modern meets the ancient as artistic ideals clash against commercial realities, set against a declining studio system which Lang personified that by the 1960’s was inevitably fading into history.
My return to one of Godard more famous films from his fifty year (and counting) career was a thoroughly satisfying experience, with a glistening, freshly struck new digital print that is touring the country. The immediate items to discuss is Godard’s playful disregard for convention, constantly reminding you that you’re watching an artificial construct, a movie, through humorous and good-natured asides and affectations – strange shatterings of mise-en-scene, dialogue exchanges which emanate from a fictional movie world rather than any non-fictional fulcrum. This was still new in 1963, this was way before the self-referential spasms of Scream or Tarantino as the obvious antecedents, but rather than ape well established postmodern forms Godard struck out in his own unique direction, before such a cultural concept had even been widely identified or accepted. Contempt, to give it its English translation is an intimate film with a long middle stretch which is just Bardot and Picoli prowling their Mediterranean apartment, arguing and debating their relationship in a heightened and slightly artificial manner, but still managing a sense of universal appeal as their suspicions and vulnerabilities come under the cameras close scrutiny. In the wider plot the immaculately groomed, monocle mounted artist Lang is a representative of cinema’s conscience, asserting the fidelity to the source material and marshalling his intellect to take the text through the simulacra of the screen his noble almost saintly purpose, with Palance’s boorish producer a mirror to the venal aspects of the industry and its lust for the lowest common denominator, signifying the disgust of the title. The fictional bleeds into the real with the history Godard being forced to cast Bardot against his wishes and being instructed to include a nude scene to placate the investors, but he somehow turns the salacious into the sublime, through his formal command of the improvisation grasp of film form. He digs the rabbit hole digs further with a startling use of colour through Raoul Coutard’s ravishing sun-kissed photography, the blues, the whites and reds standing in stark contrast to the palette costume and props signified of their importance with foreshadowing of their narrative purpose and individual character temperatures. The visual accedes to the aural with a similarly spritely use of sound and music, this is the common refrain that runs throughout the film in a jargon of scene selections. In other places the score cuts dead as if the composer was shot dead off-screen, it’s quite humorous and jarring, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie, jostling a cosmopolitan shape to the entire film which churns at every appreciative conscious and subliminal level.
I’d be failing in my journalistic duties if I didn’t advise that the newly struck digital print is just sublime, those colours pop out of the screen and it looks as fresh as a Marvel franchise picture. Yes, naturally you see a very slight change in grain and degradation of quality in some scene transfers which presumably is struck from a deteriorated master, but overall the new format injects fresh vitality into this vibrant art-house masterpiece. Bardot was the contemporary equivalent of some Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift or Rhianna hybrid back in 1963, the ‘it’ girl who dominated the discourse in the tabloids and media landscape, and indeed Godard was accused of selling out by the intelligentsia by accepting this high-profile assignment. In her brief introduction to the screening Anna Karina made some rather strange remarks, that Godard assaulted Ponti after production which resulted in a broken leg, although the court case at the time found him innocent of any grievous intention due to the witnesses closing rank with Godard – I hope the statute of limitations has expired on that one as Godard is still knocking around. I can’t help but place Le Mépris within that fine prestige of films where insiders offer a scathing insight into the industry, from Truffaut’s Day For Night, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Minnelli’s The Bad & The Beautiful, Altman’s The Player and more recently Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars, the rather on the nose title of this film makes his objective opinion brutally clear. He’ll never be in my top pantheon of directors but being older and wiser I can perhaps more fully appreciate Godard’s achievements in this early phase of his career, that mischevious breaking of the fourth wall, the strange flashes of surrealism and glitches in narrative logic are less irritating and more charming than I recalled, and I’m actively looking forward to the next BFI visit for another of his 1960’s pictures. Also, talk about prolific, Le Mépris was his sixth film since his feature debut in 1960, and in the first seven years of his career alone he directed fifteen texts – two more than Stanley managed throughout his entire career fifty year career. In the opening of the film Godard quotes the eminent cultural theorist Andre Bazin, stating that ‘cinema is better than real life, that it is the real world as we imagine it‘, now that’s an assertion that the Menagerie can fully endorse;
