Talking Movies

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

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I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

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Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

December 11, 2014

Electricity

Model turned actress Agyness Deyn is a commanding presence as an epileptic woman searching for her missing brother in an intimidating London.

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Lily O’Connor (Deyn) works in a low-rent arcade in a North of England seaside town. She manages, just about, with the help of her avuncular cowboy-hat-wearing boss Al (Tom Georgeson) to keep her epilepsy under control. However, her frequent fits and need for a strict regimen of pills keep her socially isolated. When her hated mother dies Lily is visited by her poker professional brother Barry (Paul Anderson), eager to sell the family home and divide the proceeds. But Lily insists that they split the money with their missing brother Mikey (Christian Cooke); her protector against bullies until their forced separation by the authorities. Barry reluctantly gives her details about Mikey’s bitter ex Sylvia (Alice Lowe), and Lily sets off on a risky trip to London to find her beloved Mikey. But her escalating epileptic episodes soon scupper her investigation.

Director Bryn Higgins, best known for TV directing gigs including Garrow’s Law and Black Mirror, makes a fine sophomore feature with his hallucinated gumshoe tale. Higgins doesn’t hold back from inflicting scars on Deyn’s model-pretty face; going further than Scorsese the alleged king of grit would push things with DiCaprio in Gangs of New York. The moment when Lily pitches forward face first onto a dancefloor and breaks her nose with a bloody crack is truly horrifying. Deyn grabs with both hands this defiant character, who chooses to wear short dresses and a nigh fluorescent furry jacket, aware that this draws the eye to her body even as it increases the danger of that body being covered in cuts and bruises from falling during her seizures. Si Bell’s cinematography impressively renders the seizures as first-person spatial dislocations bleeding into electricity.

However, the screenplay by Joe Fisher (The Tichborne Claimant), from Ray Robinson’s novel, can’t hide the fact that there’s more than a touch of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time about Electricity. The mystery of Mikey’s disappearance could probably be solved much quicker if the investigator wasn’t afflicted with a condition that we’re plunged vividly into experiencing at first hand. Even the characters that Lily runs into, like good Samaritan Mel (Lenora Crichlow, Fast Girls), opportunistic Dave (Ben Batt), and spiteful Sylvia (Alice Lowe in surprisingly effective nasty form) have the feel of sketches rather than true characters. Indeed Paul Anderson, doing this movie between seasons of Peaky Blinders, seems to be on some mission to corner the market in one-note dodgy older brothers with thick regional accents. But for a’that these actors pull it off.

Electricity is a good film, and an always interesting one, powered by a strong lead performance; but you root for it to achieve heights greater than what it is capable of reaching.

3/5

October 16, 2013

Castles, Candles and Kubrick

All Stanley Kubrick fans should move the dial to Newstalk this weekend for a documentary about the truncated Irish shoot of period epic Barry Lyndon.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

As part of the autumn season of documentary radio on Newstalk 106-108 Pavel Barter produces this look at the story behind the making of Stanley Kubrick’s period adaptation Barry Lyndon in Ireland 40 years ago.

In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his latest film Barry Lyndon. Having run massively over-schedule and over-budget with his space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had followed that sci-fi folly up with a cheap and nasty quickie, A Clockwork Orange, which had proven massively controversial; its ultraviolence and rape coming in the same year as Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs. Now Kubrick was ready to take on Thackeray’s novel with the unlikely personage of Ryan O’Neal as the titular hero. All seemed to be going well as Kubrick shot in the Irish countryside with hundreds of costumed extras. But on an overcast night in January 1974, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production had also abandoned their stations.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film. What role did Ireland play in the production of Barry Lyndon? Did Kubrick’s preceding film, Clockwork Orange, affect the production? It was widely rumoured he fled Ireland after a death threat which also caused him to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from circulation in Britain and Ireland until its posthumous re-release in 2000; a move that unjustly fostered its reputation as a great classic lost to censorship. It’s equally rumoured that he misinterpreted the death threat, which was from the IRA; enraged at the sight of hundreds of extras dressed as British soldiers in deepest Tipperary. Hopefully Barter’s documentary will get to the bottom of these urban legends.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick features contributions from Brian W. Cook (The Wicker Man, The Shining), Luke Quigley (Braveheart, In The Name of The Father), Terry Clegg (Gandhi, Out of Africa), Patti Podesta (Memento), and Gay Hamilton (The Duellists). They’ll shed light on working with the notorious perfectionist. Kubrick surpassed Hitchcock in the endless self-promotion stakes because he only directed 13 films, a fraction of Hitchcock’s output. Kubrick did endless takes without explaining what he wanted done differently, and shot every one of his few film with emotionless Ophuls glides, regardless of whether it suited that particular subject matter; yet his very reclusiveness and these eccentricities in shooting made him revered. Why is Barry Lyndon considered the greatest movie ever by fellow directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier? Tune in and find out.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick will air on Newstalk 106-108 on Saturday October 19th at 7:00am, with a repeat airing on Sunday October 20th at 6:00pm.

