Time for one more, just one more story, before the snows settle in, and a rogue, death-star sized behemoth seizes multiplexes for the remainder of this frosty year. Now I like Jim Jarmusch, he’s one of those genuine talents whom started in his own idiosyncratic way in the American Indie scene of the 1980’s, whom has resolutely followed his own path rather than court the favor of the big studio’s or gone chasing more populist, mainstream fare. Sometimes that can work either way, I’d state his output since the millennium although regular has been a little repetitive, lightly treading circles in the water in terms of themes or style compared with the philosophical triumphs of Dead Man or Ghost Dog back in the 1990’s. However 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive seeded a return to form, his louche take on the screen vampire mythos given an effortlessly cool inscrutability, and teaming him with two of contemporary cinemas most respected performers – Tilda and Tom. His follow up, Paterson, also sees Jarmusch utilizing the skills of another so called ‘hot’ property, the intense Adam Driver who now adds another J.J. to his litany of directorial collaborations, alongside such measly metteur en scène as the Coens, Noah Baumbach, Jeff Nichols and some fellas called Scorsese and Spielberg. I was intrigued to see that this was showing at my local Cineworld which can occasionally branch out from the blockbuster fare and serve an alternative audience, and Paterson’s regular appearance on many of the sprouting ‘best of the years’ list also piqued my interest, along the fact that a) I haven’t been to the cinema for a couple of weeks and b) disgracefully I’ve never fully covered a Jarmusch film here, meant that a weeknight jaunt to West India Quay was written in the stars.
I first stumbled across Jarmusch through the legendary Moviedrome season and a late night screening of Down By Law, which in turn introduced me to the particular grizzled charms of Tom Waits and John Lurie, author of one of the most gently bizarre cult curios I have recently stumbled across. Unlike some of his contemporaries such as Alison Anders and Hal Hartley Jarmusch seems to have endured, building a quiet but devoted fanbase who enjoy his Lower West Side cultural appropriations and the minimalist, social realist bend to his movies. His path is to take stoic yet creative, withdrawn yet robust characters through a short phase of their life, armed with a gentle sprinkling of movie, music, or literature references, finalised with a subtle narrative punch, to provide some dramatic charge and sense of purpose. Location is important, gracing his seemingly aimless narratives with an extra intangible character, utilizing such evocative and pungent locales as Memphis, New Orleans, Tangiers and Detroit. His latest focuses on working class suburbia, as the location and the main character share the same New Jersey destination – Paterson. He’s a young veteran who now makes his modest means driving a bus around the borough, played with a seemingly lethargic Adam Driver. Every day cycles through the same pattern – Paterson wakes up and snuggles with his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani)before grabbing a spot of breakfast. He interacts with is beleaguered supervisor before taking the bus around the city, while gently eavesdropped on his passengers for inspiration. At lunch he crafts poetry which he captures in ancient pen and paper analogue style, while eating his pre-packed snack at a local park. Returning home he adjusts the rickety mailbox, before dinner and a walk of the dog, an errand which serves as an excuse for a couple of beers at his local watering hole where he is friendly with the wise barkeep Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley). Rinse, recycle & repeat seven times, for the films one week insight into Paterson’s quiet life meanders through these peaks and troughs, mediated via Jarmusch’s unhurried, deadpan humored ideology.
Alongside Broken Flowers this might be Jarmusch’s most gentle and quietly affecting film, the rhythms and repetition of modern life forming the narrative spine, with just a faint hint of manufactured affectation (what was with all the twins eh?) to keep the piece firmly locked into his own, particularly precocious movie universe that stretches from Down By Law through to The Limits Of Control. There are faint whiffs of hipster posturing which is no new allegation against J.J., a fetishisation for authentic artifacts such as the folk music guitar that Laura covets, or the range of left-field musicians that festoon Paterson’s local bar patron hall of fame, the closest echo must be the immortal vampires spirited deference to vinyl over digital in Only Lovers Left Alive. If you can stomach such light posturing and the references to poets such as William Carlos Williams (whose epic magnum opus serves as another layer of inspiration for the film) or Ezra Pound then there is much to enjoy here, in all its homely and familiar, slice-of-life infrastructure. Both Laura and Paterson are not quite realistic, not the grounded vérité characterizations that you’d expect in, say, a Ken Loach picture, but there genuine affection and patience of each others idiosyncrasies, from his lack of ambition to take his work to a wider audience, to his quiet patience with her various financial schemes and flighty hobbies.