Right then you reprobate muthafuckers, let’s get this year’s retrospective screening programme started with a brain splattering blast shall we? Regardless of your opinion on Quentin Tarantino’s mischievous magpie style this was the film that defined a decade and launched a thousand crude imitations, redefining screen scorched postmodernism in a blast of explosive exploitation, self-referential semiotics and censorship shredding deviancy – Pulp Fiction. The film has been given a number of airings in London cinemas over the years including a digital projection just last year, but like a patient Buddha I have been holding out for an analogue experience which is more in tune with its makers and my retrospective preferences. I don’t wish to get significantly derailed as I have nothing against digital projection or shooting, but if I’m going to spend valuable time on a film I’ve seen a dozen times before then it needs to have some tangible authenticity to make the experience worthwhile – maybe I’ll get round to a proper post on that phenomenon later in the year. Anyway, like most budding cinephiles Quentin’s arrival on the scene was a bloody slap in the face of a genre swarming with Bruckheimer action pyrotechnics, Steven Segal hilarity and Chuck Norris imperialism, while Scorsese seemed to be the only talent holding the torch for incendiary American underworld flicks with both Goodfellas and Casino waiting in the wings. I distinctly remember seeing this scene on an MTV movie show and immediately feeling gut-punched into wondering ‘wow, what the hell is this?’, and shortly thereafter the marketing tsunami spread across the UK. Although I saw Dogs at a midnight screening I never saw Pulp Fiction at the cinema, I was at college at the time with no cinema nearby, but I did get my claws on a reasonable quality VHS rip. With the exception of Jackie Brown, probably the best movie of his eight movies I’ve now seen all his films at the flicks, not a bad effort for a director I find both arrogant and exasperating, but undeniably important. Crucially we sprout from the same tribe, we can energetically quote the cinematographers of sixty, seventy year old movies (Greg Toland!, James Wong-Howe, Boris Kaufman!, Karl Freund!), we can recite pull-quotes from memorable Pauline Kael reviews, and we coo with delight when some obscure character actor in one picture crops in another parched print, an umbilical link of references and connections that make us love the seventh art with such devoted and detailed intensity.
The key to unlocking Pulp Fiction isn’t secreted among the crime genre trappings of these desperados squatting on the fringes of the L.A. underworld, it isn’t buried within the eclectic soundtrack whose obscure warbling entered the popular cultural lexicon, it isn’t even personified in the expertly selected cast who piston power the memorable dialogue and vivid characterisations, no the key to Pulp Fiction is that deliberately fractured narrative, the overlapping time frames and interlocutions which won over the critics and genre fans alike in the staid and formalised storytelling straightjacket of the early 1990’s. That the film juggles three distinct arcs and doesn’t diffuse its impact is a testament to its success – Vincent Vega’s (Travolta) fraught date with the Louise Brooks bobbed Mia (Uma Thurman), the coke addled wife of shark statured crime boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the same treacherous waters swims pugilist Butch Coolidge (Willis) who throws a crooked bout before scurrying with his girlfriend to safer, shallow depths, before embarking on a dangerous mission to recover a priceless family heirloom. Finally Vincent and Jules retrieve a stolen briefcase which contains a mysterious golden hued cargo, their mission scuppered when a stray round decimates a hostages cranium, igniting a frantic effort to conceal the homicide and grab some breakfast. These three strands interweave and coil within each other across locations and timeframes in a suppliantly oozing design, both bookmarked by a tense restaurant robbery which further embedded the trademark Tarantino gun-cocked stand-off. Now, let’s talk about violence;
Let’s be clear about this – broadly speaking, for many viewers, violence in movies is fun. It is cathartic, audiences love it, and the entire Hollywood model, the dominant cinema form of the past 120 years is centered around all problems being solved and conflicts settled by a superhero gauntleted fist or the business end of a 9mm Berreta. Since the silent days there have been gunfights, fisticuffs and violent framed solutions pummeled into narrative conclusions. Our heroes and heroines very rarely overcome their dramatic obstacles through mediation and negotiation, and when was the last time you heard an audiences cheer the elimination of an antagonists goals through a carefully structured summit that respectfully considered both sides of a complicated disagreement? Right or wrong this is the common cinematic paradigm, and Tarantino’s hyper stylized and unforgiving approach to the visceral is at least more honest than the digitally sterilized massacres promoted by the major studios blockbuster carnage. Like Nicholas Winding-Refn, Gasper Noé and Lars Von Trier these men are showmen, they are canny provocateurs that giggle at every pearl clutching opinion piece on the depravity of ‘violence in cinema’ that yields another $50,000 to the box office take, every accusatory interview or pull-quote generating far more buzz and marketing bite than any executive could hope to imagine. We’re a violent species, and it has littered our art, our texts and spiritual instruction since, well, we decided to etch charcoal communiqués in caves and on fragile parchments, they reflect society rather than promote behaviours, and there is not one single shred of peer tested evidence to the contrary. That’s not to say that all violence in cinema is justified, that sometimes it isn’t earned or appropriate to the characters and overarching idiom of a movie, but I think we’re lying to ourselves and to others that we don’t get some sort of sensational thrill when Aragorn beheads that Uruk-hai or John McClane quips through another climactic altercation, or the Bride obliterating a host of hara-kiri henchmen in a dazzling ballet of amputated limbs and quivering entrails.
