Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Belle de jour

This is how ‘Belle de jour’ starts:

Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is driving along a country lane in a landau, her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) by her side. He tries to embrace her and, when she spurns him, complains of her frigidity. Ordering the coachmen to stop, he enlists their help in bodily removing her from the carriage, hauling her into the woods and binding her to a tree. Pierre rips her blouse, exposing her back, and orders them to flog her. Then to have their way with her. The younger of the two grins sadistically as he slips free of his braces and starts towards her.

So far, so misogynistic; but Buñuel immediately cuts to Séverine, sitting up in bed, nightgown demurely buttoned up to the neck, a dreamy look on her face. Pierre wanders in from the bathroom and asks what she’s thinking about. “You,” she replies.

As ‘Belle de jour’ progresses, the question of reality and fantasy, of what is in the mind and how far it can be acted upon, comes to define the film to such an extent that the ending – I’ll leave the spoilers under wraps – throws this question over the entire 96-minute running time.

Agitation of the mind? You betcha! Agitation of the libido, too, given how memorably Séverine makes the transformation from glacial trophy wife to uninhibited seductress. It’s a transformation that occurs under the roof of an establishment run by the purringly sapphic Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page)* – a place with limited staff (there only ever seem to be the same three girls working there) but a loyal clientele.

The regulars include a boorish businessman who demands champagne, complains that it’s properly chilled and treats Séverine roughly; an aristocrat who has her dress in a diaphanous winding sheet and lie still and silent in a coffin while he delivers a hushed eulogy then crawls under the coffin (the way it rocks and Séverine’s rolled eyes when she peeks over the side leave you in no doubt as to what he’s doing down there); and an oriental gentleman whose predilections involve something he keeps in an ornate enamelled box, one glance at which is enough to have one of the girls turn him down flat, but which seems to give Séverine no small degree of pleasure. Naturally, what’s in the box is never revealed; it’s just one of many gleeful enigmas Buñuel incorporates into the film. Likewise Séverine’s involvement with Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), a foppishly dressed hood with a knife in his walking cane and holes in his socks – does he really take drastic action against Pierre in a jealous rage, or is it all in Séverine’s mind? And if so, is it what she fears might happen or what she wants to happen?

“Belle de jour” is the name Séverine assumes when she commences employment with Madame Anaïs (or does she? a scene where she hesitates to enter the building, walks away and ends up sitting on a park bench could be the reality of things and every subsequent scene at the brothel a figment of her imagination; who knows?) – thus the central enigma, for me, is when is she Séverine and when is she Belle de jour? Approach the film with this in mind and you can watch it endlessly and put a different spin on things every time.

There’s a henge in the English village of Avebury (in Wiltshire). Urban legend has it that if you try counting the stones which form the circle, you’ll never arrive at the same number twice. ‘Belle de jour’ is like that; it’s peppered with so many deliciously odd moments – curiously interconnected but ultimately evasive (the two references to cats, for instance, or Pierre being distracted by a wheelchair on a street corner) – that however many times you watch it, further ambiguities are revealed.

* Séverine is a feminisation of Séverin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’. Anaïs references Anaïs Nin, the lover of Henry Miller and author of ‘Delta of Venus’.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Phantom of Liberty

How many times have you seen one of these scenarios in a movie?

A child goes missing, prompting a tense police investigation.

A sniper takes up a position at a high window.

A middle-class dinner party reveals bourgeois hypocrisies.

Here’s how Buñuel does them:

The child is present throughout the drama, helpfully providing a description of herself for the benefit of the officer heading the investigation.

The sniper is tried, sentenced to death and then blithely walks out of the courtroom to applause and public adulation, shaking hands and signing autographs.

The guests sit on toilets around a plush table; occasionally excusing themselves to small, private cubicles where they hungrily but guiltily eat.

It would be easy to describe ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ as episodic; little more than a collection of sketches (an aesthetic enhanced by more than one visual punchline that feels like it’s wandered in from a Monty Python episode). But it’s actually a masterclass in structure. I’m tempted to invoke Robert Altman here – the Robert Altman of ‘Nashville’ and ‘Short Cuts’ – but whereas Altman’s brilliantly juggled ensemble pieces actually resolve most of the stories, Buñuel takes delight in diversions and digressions, following his protagonists into a scene and establishing a dynamic to that scene (a man goes to see his doctor; will the diagnosis be serious?) only to transfer his attention to a subsidiary character (a nurse interrupts the consultation to ask permission to leave; a family crisis has occurred) who then exits the scene and becomes the focus of next sequence (the nurse is unable to continue her journey due to bad weather and stops at a country inn) where the narrative is then shaped by other characters (a group of monks; a gregarious middle class couple whose social interests including entertaining strangers and indulging a little SM).