Jarmusch’s perceived failure to engage with the reality of these locations and characters has confounded some observers – why make Paterson a veteran and then not explore any potential damaged psychosis? Even in cosmopolitan, suburban New York a mixed race relationship wouldn’t be exposed to some social public disruption or prejudice? I think such concerns are missing the woods for the trees, these simply aren’t the concerns of the filmmaker who isn’t attempting to make some social realist statement, his emphasis is on an entirely different intellectual plane, and its not dissimilar to complaining that a Michael Bay picture violates the laws of physics, logical cohesion or indeed shared system of simple human decency. Jarmusch is interested in the quiet magic, the reflections among peoples lives and our interactions within those frameworks, mannered yes but no less affecting slice-of-life vignettes which we can all relate to on some, intrinsic level. I caught a sense of the Bukowski in the blue-collar repetition, thankfully minus the anarchy of substance abuse, yet with a fine eye of the poetry in the minutiae, which may yield more poignant shared truths than any high intellectual , elite university educated wordsmith. Like it’s 2016 stalemate Certain Women this is not a film which is going to change the world, but for the two hours it spirits you into someone else’s tender-hearted life, a welcome respite to the gloomy news cycle which as Rian Johnson recently tweeted ‘I could have spent another twenty hours in that world’;
It’s not often I divert into TV territory but a combination of small town eerie Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons and Winnona means that yes, I will probably be giving this a d20 Charisma check for interest;
I follow quite a few fellow film critics, bloggers and podcasters on a variety of social media. Broadly speaking we share the same politics as much as you can detect these things through such communication models, being supportive of equal rights for everyone, agitating for a woman’s right to choose her fertility options, in favour of gay marriage as an equalizing factor for a certain strata of the community, loathe the entire fabrication of austerity measures, all in all pretty much left of centre in most areas of social progress and civil evolution. It amuses me no end then that some of these individuals go absolutely berserk when ‘controversial’ ideas strike the movie community, such as perhaps the next actor to strap on a tuxedo and prefer their beverages being shaken and not stirred being of a darker skin tone than the last fifty years of representation. ‘But….but Bond is white‘ they passionately implore, with the idea of the franchise being helmed by Idris Elba or Colin Salmon allegedly representing some enormous affront to humanity, decency and in-universe character integrity. It’s ridiculous of course, as I think this immensely popular franchise could survive some small measure of experimentation, and in fact such developments could save the series from its slow, inevitable slide into irrelevance. Some of these ideas of Bond being a dinosaur and a relic of an earlier age are explored in the fourth film of Daniel Craig’s arc of Ian Fleming’s beloved misogynist psychopath, notions that are uncomfortably set against some of the series defining features – scheming super villains, travelogue globe trotting narratives, elegant sexy ladies and all socio-political problems being solved on the receiving end of a Walter PPK. Having precisely zero investment in this particular franchise on an emotional or historical level I do vaguely look forward to these films as movie events, as big, high-profile entries in one of cinemas most enduring franchises, and I was mildly interested to see what Mendes and Craig were going to go next after the spectacular success of Skyfall. The results for me were similar to the last picture, entertaining enough for a couple of hours but not secreting a great deal to take home and unpack, either intellectually or aesthetically.
It’s a shame that the opening sequence set against an evocative Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City is the strongest movement of the entire film, as when the expectations levels are set so high the remainder of the film is doomed to disappoint. Bond has gone rogue as all the heroes do in these films, instructed by a message from beyond the grave to hunt down the international ne’er-do-well Marco Sciarra, a nasty foreign type who is planning a series of terrorist bombings. Back in London HQ the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing for a sinister new amalgamation of intelligence services and assets across the western hemisphere, with drones and surveillance assets being seen as the 21st century direction of travel by new Joint Intelligence chief C (Andrew Scott). The bad old days of wet-work and clandestine assassinations are deemed redundant in the modern global environment, but little do the authorities perceive that a secretive foe is marshalling its grip on the international narcotics, slave and terrorism markets, with a sepulchral figurehead whose evil ideology also bleeds into our heroes tragic childhood…..
As we all know the film has been eagerly awaited since the rights of the Spectre characters and concepts of Thunderball were acquired in November 2013, so if like me you have a passing knowledge of the Bond universe then there are no real surprises as to where the plot and character revelations finally formulate. Well, when I say plot I’m referring to a rather amorphous chain of A to B to C materializations which never really coalesces into any entertaining master-plan, as Spectre is not much more than a collection of interruptions and exotic locations set against the side plot of the intelligence co-ordination which also contains zero unguessable twists or revelations. Apart from the amorous opening (with a very comfortable long uninterrupted tracking shot that sees director Sam Mendes competing in the same arena as Cuarón and Iñárritu) and a particularly painful train tussle my pulse wasn’t exactly pounding, but Craig is as coldly functional as he has been in the other movies, comfortably sporting his arrogant tuxedo attire which he has carnivorously carved for himself. Ben Whishaw gets a bit more to do as the newly promoted superhacker Q (presumably a moniker for Querulous), Moneypenny is functional in the form of Naomie Harris, while Fiennes gets a bit more screen time as well. Personally I could have done with a lot more of Monica Bellucci though, she disappears after two scenes which is a shame, although the emphasis from an x chromosome perspective rests clearly with Léa Seydoux as the primary plot cypher whom leads Bond from one energetic entanglement to another.
For all these glaring faults I did kind of enjoy this movie, I was never bored even when enduring some of the patience sapping set-pieces, and I actively enjoyed the finale which I’m assuming is the first of this arc that peaks on the gloomy, rain-sodden streets of central London. It would have been nice to have more amusing quips and dialogue exchanges that deserved more attention, and I liked Seydoux’s character even if she starts off as a fairly strong agent before devolving to another damsel in distress trophy to be saved from the evil clutches of the nefarious, titular organisation. Speaking of which Christophe Waltz is proficient as always as the puppet master behind the scenes with an interesting link to our heroes childhood (is that in the books? If not that’s an interesting angle for Mendes to take the series), but it’s a shame he didn’t get more to do as the omnipotent scheming antagonist who has apparently been secretly torturing Bond for the past three movies. Perhaps Spectre’s saving grace is the lavish photography from the increasingly brilliant Hoyte van Hoytema who bathes the screen in high contrast black versus white exteriors, it can’t be easy stepping into Roger Deakin’s shoes but he acquits himself admirably. Nevertheless I still can’t for the life of me see how this movie cost an absurd $300 million, I guess all that commitment to practical effects and location work stacks up spectacularly plus the starry cast receiving generous upfront paycheques, and thankfully the product placement doesn’t sour the experience as much as the last few movies. Overall the series has thankfully moved on from the 1990’s doldrums of Die Another Day and other Brosnan bruisings, but still lags behind the modern techniques of the Mission Impossible or Bourne movies, as it tries to grapple with contemporary post Snowden queries on the ethics of modern surveillance and intelligence, alongside the franchise trappings of dispatching remorseless henchmen, seducing sexy ladies, conveniently contrived gadgets and remote super villain bases. You’ll have to forgive me for such an obvious affectation but Spectre left me stirred but not necessarily shaken;