September 14, 2013

Things We Learnt From Movies

Martin Scorsese at his most ebullient can give the impression that Old Hollywood taught its audience how to act in every imaginable scenario. But sometimes the things we learn from movies are just slightly absurd…

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“I’m telling you, Besse, it’s really that easy”

TG4 is showing the second part of 2009 French crime epic Mesrine next Friday night. But while Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 is a sprawling and rewarding saga it’s to be hoped that TG4 don’t fall asleep at the wheel like they did when they premiered the movie. Vincent Cassell’s legendary bank-robber Jacques Mesrine had just escaped from prison by shinning over a wall with Mathieu Amalric’s fellow prisoner Besse when the prison guards finally noticed and started to shoot and give chase. Mesrine and Besse made it to a car, but left behind their third prisoner when he got shot on the other side of the street; making it impossible to bundle him into the car. As they took off in the car, TG4 cut to an ad-break. But somebody while pushing the button to start the ads forgot to also push the button to stop the movie… And so, after the ad-break, instead of the hair-raising stylish escape across town in a car and a train, we caught up with Mesrine and Besse in a flat. It gives the impression that escaping from French prisons is surprisingly easy; almost as if we missed this scene on the street…

 

EXT.STREETSIDE OF PRISON WALL – DAY.

The burly Chief Warden PIERRE runs panting out of immensely heavy doors; which open just a fraction of a second before he bolts thru them. He finds two young prison guards JEAN and MARC standing beside a wounded PRISONER and looking disconsolately down the street. Pierre follows their gaze and sees a car containing MESRINE and BESSE is speeding away…

PIERRE: What are you two imbeciles doing? Why aren’t you chasing Mesrine?

JEAN: (quietly) He crossed the street.

PIERRE: (in disbelief) No!!

MARC: Yes, he just, he came out, and then he just… crossed right on over.

PIERRE: Pierrot Le Fou! I hate that rule…

JEAN: We couldn’t do anything.

MARC: I even had a shot, but he had one foot on the pavement, and I didn’t want to take the shot because I thought that might be against the rules.

PIERRE: You were quite right not to shoot, Marc. The last thing we want is to put ourselves in the wrong.

JEAN: (sadly) If it was even just a little wider, as a street.

PIERRE: Well what do you expect when you put a prison in the middle of a residential part of town? Oh God, that rule is just so infuriating!

MARC: Permission to go back in and beat le snot out of the other prisoners as misplaced frustration?

PIERRE: Granted. Give us your baton there and I’ll start.

Marc hands Pierre his baton. Pierre idly whacks the wounded prisoner about the head a few times; then tosses the baton away in disgust.

PIERRE: (shaking his fist) Damn you Mesrine!

JEAN: He pronounces it May-reen.

PIERRE: Shut up.

July 13, 2013

Too Cool for Film School

There’s a certain attitude towards cinema which drives me to despair, which I’ve previously dubbed ‘too cool for film school’…

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This peculiar mindset is one that would rather watch an obscure bad movie ironically than spend that same 2 hours watching a universally lauded good movie. So, instead of sitting down to watch Southern Comfort you’d instead waste your life suffering thru Streets of Fire. Instead of enjoying Scorsese at his best with Goodfellas you’d be tortured by Scorsese at his worst with New York, New York, supposedly so that you could spend your time laughing at its awfulness (except that it’s too awful to even sneer at, you just sigh; depressed and confused). Preferring to watch an obscure bad movie ironically than a universally lauded good movie I find inexplicable. It’s the same impulse that would en masse see a faculty meeting to decide a Victorian literature course begin with “We can all agree, no Dickens”, and a cheer.