The genius of ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ is that these narrative digressions never seem random. The film unfolds as if obeying some elusive internal logic. Buñuel skewers genre conventions, avoids a narrative through-line and sidesteps resolutions to present a film where everyone and no-one is the main character. A film where a postman and an ostrich can wander through a couple’s bedroom and the ostrich resurface at the denouement (not that Buñuel ever bothered with the denouement in the traditional sense) to give the film is most evasive yet memorable image; a film where a group of monks pray for a woman’s ill relatives then stick around to play poker with her afterwards (using religious paraphernalia in lieu of money); where a District Attorney keeps a sepulchral tryst with his dead sister, is arrested and questioned by his replacement/doppelgänger/alter ego (you decide) after which the two men join forces to tackle an uprising at a zoo.

A flight of imaginative satire; a thumbed nose to convention, conformism and social/religious hypocrisy – ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ is Buñuel at his most Buñuelian.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Diary of a Chambermaid

Ostensibly, it seems quite easy to get a handle on ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’. The opening scenes set it up as an upstairs-downstairs satire on class distinctions and social hypocrisy. It also comes across, structurally and in terms of narrative, as one of Buñuel’s more ‘traditional’ offerings.

It’s a different story by the end, though. Exquisitely poised satire and a rigorous examination of sexual politics are bound up with a murder mystery and the machinations of a heroine as duplicitous and on-the-make as her monied employers, and played out against a backdrop of racism, social protest and the threat of revolution.

The title suggests a heady cocktail of secrets and the boudoir, but ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ – for all that Buñuel throws in some comedy in the form of an old lecher with a shoe fetish – is a dark, sober, reflective work that localises its themes and concerns (a chateau and its grounds as a microcosm for France) before opening out into wider, more explicitly political mise-en-scene come the final reel.

The plot concerns Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), the chambermaid of the title, who takes up a position in at a chateau owned by Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) and ruled over with frigid discipline by his daughter Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), who controls the purse strings, lacerates the staff with her sharp tongue and turns a not-quite blind eye to the (attempted) philanderings of her husband (Michel Piccoli).

Celestine tows the line to Madame Monteil, keeps Monsieur Monteil on the hop without actually letting him get his way, indulges Monsieur Rabour to a certain (non-sexual) degree, and quietly sets out to better herself. Initially clashing with anti-semitic groundsman Joseph (Georges Geret), who may or may not be responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, Celestine even uses his attentions to further her schemes.

Full disclosure: I watched ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ for the first time yesterday and lacking any great understanding of the specific political references, I feel I need to go off and do some background reading, fill in the blanks, then reapproach the film. I’m probably doing neither the film or myself any favours by attempting to write about it just yet.

Most of the titles I’ve written about in this Buñuel mini-season are old favourites. A couple – ‘The Young’, ‘Tristana’ – I’ve come to cold but formed an opinion of straightaway. ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is something I’ll come back to on the blog maybe a few months or a year or two down the line; something I need to engage with a little more deeply; dig away at a little more. I’m convinced that the last scene in particular is freighted with implications: I need to get under the film’s skin. It’s already started to get under mine.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


‘Tristana’ kicks off with two brilliant scenes.

In the first, a football match between deaf mutes erupts into argument after a blatant foul – all in the most demonstrative sign language. It shouldn’t be funny and it’s certainly not politically correct. But it’s definitely the former and the hell with the latter.

In the second, the predatory Don Lope (Fernando Rey) strolls across a piazza, tweaking his moustache in suggestive manner. Hailing a young woman (who’s probably old enough to be his granddaughter), he asks where she’s going. “To find a sweetheart,” she gaily replies. “You’ve found him,” Don Lope leers. She protests that he’s too old for her. “I’m not too old,” Don Lope assures her; “the devil’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive.”

Fantastic stuff. Oh, that the rest of the film had played out in like manner.

‘Tristana’ is the only “blip” in the string of masterpieces that define the last two decades of Buñuel’s career – from ‘Viridiana’ to his swansong ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’.