BFI Southbank – Nicholas Winding-Refn ‘The Act Of Seeing’ Exploitation Poster Book Launch & Farewell Uncle Tom (1971)
Autumn beckons, September is here, so let’s kick things off with quite the sordid little evening over at – where else? – the BFI Southbank. We’ve witnessed Nicholas Winding Refn here before of course, as part of the promotional push on Drive, but the chance to see him again pushing his new book of B movie poster art was accelerated when I realised he was also introducing a members only ultra-rare screening of the notorious slavery picture Farewell Uncle Tom. Being fine connoisseurs of all things cinematically disgusting I’m sure you’ve heard of this movie before, but before we slip into those exploitation shackles some context of his new book The Act Of Seeing is required. Refn has produced the book with his partner in crime Alan Frightfest Jones, and he explained that the inspiration originally arose from his movie memorabilia urges – clearly he’s one of our tribe. A few years ago he purchased $10,000 of exploitation posters from ebay, and since then his appetite in acquiring all sorts of ancillary marketing has broadened, such is his fascination of that most grubby of cinemas children. He enlisted Jones to pull the project together with some research into each of the movies, publishing them together in book form with restored prints of these sometimes time distressed curios, to capture in amber these long lost relics of time gone by. What amused me most was (as Jones explained) that these films are so rare, so underground and obscure that even finding 200 words to talk about some of proven as elusive as a conscience cell in a conservative. The research was much deeper than leafing through the notoriously unreliable imdb but visiting studio archives, rifling through distributors tax records and Refn calling in a few industry favours, just to acquire even barebones details of such immortal classics as Death Bed: The Bed That Eats or Last Orgy Of The Third Reich. As lifelong fans of extreme and underground cinema Jones admits to seeing maybe 25% of the films over his forty year career, Refn perhaps 10%, and to be clear he claimed that he does find genuine artistic merit and beauty in the images, it’s not just some hipster exercise of obsessive cinephilia, a genuine affection for arguably the most neglected hovel of movie history which doesn’t normally grace the pages of ‘serious’ movie periodicals or flag bearing national film institutions.
The movie industry denizens of New York back in this gilded age weren’t exactly the most honourable of souls, and the fact that the product was shuffled around projectors on a constant rotation, remarketed and packaged with alternative titles, sometimes even recut into bastardised versions of each other muddied the research waters somewhat. A further complication was that some cinemas and shady operators would illegally draw up their own lurid marque magnets when screening films without permission so they could pocket 100% of the takings, evading the kickback to the sleazy distributor, a further layer of misinformation and misdirection which must have made the research a herculean task of patience and investigation. Did I purchase a copy of the book? No, primarily because a) I’ve just spent a weekend strafing and disposing unwanted clutter so the acquisition of another bulky 700 page book really wasn’t on the cards and b) frankly speaking a lot of the material seems to refer to soft-core and hard-core sex films, which are a little out of my wheelhouse. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude with a search history to prove it, but that’s just not an area of film culture or history I’m particularly aroused by, and although some of the posters were quite frankly hilarious after you’ve seen a dozen or so you’ve probably seen ’em all. The prospect of ejaculating £60 on an impressively arranged and sequenced book that I would aimlessly leaf through a couple of times before collecting dust on a shelf somewhere wouldn’t be the best investment of time, or money, at this stage when I have bigger fish to fry. Still, during the discussion there was also a disclosure of a potential new film project, not from Refn but another, more localised film director who is currently progressing funding for a fictional look at the whole world of Times Square and the exploitation phenomenon in the 1970’s, and although I don’t feel comfortable disclosing whom is behind it at this stage this would be an ideal next project in this filmmakers evolution – it all reminds me of this beautiful rom-com moment….
So let’s move on to tonight’s featured presentation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screening preceded by such a whirlwind of warnings, including emails and strongly worded website disclaimers that WARNING: THIS FILM IS OFFENSIVE, just to stave off any furiously worded complaints at how Her Royal Majesty’s British Film Institute could possibly screen such despicable depravity. A further warning was emitted by the BFI’s Event Director, explaining that the print, borrowed from Refn’s friends behind the Alamo Drafthouse had some water damage and sonic distress around some of the reel changes, while some of the colour had pinked out –as in this would be a projection that has suffered some loss of colour gradients due to print distress, as opposed to 1960’s softcore Japanese pornography. In true Italian exploitation fashion the film starts with a almost delirious melding of sound of image, as a modern day documentary crew are somehow transported back to the antebellum American South of the 19th century, arriving by helicopter in a expansive cotton field which stretches to the edges of the frame. We are on journey into the heart of darkness, when the slavery trade was wallowing in the deepest depths of cruelty, murder and horrifying inhumanity, the documentations our surrogate witness in a unsettling blurring of fiction and reconstruction. The picture was crafted by the notorious directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, already infamous for the Mondo Cane movie series, allegedly slandering an entire continent with their salacious instincts, architects of offence who really scrapped the barrel with this one.
There was some general discussion of the portrayal of slavery in cinema when QT’s Django was released a couple of years ago, with only a few exploitation films (Mandingo and its 1976 sequel Drum) being identified alongside the small screen phenomenon of Roots, with the highest profile film being Spielberg’s 1997 movie Amistad. For such an important and reverberant subject the paucity of material speaks volumes to me, although I guess a look at one of the most shameful periods of multiple countries history isn’t exactly a box-office blast. So I was braced for impact as it were, and being a desensitised and warped fan of outré cinema I was expecting the worse, so inevitably I didn’t think this was that bad – at least initially. Don’t get me wrong, for the first few reels Farewell Uncle Tom is deeply offensive, its jaw-droppingly disgusting, and in its primitive way compelling brave in pushing its camera into formally uncharted territory. The canvass is human beings essentially being treated like cattle, eating like crazed beasts from troughs, deloused and subjected to medical experiments, suffocating in their own filth in cramped, excretion smeared claustrophobia. As the documentarians continue their on-screen interviews with the fictional inhabitants of the 18th century matters degenerate as it moves into the realms of the sexually abused, the raped and murdered with total impunity, and this is where you can start throwing all the nauseating superlatives around that you wish – brutal, vicious, unconscionable, sadistic – and to reach for the critics cliché dictionary this makes 12 Years A Slave look like Hucklebury Finn. Away from the striking immersive design – the off screen narrators verbally interact with the slaves, with the masters, with the flotsam and jetsam of this broiling hellscape – there is a definitive journey through the film, there is narrative structure and thought, a quality quite alien to the amateur conditions of traditional exploitation born product. Juxtapositions between the supposed civility and refinement of gentrified Southern society which stands in stark contrast with the utter degrading, inhuman barbarity, of church attending Christians exploiting other members of our species with such pitiless barbarity. On a purely visceral level there is also copious male and female nudity, including children, liberal deployment of the ‘n’ word and other racial slurs, and that’s just the opening titles………..