Is it a hipster mindset? This is The End has a wonderful barb when Emma Watson accuses Jay Baruchel of being a hipster by asking him if he loathes films that are universally beloved. And that is certainly part of the thinking that prevailed when the Screen cinema in 2010 did a season of 1980s action movies, and left out Die Hard. Now Die Hard was an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s so obviously better than every other action film from that decade; especially Red Dawn, which was screened, presumably because it’s so bad it can be watched with impeccable irony. We seem to have reached belatedly in the cinema the position literature reached years ago where to be popular is in fact a mark against a work in critical esteem, unless it’s a critical intervention elevating low culture.

It’s a mindset of two halves. What is important is that, having eschewed what is popular, the people who are too cool for film school reveal their superiority of taste to the easily pleased and shallowly-informed rabble by unveiling an alternative which few people have either heard of and which may be offbeat or just plain awful. What’s truly terrifying is that it really doesn’t matter whether the film is either offbeat or just plain awful – the difference between good and bad, garbage and quality has been erased; it just needs to be something that few people have either heard of in order to get the kudos of really knowing your movies. It seems the advent of Netflix, and its padding of its catalogue with terrible old films they were able to scoop up, is only encouraging this viewing mindset.

Hollywood Babylon, Dublin’s Midnight Movie Film Club, is tonight once again hosting a Saturday night screening at 10:45pm at the Lighthouse cinema focusing on 1984. Their schedule is somewhat baffling. There’s good movies to be sure; Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (September 14th), The Terminator (October 19th); but there are also questionable choices; Dune (August 17th), Revenge of the Nerds (July 13th); and then there’s the plain ghastly picks – Purple Rain, Streets of Fire (October 19th). What exactly is the purpose of choosing Purple Rain or Streets of Fire? Or even Dune or Revenge of the Nerds? There are better films from 1984… For a fun Saturday night why not pick Ghostbusters or Gremlins? For something more offbeat why not pick Luc Besson’s freewheeling debut Subway? Is it impossible to have fun without being ironic?

I’m not saying that if we want to watch movies from 1984 that we have to watch The Killing Fields, The Natural, and 1984 and nod our heads respectfully before turning to Broadway Danny Rose for some relief. I’m just saying we should exhaust the good movies that we all know are out there first before we all start scrabbling around to find justifiably forgotten bad movies to watch ironically.

December 4, 2012

The Talk of the Town

Emma Donoghue’s original script promised to be one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival but this much-hyped take on the life and work of New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan failed to do justice to its subject and cast.

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Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The House actors Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly, and Lorcan Cranitch for another period piece. We meet Brennan (Walker) just as she has swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan and joined the New Yorker. But while cartoonist Addams (Kelly) and writer St Clair McKelway (Owen McDonnell) welcome their editor William Shawn (Cranitch)’s lippy new recruit, her ambition to write the Talk of the Town column staggers them.

Brennan though is good enough to quickly secure that coveted job, and then to start filing the magazine with chilling, incisive short stories about her miserable childhood. We glimpse that traumatic past complete with voiceover in scenes staged on a set within Paul O’Mahony’s set in which her parents (Barry Barnes, Michele Forbes) play out their psychodramas. But these flashbacks are quite overplayed, and, like the play, far too fragmentary.

This feels like a screenplay in disguise. There are scenes which last about a minute to play and are there purely for the sake of one good line. This approach largely kills any dramatic momentum, and a perverse decision is taken to ignore an obvious curtain at Brennan’s “atomic age marriage”. Kelly is nicely acerbic, McDonnell swaggers with some depth, and Cranitch has some wonderful moments as the long-suffering editor.

Walker is nicely acidic, but we never get a real feel for the quality of Brenna’s writing, which lessens her despair at writer’s block, while the happy ending is as perverse in its historical opportunism as Scorsese’s The Aviator.

3/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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