An adaptation of a novel by Benito Perez Galdos, the story sees the young and innocent Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) delivered into Don Lope’s care following the death of her parents. The old lecher soon corrupts her. Spurning him, Tristana takes up with debonair artist Horacio (Franco Nero). Two years later, the increasingly lachrymose Don Lope jumps at the chance to have her back when a serious illness and the amputation of her leg pre-empt a parting of the ways between her and Horacio. But the Tristana who resumes residence in the Don’s household, lost limb notwithstanding, is more beautiful and infinitely less passive than the one who left. The stations are reversed.

And that’s basically it.

In the hands of Douglas Sirk it could have been unintentionally hilarious. In the hands of Pedro Almodovar, intentionally so. As a Buñuel film, however, it’s curiously anaemic. Re-uniting the director with Deneuve three years after ‘Belle de Jour’, none of the erotic frisson and barrier-pushing intimations of perversity are present. Although Deneuve was never better than when playing ice queens, she seems awkward as Tristana. Franco Nero – never better than as Django – just seems out of place. Thanks be for the presence of Fernando Rey: magnificent, mischievous and bristling with amoral cool in virtually every film he appeared in (and certainly those he made with Buñuel), he’s the only hint of life in ‘Tristana’.

What truly disappoints, given Buñuel’s aversion to critics foisting ‘meanings’ onto his work, is how thuddingly obvious the Freudian imagery is. Aside from a last-minute sequence of ingeniously orchestrated images guaranteed to instigate ongoing debate as to their narrative implication, it’s all so ordinary. And Buñuel was never a film-maker to whom the ordinary was suited.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

There’s an intriguing documentary on the Optimum Releasing ‘Luis Buñuel Collection’ box set edition of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ which posits that the sequences of the main cast walking along an apparently endless road in the middle of nowhere is a metaphor for their collective death, and that the set pieces in between are indicative of an internal or emotional journey from denial to inevitable acceptance.

On one hand: yeah, maybe.

The devolution of the latter half of the film into a series of awakenings from increasingly bizarre situations of social embarrassment which turn out to be bad dreams does seem to bear out a reading of the film in which concrete reality does not exist and the bourgeoisie are subject to the breakdown (i.e. the death) of their own empty value systems – their ‘discreet charm’ masks infidelities, hypocrisies and vices sexual, alcoholic and narcotic*.

On the other hand: nah, maybe not.

Buñuel wasn’t just a surrealist, but a purist. His films are what they are. He wasn’t impressed with the critical necessity to foist meanings or interpretations on his imagery, and he always refused to ‘explain’ his work. There’s a wonderful story that he reacted with a mixture of horror and despair when an actor announced that they had finally understood their character’s psychology. Indeed, Buñuel gave little direction to his actors. His titles can’t always be taken at face value, either. ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ was assigned to the finished screenplay, pretty much randomly, after Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière couldn’t agree on anything else.

His films are what they are. And what ‘TDCOTB’ is, is a black comedy about a group of friends who want to enjoy a meal together. They are frustrated by, variously, a misunderstanding over the date, a corpse laid to rest in the back room of a restaurant, an infantry battalion on manoeuvres, a political argument that ends in a shooting, a café that’s run out of refreshments, incarceration at the hands of an overzealous policemen on a night when the holding cells are haunted by the ghost of a brutal officer (a brilliant pastiche of the horror genre which Buñuel blithely deems “the night of the bloody sergeant”), and – in perhaps the only example in cinema of a play-within-a-dream-within-a-film – the revelation that the table they are seated at is laid with set dressings instead of salad dressings and they’re actually the ill-prepared and stagefright-struck cast in a theatrical production!

What ‘TDCOTB’ is, also, is funny as hell. The dead restaurateur scene, which plays like a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, sets the tone early on: the humour is po-faced, absurdist and steeped in the macabre. Buñuel nails his usual targets – politicians, the middle classes, the church – with unerring accuracy, subverts audience expectations (or confirms them if you’re an aficionado of the director) with playful panache, and delivers a supremely entertaining bit of cinema in the process.

And those enigmatic scenes of the main cast walking along an apparently endless road in the middle of nowhere? I like to think it’s about some elegantly dressed people walking along a road. It’s kind of like the hat blowing through the woods in ‘Miller’s Crossing’: it’s utterly memorable and cooler than cool … and it’s no more or less than a hat blowing through the woods.

*Fernando Rey’s character, a foreign ambassador, uses the diplomatic bag to smuggle drugs and worries that “the Marseilles gang” might be onto him – a beautifully sneaky nod to his iconic role in ‘The French Connection’ the previous year.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Young One

Traver (Bernie Hamilton) is a black jazz musician on the run from a false allegation of raping a white woman. Miller (Zachary Scott) is a gruff racist living in almost total isolation on an island. Evalyn (Key Meersman) is the thirteen-year-old granddaughter of Millers’ only neighbour on the island, now deceased.