But just as you might be becoming acclimatised, becoming numbed to the parade of choking brutality a new level of Gehenna is unleashed when a new element of the omnipresent culture is exposed. We bear witness to the Caucasian rape gangs, or the greasing up of ‘virgin whores’ for sale at public market, sold as willing orifices for the satisfaction of every depraved whim of the white man’s sexual depravity. If that doesn’t prompt the dry retching then how about the breeding of negros in ‘bitch’ and ‘studs’ paddocks in one plantation worthy of the deepest abyss of the Marquis De Sade, the owner proudly boasting of his chattal’s ability to gestate new product within weeks of her previous birth, before we glimpse one terrified adolescent thrown into the cage of a half syphilitic grunting lunatic – you can shudderingly guess the rest. Not enough for you? Then how about (for me) the final coup de grace, one final atrocity ambling along with a 13 year old girl seducing one of the off-screen narrators, insisting that he deflower her – actually that’s rather a tame phrase, how about ‘break her in’ – rather than abandon her hymen to one of her racial kin, so that she can service her white masters more efficiently in a harrowingly compliant scene which is deliberately shot to implicate the audience in the seduction. This is probably one of the most uncomfortable and disgusting scenes I’ve ever seen, operating right at the cusp of endurance, where even the likes of arch provocateurs Gasper Noe or Von Trier might mutter ‘whoa, wait, c’mon now – hang on a fucking second’….
Of course it’s all true, and we know from academic and historic record that these events or similar occurred, that these horrific structures and ideologies existed, and indeed still occur. The historic distancing tends to engulf these crimes in the oceans of time, which is why the narrative device of the present day documentarians recording these events uncomfortably blurs the lines between fiction and imagination, rendering the film as especially disturbing given their (and by proxy our) slow implication and absorption into the same crimes and peccadillos – it reminded me of the notorious Belgian faux-verite controversy of the 1990’s Man Bites Dog. Like all exploitation it deliberately emphasises the lurid, the voyeuristic and distressing to make its points, but that’s kinda the point of exploitation cinema – the clues in the title. Moreover there is a point to the film in its design and purpose no matter how inelegantly expressed, like a bullwhip thrashing out the ‘decent’ standards of bourgeois civility, as Farewell Uncle Tom finally concludes on something of a call to arms to the Black Panther movement, encouraging the vengeful butcher of whitey and his wife in their comfortable middle class bed. When the film was released in 1971 this was incendiary to say the least, a sequence which apparently provoked genuine riots which caused the authorities to exorcise the film from circulation after only a week. If you don’t happen to be near any grindhouse joints then the film is available in numerous versions on the old faithful YouTube, if you are any way interested in exploitation cinema then this is a must. Coincidently I’ve just purchased Refn’s Pusher trilogy boxed set for the ungainly sum of £6 which is a skull bludgeoning bargain, next up at the BFI we stumble nicely into another paragon of saintly, decent filmmaking, with a special visit from that Baltimore born film director who once filmed a 250lb transvestite eating fresh dog shit on camera. Bon appetit;
That’s quite a team behind the product – Oscar winners© Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin on direction and script, and a high energy cast including Winslet, Stuhlburg, Daniels and Seth Rogan as the Woz. Purely coincidentally I am 2/3 through the official biography on the man which I picked up for the princely sum of 49p from a Colchester charity shop, and a well written, warts n’ all piece it is too. I can’t help think that Fassbender seems bizarrely miscast though, he’s a great actor n’all but he just doesn’t seem to fit the person portrayed in the book. I guess we shall see in October;
Well you asked for it, as in specifically some of you out in the wide yawning ether asked if I was going to review 2015’s first cultural celluloid event, the biggest R rated opening of all time, a film with no superheroes or franchise credentials which is breathlessly lashing its way toward a $500 million global haul. My understanding and appraisal of the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomenon has largely been restricted to that of any other armchair cultural commentator – precisely zero interest in reading the books due to the merciless quality of the critique’s of E.L. James sub par writing, a general baffled disinterest in ‘erotic literature’, and a mistrust of the series allegedly damaging sexual and gender politics. All of the criticisms directed to the books raise the same disquieting positions – being stalked is sexy!! All my abusive partner needs is the love of a good woman to ‘turn’ him good!! Being into slightly kinky sex is a severe character flaw arising from childhood trauma that requires ‘fixing’!! – hmm, none of that sounds particularly healthy. I think you do have to temper some of the hand-wringing, horrified opinion piece reactions to the books as just perhaps (sarcasm alert) the majority of women who catapulted the series into a publishing phenomenon are fully aware that the books are stupid, silly and just a little bit of sexy fun, in much the same way that I for example can happily watch some stupid monster B-Movie from the 1950’s and appreciate its terrible naffness but still have a good time. I’m not really qualified nor interested in passing judgment on any of these wider thematic elements, but I think I am qualified to dissemble the film as a film, and as a critic I am professionally obligated to see any picture which has generated such feverish debate and discussion. As I am ideologically opposed to reading fan fiction (especially plagiarized fan-fiction) I went into this relatively cold in the wake of some pretty terrible reviews, discreetly attending a furtive matinée screening, flushed with anticipation as even a real catastrophe can be howlingly good fun and a thoroughly satisfying few hours at the flicks.
