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.