Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Limey

I know I've disparaged the whole 'Movie-X'-meets-'Movie-Y'-as-an-easy-way-of-pigeonholing-'Movie-Z' school of film criticism in these pages before (and rightly so: it's a lazy and unimaginative way of writing), but in the case of 'The Limey' there's no other way of putting it:

'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.

Feel free to stop reading at this point, pour a large glass of scotch, maybe re-watch Mike Hodges' amoral revenge-thriller classic and Alain Resnais' oblique arthouse puzzler back-to-back, and then ponder long and hard on the implications of that comparison.

I'll say it again: 'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'.

Director Steven Soderbergh takes a fairly humdrum premise - British career criminal goes to America to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter and gets medieval on the collective asses of anyone and everyone who was either involved or stands in his way - and turns it into an avante-garde experiment in editing, narrative dissonance and aesthetic abstraction.

At this point I need to give myself a bollocking for using the phrase "aesthetic abstraction" because it exemplifies the kind of wanky analytical film writing I started The Agitation of the Mind to get away from. But again, I'm screwed if I can find another way of putting it. 'The Limey' is a genre movie put on the psychiatrist's couch, encouraged to indulge its more violent and antisocial tendencies as part of its therapy, then reconstructed as a divisive, discursive and challenging art movie.

What defines 'The Limey' is its editing. How many movies do you remember principally for the way they're edited? The work of Godard. The aforementioned 'Last Year at Marienbad'. That's about it. Of course, there are movies aplenty which demonstrate effective use of editing - take virtually any summer tentpole action movie: a fight scene, chase or shoot out is only as good as the editing. A sloppily edited shoot out will have no spatial continuity and leave you thinking that bullets are whanging about all over the place and the combatants sheltering in entirely different locations. An uninterestingly edited car chase will simply reduce speed, tension and white knuckle stunt driving to interminable shots of one car following another car. But the most memorable fights and shoot outs and car chases are edited to emphasise the fighting or the shooting or the chasing - seldom does the editing call attention to itself.

Except in the case of 'The Limey', which might as well open with the credit "a film edited by..."*. This is editing which not just calls attention to itself, but happily demolishes the linear and the logical (several dialogue scenes feature non-speaking participants). It goes beyond montage, juxtaposition, flashbacks or flashforwards. It's more like a cardsharp shuffling the very movie, dealing out scenes and images and iconography, sweeping them up from the table again and cutting them back into the pack. It's a frustrating or utterly joyous viewing experiencing depending on your mood, your genre expectations and whether you might have consumed proscribed substances prior to watching.

The 'Get Carter' comparison is apposite: Michael Caine's eponymous tough guy and Terence Stamp's career criminal Wilson both hail from London; Carter arrives in Newcastle a fish out of water and needs help from one of the locals to find his way around, Wilson touches down in L.A. and relies on his contact Ed Roef (Luis Guzman)'s help to assess the lie of the land; Carter's after the truth behind his brother's death, Wilson his daughter's. Both rampage from one encounter to the next in bull/china shop stylee.

Wilson's trail leads him to record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). A fellow '60s icon, Fonda is an ideal counterweight to Stamp's stentorian intensity. Their respective backgrounds set up a sneaky little subtext - East End vs East Coast - to the culture clash scenario writ so large elsewhere in the film. "There's one thing I don't understand," declares a gang boss cop (Bill Duke) who's just sat perplexedly through a colloquialism-laden rant by Wilson, "and that's every fuckin' word you say." At times Wilson's lexicon of 'Sweeney'-isms (example: "Now look, squire, you're the guv'nor round 'ere, I can see that. I'm in your manor now, so there's no need to get your knickers in a twist. Whatever this bollocks is that's going down between you and that slag Valentine's got nothing to do with me") tips into pastiche, particularly when Stamp cuts loose and lays on the ham.

And yet it works. It works because the great Luis Guzman is such a laconic foil to Stamp. It works because the film looks so good. It works because Soderbergh assembles a kick-ass '60s soundtrack (any film that kicks off with a blast of The Who automatically wins points with me).

And it works for exactly the reason it shouldn't. It constantly reminds you that you're just watching a movie. The very nature of the editing is a statement of self-reflexive intent. That Soderbergh cuts in footage of Stamp in Ken Loach's 'Poor Cow' by way of flashbacks takes it further and reminds you that you're not just watching a movie but that the guy in the lead role is an actor who's been in other movies. This would normally be the point at which my interest would be killed stone dead, a priest summoned and the last rites performed.

And yet it works. Even though it shouldn't. And that in itself is part of the pleasure.

*For the record 'The Limey' was edited by Sarah Flack, one of her three collaborations thus far with Soderbergh.


J.D. said...

This is a great, great film and the abstract editing works so well because I believe that Soderbergh is trying to get us inside Stamp's head, to show us how he perceives things.

Also, a minor correction, the guy who tells Stamp, "There's one thing I don't understand, and that's every fuckin' word you say." is not a crime boss but a cop, played by the always memorable Bill Duke.

And it's funny mention Caine and GET CARTER, Soderbergh has said that he is thinking about doing a sequel to THE LIMEY that would see Stamp and Caine team up. Interesting idea to say the least!

Neil Fulwood said...

Ooops, there's me sounding off about lazy film reviewing in the first paragraph then I go and ascribe the film's most iconic line to the wrong character! Thanks for the tactful correction: the article has been amended accordingly.

Terence Stamp and Michael Caine in a 'Limey' sequel ... The pragmatist in me thinks that it could go either way (Soderbergh went an in-joke too far with the casting in 'Ocean's 12'), but on the plus side Caine's been on a role recently with 'Children of Men', 'The Prestige' and the Batman films.

Samuel Wilson said...

The Limey is cinematic jazz. That might do as a less "pretentious" way to describe the non-linear yet thematically coherent editing and the mood it creates. The only notes that struck me as false were when Stamp had to translate his Cockney rhyming slang for Americans. Otherwise, it's a career-redeeming performance, ably abetted as you note by Luis Guzman, a definitive Nineties character actor. If I were Soderbergh I'd leave The Limey alone and just have Stamp play another tough old bastard. Use him the way Ford or Hawks used Wayne or Mann used Stewart.

Jake said...

"'The Limey' is 'Get Carter' meets 'Last Year at Marienbad'."

Jesus, that is ingenious. It's such a simple, perfect equation that now I feel like an idiot for not seeing myself. I went on a Soderbergh kick lately for a blog-a-thon and, while I don't think any of his movies that I've seen would quite edge their way into my list of favorites he's established himself as probably my favorite modern American director along with Jim Jarmusch and the Coens (who edge out Soderbergh b/c I've got plenty of Coens/Jarmusch works in my faves). The use of the POOR COW footage here is everything I love about the director: even in fundamentally mainstream projects, he toys with the boundaries and makes film an integral part of his movies. Out of Sight is likely my favorite of his, followed by The Girlfriend Experience, but this is a close third.