Getting straight down to the action I am disappointed to rasp that no this isn’t as terrible as some have claimed, it’s certainly not a very good movie but it doesn’t even qualify as this year’s worst waste of celluloid space. First of all you can’t enlist A list production talent such as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers, We Need To Talk About Kevin) or soundtrack composer Danny Elfman without some veneer of quality, the former has graced the film with a seductive color palette grinding through a panoply of copacetic greys (of course) to flushed reds, the latter a perfectly serviceable musical accompaniment which never intrudes into the characters comfort zone. One of the films warning signs apart from the ridiculed source material was the presence of Kelly Marcel on scriptwriting duties, I thought Saving Mr. Banks was one of the most offensive films of recent years, guilty of relegating a fascinating historical figure to some frigid prude, subservient to Disney in a dishonest whitewash serving their corporate masters. Comprehensively lifting (so I’m told) the book structure into a Hollywood template doesn’t seem to have been an arduous task, there is a standard issue rom-com logic to the initial meeting and wooing of Christian and Anastasia, perforated with some deeply problematic character activities, grimace inducing lines of dialogue, and one particularly uncomfortable performance that we’ll get to shortly. The beating the film has received for sheer laugh-out loud incompetence doesn’t quite hold water as this is a handsomely mounted (pun utterly intended), professional piece of work, at least until the problems with the source text start to arise.
After a carefully engineered, self-reflective first hour during which it is patently obvious that director Sam Taylor Wood has a cunning approach to the inherently campy material slowly, inexorably the erotic charge deflates from the movie, and my mind begin to listlessly wonder on to more fascinating questions – I wonder how many seats this screen has? Hmm, I wonder how many steps it takes me to walk here from my flat? Both are simply fascinating subjects I’m sure you’ll agree. A regular presence on set was author E.L. James who served as an ardent gatekeeper of her laughably incompetent prose (causing some serious clashes on set), relaying the story of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a naïve graduate student who is sent to interview the enigmatic billionaire 27-year-old Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)after her flatmate is stricken ill. A romance ensues with Grey acting in a fashion that would have you instantly arrested and sectioned in real life, as he harbours a dark sexual secret which Anastasia’s fledgling sexuality. Putting it quite simply Dornan has all the chutzpah of Patrick Bateman without the corpse littered charm, I don’t think I’ve seen a performer so utterly uncomfortable in a role he clearly loathes, playing a fucking asshole of the absolute nascent nadir, utterly obsessed with his own conquests and satisfaction at the expense of all and everyone else.
I was fascinated to learn that Dakota Johnson is the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, an actress of an earlier age whom of course was the victim of a horrendous sexual obsession from a powerful man wielding enormous wealth and influence, so there is an odd cinematic confluence occurring in this film as she suffers bewildering behavior that should have the audience gasping ‘you’re fucking kidding, right?’ Christian questions every relationship she has with every other male in her life, the implication being these threats to his prize are unacceptable. He lovingly breaks into her apartment, turns up completely non-stalkery at her job, showers her with lavishly inappropriate gifts and demands to be within communication reach at all times. When out getting wasted with her friends one night he arrives on the scene to ‘rescue’ her and orders her to never act in this fashion again, before moodily stripping to his waist and playing mournful midnight piano dirges from the penthouse of his corporate ziggurat. It’s an atrocity of behavior ripped bleeding from the manual of an abusive, controlling relationship which is simply squirm worthy embarrassing to watch, before he spirits her away in his personal helicopter for a midnight jaunt in swoon inducing fashion. OK, yeah, even I get it, it’s a fantasy, just a little amorous aphrodisiac – fine. Personally though even if you approach the film as a nonsense on the level of Pretty Woman or some other identikit Rom-Com formula engorged with a little dangerous kink this still leaves a very sour taste in the mouth, and even the funniest of reviews do little to cleanse the palette. The sex scenes are as tame as you’d expect from any mainstream studio product even with the R rating, and of course they follow they usual double standard of plenty of female nudity but no, (now how can I put this discreetly?) there’s no wanger sightings to equalize the genders. It’s all shot very tastefully and flatly, a perfume advert projected against opulent décor, a montage of grinding body parts that couldn’t be more vanilla if you stuck a icepick in it and called it Ice.
The contract scene is the ultimate personification and key to the entire film, where Christian and Anastasia sexily pontificate on the negotiated dimensions of their proposed dominant & submissive symbiosis. Tabled as a business meeting and shot by McGarvey with an intentional crepuscular glee the scene is funnier than it ought to be and deftly summarizes the entire romance, with a winning, querying punch line from the inquisitive Anastasia – ‘What’s a butt-plug?’ Here, finally is sordid evidence that the film has been fabricated as a contemporary satire, a film of transactions and commerce perverting the intimate and personal, of elitist billionaires instructing inferiors to bend and thrust to their every whim, of everything being brought to them and their every order breathlessly obeyed with no regard for others safety, security or well-being. Despite these fleeting pangs the film is sorely lacking in tittering temptation, to have actually made this entertaining it needed a Paul Verhoeven, as just one frame of the punishing glee of a Showgirls or a Basic Instinct would at least have got the blood pumping and aroused the temperature beyond a few idle laughs and a couple of nicely photographed scenes. I’ll just add to the chorus of like-minded critics that if you are in the mood for some erotic coaxed cinema then go and support a genuine treasure, The Duke Of Burgundy is playing in selected cinemas now. Fifty Shades Of Grey however is a tepid and icky puddle of passion, a sure sign that we don’t always get the films we want but the films we perversely deserve;
Be afraid, Be very, very afraid – I think I might require some professional help as this made me laugh. A lot;
Do you read Sutter Cane? Y’know, when I mentally audit the breadth and scope of films I’ve covered on this blog over the past tears of years I sometimes despair at the scale of the mountain I still feel compelled to climb, particularly when it comes to my all-time favourite filmmakers. You’ll know by now that one of these essentials is the legendary John Carpenter, horror and genre master par excellence, a director I always feel I’ve shortchanged given my absolute adoration of most of his work and the impact it had on me as an adolescent cinephile. But then when I audit the work thus far I realize I’ve broached more texts than anticipated, we’ve stumbled through The Fog, frozen with The Thing and screamed at Halloween, heck even in passing we’ve had a glance at Dark Star and erm, been sectioned with The Ward although like a shameful Victorian bastard offspring we don’t tend to talk about that much. To be sure there are still some essentials which have eluded my grasp, Prince Of Darkness and Escape From New York are biblical oversights (although I guarantee renewed interest in the latter given this news) and the likes of Big Trouble In Little China have evolved a fanatic cult following over the past couple of decades, then of course there is the brilliantly prophetic They Live which has been reassessed as one of his finest works, with common critical opinion asserting that this 1988 picture was his last key text. This, however, is nonsense. I’m not going to make any sort of case for Escape From LA which I can’t defend but still enjoy as a deeply guilty pleasure, and unlike most I also find elements to enjoy in Memoirs Of An Invisible Man*. No, for me 1994’s In The Mouth Of Madness is Carpenters last significant work, so when the BFI announced a special 35mm screening as part of their newly enshrined monthly cult movie strand I was flailing myself faster than a demented acolyte of some ancient satanic sect, not many would have bothered with a late night Sunday evening screening but what can I say, all hail our new octodimensional overlords from beyond the veil of dreams, that’s what I say…..