Given that many of the scenes, dialogue exchanges and events have permeated into popular cinema culture this was still a thoroughly entertaining screening, a little like slipping into a comfy pair of old slippers which you can relax into and enjoy, with a few mild surprises and 1990’s affectations which situate the film firmly in its historical context. I’d forgotten just how funny it is, particularly Jules expletive laden tirades in the final section, although the whole enjoyment of the Mr. Wolf sequence has been irrevocably stained by those inexcusable adverts for fucking insurance or whatever they are prostituting, and I can only surmise that whoever sanctioned that atrocity from (presumably) the Weinstein’s on down deserves an entire clip of hollow bore cartridges to their screaming faces. The directorial style is mannered but not exhausted with the indulgent pyrotechnics of Tarantino’s later work, the story and character remain centred through sultry introductions or setting scenes play out in their full screen mayhem. The fractured narrative which so beguiled critics back in the day suggest a breathing LA underworld teeming with larger than life inhabitants, a vivid imaginary world that connects from film to film and text to text, one of the staples of post-modern universe building which delights fans and fanatics with Easter eggs and references that ricochet across the squalid suburbs and tawdry strip joints. Some of the scenes and designs are now iconic, from Uma’s smoke stained Mia to the assassins black suited armour, Travolta may have got the nomination but it’s Jackson who sermons shout from the screen, quite an achievement given that he only makes brief appearances in the opening and closing sequences of the picture. The print was fine, slightly jittery around the reel changes with a few distressed hairlines in a couple of reels, but that was all part of the experience for a film which references back to the sordid and murky B-movie crimes the past, and now finds itself aging gracefully into its early twenties.
Some random observations – I’m sure I knew this but it was corrupted somewhere from in the memory banks, but that was Steve Buscemi as the Buddy Holly waiter in Jack Rabbit Slims wasn’t it? Although this wasn’t Ving Rhames first film it was certainly the first that assaulted mainstream public attention, but apart from his running role in the Mission Impossible franchise he doesn’t seem to have got much luck.- he’s worked regularly but not exactly in the A list supporting stratosphere. In opposition the film in one fell swoop made bona-fide stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, as well as the overnight resurrection of John Travolta’s career despite QT facing the same executive wrath that Coppola weathered with his casting of Brando in The Godfather – ‘he’s not commercial’, ‘over my dead body’ etc etc. As someone who has a generalized loathing of Travolta I’ll admit that he is eminently watchable in this role, and he pulls off the dozy eyed indifference to a professionalism that you can’t imagine anyone else in those flip-flops and beach wear – ‘ha, ha, they’re your clothes motherfucker‘. Without wanted to delve too deeply into controversial arenas the jury is still out on whom exactly was responsible on leading the writing on which section, or who assembled the interlocking the various jigsaw pieces which were so brilliantly arranged in the Oscar winning screenplay. Although he was convinced to take a ‘Story by’ credit producer Lawrence Bender is reputed to be the equal of Tarantino’s scribing, in keeping with the auteur theory of a films single vision and tyrant, making the film easier for Miramax to sell as ‘the director of Reservoir Dogs exciting new picture’. It’s just a dark delight of a film which might be a little overrated, its entertaining and quippy without harbouring much in the way of any residual effect, but it has that elemental command of cinema and storytelling which its imitators failed to supply, dressing their imitations up in the same sunglasses and trcnchcoats without the same control of pastiche or black comedic charm.
My favourite line in the script comprehensively encapsulates the film, when Jules and Vincent are preparing to retrieve the suitcase and it’s mysterious golden cargo he utters ‘OK, now, let’s get into character’, thus setting the prism of mirrors and genre reflections which emulates the history of crime movies past and elevates its future direction to come. Finally, structuring your finale around a bible spouting speech that bookends the narrative beats of the movie is an exquisite touch, it builds tension from the first act as we have been instructed that this little soliloquy usually results in brain splattered bloodshed, but instead they have the audacity to give that shark suited hoodlum some sense of character development, closing the picture with a soundtrack shuffle rather than a ballistic bang. This retrospective screening was a savage start to the year and I’m excited to see a number of 70mm and 35mm screenings already dropping into my schedule over the next couple of months, some mid-level works from Menagerie favorites are on the horizon, taking us from a bivouac in Vietnam via a detour to Beckton Gasworks, while a delivery to the Chinatown district of San Francisco might result in some trouble – Big trouble. Until then we have the small matter of a half dozen Academy Award nominees to see and a scattering of BFI events – so no pressure;
A little prologue to what is fast becoming a Tarantino weekend to end all Tarantino weekends, The Hateful Eight screening yesterday was quite an experience in a sold out Odeon Leicester Square, and in between revisiting two of his earlier films I’m shortly off to the BFI for another revitalising balm in those deep pop-cultural waters. This should set the technical tone for the reviews to follow early in the week;