Positioned as the third spire of Carpenter’s apocalyptic triptych with The Thing and Prince Of Darkness the film maps the murderous end of the world, the sacrifice of our species and fragile world to an ancient Lovecraftian inspired host of horrors so hideous that they can only find purchase through the permeable boundaries of fiction. The catalyst of Armageddon comes from the humblest of sources, initially inscribed through the scribbling’s of cult author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow in fine brimstone belching form), a blood streaked J.D. Salinger figure whose work inspires murderous devotion to his legion of fans. But any epochal event requires an intellectual sacrifice, enter stage right arrogant and cynical insurance agent John Trent (Sam Neil) who is commissioned to track down the reclusive author at the sleepy new England town of Hobbs End, a place referenced in Kane’s eagerly awaited new novel In The Mouth Of Madness which is burning with fanatical and eldritch expectation.
Revisiting this film after a handful of small screen viewings was a repulsive revelation, In The Mouth Of Madness is meta before the concept of ‘meta’ gained as much cultural currency as it enjoys today, yes its clumsy, yes it feels rushed and frankly silly in parts but it still prefigures the genre likes of Scream and it’s masked impersonators by a good few gore drenched years. Carpenter deploys his usual Panavision frame and throws on a slightly grubby wide-angle lens to carefully distort the image, chanting an uncertain ratio between realities which is a technical touch that most movies of its ilk and era simply can’t equal. Locating Trent as a cynical unbeliever is an expert touch, divining him as a master in detonating deception and deceit as he ricochets between the supernatural events, initially believing that the increasingly urgent events are staged as some elaborate publicity stunt. The church setting of Kane’s communion is a terrific location, a real place in New Hampshire which required no optical effects to look imposing on screen, para-dimensionally more effective than the rather lame faux-shock and Carpenter special double-shock jump scares which were received with mere appreciative titters. I also can’t deny that some of the sequences simply don’t work (the Dobermann attack was really quite bad) but there are a few sequences which hold some treasures, and for my money this movie works as a small precursor to the whole panoply of pre-millennial psyche fractured film that were waiting in the shadow lengthing aisles – The Matrix, The Truman Show, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shit, Memento and on and on and on…
Sometimes I think I wonder, and sometimes one wonders what one thinks they can wonder about, and then one experience can evade any logical purpose as overthinking can present an acute obstacle – now can we get back on the bus? Heh. This was just a fucking awesome evening with a quietly appreciative crowd, the privilege to see a lower tier John Carpenter movie on the big screen again was Menagerie mandated wonderful, warts and eldritch drenched scars and all. For all its limitations In The Mouth Of Madness is several million dimensions ahead of the last few decades of movie ‘horror’ despite some of its budgetary and casting constraints, the current Paranormal Activities, Conjuring and Annabelle and Bababdook dread seem much more parochial and simplistic in their domestic intent, a terror in the home rather than a holistic horror of a wider indiscriminate world which seems to have been neutered by a slow shift from the global to the psyche of the individual. Anyway, ahem…. Sam Neil is always good value for money isn’t he? Right? I always raise an appreciative eyebrow when I see he’s in a picture, he always does good work in genre fare and other stuff. I’ve been a fan since we all praised Damien.
Back to the ending at hand, does Carpenter and his screenwriter manage to pull together the various threads into some coherent, terrifying whole? Alas not. Is the terror and repeated revisits to earlier sequences fully form a circle of Sisyphean chills of our pointless struggle in the face of indiscriminate oblivion? Probably no. However the picture does flirt with a few potent ideas, it clumsy curls within the permeable barrier between reality and fantasy, the terrifying prospect of being a character in a novel with no agency or manifest destiny other than that dictated by ancient and malevolent forces, with maybe a few jabs at the intellectually immature who believe that horror movies and their ilk are actually a contributing force to the worlds ills rather than a catalyst and mirror to our true, occasionally savage instincts. At an economical 90 odd minutes the film abandons reality before the premise begins to grate, with a few deft lines to demonstrate that the filmmakers have their tongues firmly planned in their cheeks. When you finally approach In The Mouth Of Madness you can sense some chittering spirits howling in the distance as you absorb the in-film declarations such as ‘What about the people who don’t read?’ and the concluding ‘The film comes out next month’, a punchline that nourishes the gnawing souls that are murmuring an obvious pointer of satirical sourness, indicating a deeper drive than the images and associated arrangements manage to achieve. Some of my fellow audience members summed up the picture as being ‘drunk on a cheap beer rock soundtrack which feels like the end of an era’. I can’t immediately argue with that. But it strikes me as a surface level synopsis which doesn’t quite appreciate how fully Carpenter was once again of time, if you delve deeper this is just about a perfect summation of Carpenter’s last Lovecraftian laugh;
* Yes I understand I’ve omitted Village Of The Damned here but that film is just bad, boring and its best for all to pretend it never happened. Yes, yes, the same holds true for Ghosts Of Mars. And although it’s got its admirers as a pulpy b-movie western hybrid Vampires never really bit me….
‘Man is a god when he dreams and a beggar when he thinks.’ – So let us begin. I don’t wish to commence proceedings with ridiculous hyperbole or exaggerated whimsy but I’m sure we can all agree that Werner Herzog, the great German film director, poet and documentarian is a god who walks among us mere pathetic mortals. OK, OK, pushing flippancy aside and being absolutely serious having given this some significant consideration, now here is my central thesis – I assert that a century from now future media scholars and visual art historians will look back on the first dozen decades of cinema and elect Werner as the greatest practitioner of the form in its adolescent infancy. Has he made that one masterpiece that is regularly venerated as one of the greatest films of all time akin to Potemkin, Kane or Vertigo? Perhaps not but a half-dozen of his films are always honored in the top fifty. Has one single film of his individually exploded and expanded the form beyond its contemporary intellectual boundaries as Welles, Ozu, Kurosawa or Kubrick managed to achieve? Probably and possibly not. Yet has anyone equaled the incredible breadth, stupendous sweep and stultifying scale of his work over his half century career? No, and here as they say is the rub gentle reader.
Usurping his contemporaries Herzog has made films throughout the 20th and 21st centuries all over the world, veering from the jungles of South America to the fetid swamps of commercial Hollywood, even taking in a whistle-stop tour of a pregnant pacific Pompeii. His camera has surveyed the African veldt and the tropical plateaus of the Orient, proceeding from a shattered Middle East to the shivering wastes of Antarctica. Furthermore he has straddled fiction and non-fiction, documentaries, art installations, operas and biographies, moving effortlessly through genres and styles yet retaining his own distinct Teutonic purr. Finally the historical scale is breathtaking, situating his omnipotent observations among (off the top of my head) the Paleolithic to the medieval epoch, the bloody forging of the New World, the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century, taking two passes on the same story from a fiction and non-fiction position, before finally passing into space with a few cult SF oddities. Who the fuck else has managed that? More recently he has embarked on a side career as raconteur and verbal essayist through his numerous public speaking engagements, so I jumped at the chance to see the great Übermensch during his current book tour at an engagement at Westminster Central Hall, interviewed by the legendary journalist Paul Holdengraber at an event crowned as a Guide To The Perplexed. I have seen the light my friends, and it is good.
‘Only the shallow think they know themselves’ – It’s only been a few hours since the verbal spectacle was absorbed, and my primitive mind is still a little bewildered and busy digesting the proceedings, so I think the best way to give a flavor of the evening would be a stream of consciousness diatribe – bear with me. Introduced (perhaps a little pretentiously) as ‘cognitive theatre’ this was something of a greatest hits of Herzog anecdotes, observations, opinions and predictions, frequently hilarious and pulsing with insight, starting with his current fascination with the psychic possibilities of the Oculus rift technology – the man is 72 years old and this is his opening gambit. What are the implications of this breakthrough for the long-term hospitalized, the insane or the death row inmate, giving them a safe alternate reality to escape their fractured and imprisoned functions? He dislikes Brecht and modern art (citing the poisoned industrial 1% collector ethos) and being pigeon-holed as a Romantic in the classical sense, and bemoans the lack of genuine, non-formulated journalism in most non-fiction work that he inquisitively approaches from an organic perspective. His documentarian instincts are to approach his subjects without a precept of questions or ideological territory, finding the work through conversation and query. He spent six months living with a near destitute family in Philadelphia as part of his ‘walking the earth’ period of his early twenties, marveling at the generosity of strangers (he met a blue-collar family while hitchhiking who gave him shelter without question) and was fascinated at the matriarchs invented language that she shared with her cocker spaniel. Years later he queried a priest on the wonder of gods creation and made him weep when he asked him of his most memorable encounter with a squirrel. He considers Psychoanalysis as damaging to civilization as the Spanish Inquisition (no, I’m not making the Squirrel thing up), as man must not delve too deep into his darkest squalor, and his witnessing of The Rolling Stones second ever American gig was something to behold – buy me a pint and I’ll regale you with that gem.
‘We should not fear the bear, but we must respect the bear’ – As I suspected Herzog is fully aware of and cultivates his media image quite carefully, he explained how he primes and prepares his legendary voiceovers to his non-fiction hymns to the majestic immortal and ultimately mysterious, always gravitating to the lunatic dreamers and ostracized outsiders who infect his work. He and Holdengraber briefly shared their appreciation of Mike Tyson as an underappreciated champion beyond his sporting prowess, detailing his incredible rise from the most destructive upbringing imaginable to international icon – a violent man with a difficult history which should deserve some sort of Grecian-roman appreciation. He mourns the state of the planet from an environmental health check perspective yet is certain that any possible savior must be terrestrial and will not be found in the stars, as any mission to distant hospitable worlds will engender fifty generations of ancestral madness among some perverted ark, meaning when we arrive in Alpha Centauri the ambassadors of our species will be perverted with a mad incestual disease – now there’s a movie waiting to happen. Closer to home Herzog was raised without the influence of a father which I find fascinating given his self-propelled drive and achievements, born into the hunger of the shattered cradle of his defeated homeland (he was born in 1942) the shadow of the Third Reich hangs heavy over his artistic generations musings and motivations.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this experience and there are many more fascinating tales to tell, but the clock is ticking and my attention must shift to alternate material. Nevertheless I can’t imagine a more inspirational and brilliant start to the year, event wise at least, thus I hearby announce my most ambitious project yet – the Menagerie Herzog season. This Matterhorn of reviews will assault all the material contained within this wonderful bible of brilliance, and maybe a few side posts and musings over the coming months and potential years, I’ve already arranged a BFI screening of one of the Herzog classics in February which should get things moving. In the meantime I have a few more Lang and noir related pictures to cover and mix things up while the immediate weeks will be preoccupied with some Oscar related material, so I hope you’ll join me on this epic journey. After eight years of modest evolution dear reader this humble blog project of mine still feels like a pathetic yell into the dark, an erratic yearning for reason and importance in the face of indiscriminate oblivion, but we must exercise the intellect regardless of its genesis or purpose – any other path might result in indiscriminate madness. Even among the animals;
The centerpiece of the BFI’s monumental Days Of Fear & Wonder SF season is the country-wide release of the newly evolved digital print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this is one of the central monoliths of SF cinema, a masterpiece widely considered as one of the top dozen films ever made, regardless of genre. Now of course we’ve been here before as I’ve seen the film three times on the big screen since the Menagerie was launched, I’m not going to catch it on this release as I’ve already seen the film this year (I will shortly be taking another Blu-Ray peek once I’ve published this mission statement however), and I like to leave some period of big-screen reflection before going back beyond the infinite. That hasn’t warned me off the wealth of Q&A’s, discussions and other associated activity which the BFI are hosting as part of their re-release, starting with a screen-talk with the two surviving members of the mission, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, who jetted over to the UK to promote the film as part of its 46th year in operation. Once again here’s that epic trailer to put us in the mood;
Hosted by Matthew Sweet for BBC Radio 3 (not BBC Twelve which was inevitably referenced) this fantastic event had Dullea and Lockwood in fine form, ably supported by Sir Christopher Frayling and Mancunian star seer Professor Brian Cox debating and discussing the film, and anything I can say about this is rather redundant as you can delve into the full session here. Well, OK then, I’m a bit of a victim of my own obsession as there is very rarely anything arising from these sessions that I haven’t already digested, I guess when you’ve written your 12,000 word Ba Hons dissertation on the film, and have consequently read every book on the subject and every film related article in the English language since 1968 that you could get your paws on by 1996, well then believe me there are few mysteries left to explore. But it’s always fun to retread hallowed ground, and some of the questions and points raised by the audience were of a very high quality, including one members reading of the film as a metaphor for consciousness with HAL as our tool of technological evolution grappling with Dave Bowman’s human ingenuity – the first making it to the Stargate heralding the next phase of evolution, hence the reborn Starchild.
Brian Cox blew everyone’s gourds with the staggering factoid that presently our understanding is that there are something like 35 billion planets in the Milky Way alone that have Earth like habitats, and if that doesn’t pulverize your primitive mind then here’s the killer – there are 350 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Are we alone? Of course not, not when you factor in those incredible statistics, but I don’t think we’ve been visited yet or you’d think someone would have got an interview or something by now. The usual appreciation of all the effects being executed in camera with revolutionary SFX was raised with Lockwood and Dullea spilling the beans on how certain sequences were achieved, and how certain improvisations of theirs found their way into the finished epic – there is a long anecdote from Lockwood in reference to the lip-reading sequence which I won’t repeat here, suffice to say it proves just how brilliant a director Stanley was in the context of collaboration and inspiring everyone’s ideas and imaginations. For me the most insightful point came from Frayling with his emphasis on the film’s title which seems to get lost in the narrative discussions, as the film is an Odyssey in the Homeric sense, with HAL’s single eye of the Cyclops (and the original concept for the computer was a female voiced entity named Athena by the way) and the quest / journey plot driving our species back where we came from – back home to the stars.
After this astounding session on my favorite film (and another is planned this week on Christopher Frayling’s new book on the films production) how can one possibly top that you may ask? Well, there was one thing that could occur should the universe demand it, like say the opportunity to interview Frank Poole and Dave Bowman within an intimate group of four or five other critics over at the Southbank on Thanksgiving no less? Yes gentle reader, we have reached the apex of my achievements thus far, and I’m still kind of in awe at the experience. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interview ‘talent’ over the past few years at the LFF and in Toronto of course, but it’s something I’ve always resisted as it seems to be taking this hobby in a much more serious direction, and quite frankly I’ve got enough stress and grief in the day job without setting myself deadlines and workloads for what ostentatiously should be a fun exercise. I will make an exception though to meet and speak with the two leads of my favorite all time movie, so when the invitation came through a few weeks ago to attend this press event you can imagine my rather awed reaction.
So for an hour we chatted with Keir and Gary (first name terms now y’see) and they went through some of the well established anecdotes of the film and the shoot all those eons ago, no Stanley wasn’t a tyrant or an oddball but was in fact a calm and deeply curious and collaborative artist, and we even learned that Warren Beatty was desperately orbiting the Bowman part which is something I’ve never heard before. They were both quite affable and charming and threw certain questions back to us on the likes of Interstellar and Gravity which inevitably came up as comparisons (they both liked the films, although Kier hasn’t seen Nolan’s latest yet), before I stutteringly squeaked my question about how cold and robotic their performances are in opposition to HAL being the warmest and most emotional character in the film, and was this a conscious decision that Kubrick suggested during the production? They were both warm and engaging chaps, I’m choosing my words carefully but Lockwood is a bit of a firecracker, although he did cite Blade Runner as the only other SF masterpiece so I think we can forgive him his shameless name dropping and his rather abrasive yet amusing demeanor. We had a chat about the scene above in response to my question (and no they played it that subdued way as part of their professional in-universe backstories, not at Kubrick’s direct instruction if you’re interested) and on the way out of the BFI, clutching my newly acquired autographs I spotted one of the actresses from that great British TV institution Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Chips. My god it’s full of stars indeed, and if you ask me nicely one day I might tell you the story about the disappearing blue scarf;