Miller takes it upon himself to look after the girl (this chiefly consists of slapping her, yelling at her and treating her like a skivvy) until a preacher from the mainland can be sent for to “see about her situation”. It’s not long, however, until Miller’s designs on Evie are progressing way beyond her capabilities as a cook and housekeeper. He tells her she’s becoming a woman and rhapsodizes about how good she’d look in fine dresses and high heels. Ladies and gentlemen, the poor man’s Humbert Humbert is in da house.

Also in da house, or at least on the island, is our friend Traver, going to ground as part of his lynch-mob-avoidance campaign. He strikes up an offbeat friendship with Evie, while earning the disdain of Miller, who addresses him variously as “boy” and “nigger”. “I didn’t even let ’em call me that in the army,” Traver growls. The battle lines are clear. A war of nerves ensues as Travers’ attempts to depart the island are foiled by Miller, while Miller’s ploys to gain standing in Evie’s eyes are shown up and subverted by Travers’ friendship with him.

To quote Dominique Russell in her scholarly but thoroughly readable article on Buñuel at Senses of Cinema, “ ‘The Young One’, though slow-paced and rather stilted, is nevertheless interesting in the way it frames racism and sexism as parallel discourses”. The racism is depicted with blunt ugliness (Miller is joined, in the last reel, by an associate whose bigotry is even more pronounced), while the sexual element of the film is tad more implicit. It’s the latter, however, that is the least easy to watch. Although Buñuel never quite objectifies his heroine the way Kubrick and Lyne do in their respective versions of Lolita, he emphasizes the cusp-of-sexuality angle just enough to implicate the viewer. Moreover, while the theme of older male pursuing considerably younger woman prefigures the rampant lechery of Fernando Rey’s characterisations in ‘Tristana’ and ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, Buñuel’s heroines in these films (a) are of age, and (b) turn the tables on their pursuer. Evie, after some half-hearted initial resistance, is utterly passive.

When Millers’ friend and the priest turn up at the end (the latter rare in Buñuel’s oeuvre as a man of the cloth who is not set up as a target for broadly painted satire), the slow-burn tension that has developed reaches boiling point. Fortunately, things never fully tip into the kind of histrionic melodrama many directors would have wrought from these ingredients.

“Slow paced and stilted” – Russell is absolutely right. The short running time drags. There are several incongruous moments (“quit your bawling” Miller exhorts a completely dry-eyed Evie at one point). Zachary Scott’s performance swings between half-decent character study and blatant scenery chewing; Key Meersman is luminous (there’s a fresh-faced innocence to her that’s slightly, oh-so-slightly underpinned by a Liv Tyler kind of sultriness) but given little to work with by the script; and only Bernie Hamilton – probably best known as Captain Dobey in ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – brings the film fully to life.

Still, ‘The Young One’ is interesting for the pointers it offers towards the latter stage of Buñuel’s career, and as easily the more interesting of only two films he made in English.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Milky Way

“Thanks be to God I am an atheist.”

Perhaps Luis Buñuel’s most famous quote. And nowhere in his filmography is the absurdity of religion more fully expressed than in ‘The Milky Way’. And yet the structure and content of the film (it’s a morality play about a pilgrimage; all of the theological debate is taken from bona fide religious texts) demonstrate an approach to the material deeper and more intellectual than mere satirical spoofery.

And then there’s Buñuel’s Jesus (played by Bernard Verley): avoiding all the reverent clichés typical of portrayal’s of Christ, here we have Christ as identifiably human – he laughs, he banters with the disciples, he even starts to shave his beard at one point until Mary protests that it suits him – grinning at the complement, he throws away bowl of water he was about to use.

Perhaps the only other film that depicts Christ as a man, not as some ethereal being possessed of a zen-like stillness, is Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ (the indigenous title, ‘Il vangelo secondo Matteo’ leaves out the word “Saint”). Pasolini, too, was an atheist.

‘The Milky Way’ starts with myriad scenes of roads. Cars, vans and lorries go hurtling by. Apposite, since what follows is essentially a road movie. Hands up everyone who thought ‘The Straight Story’ – mode of transport: ride-on mower – was the slowest road movie in cinema. ‘The Milky Way’ beats it by a short head. It’s a road movie where the protagonists walk.

The protagonists are Pierre (Paul Frankeur), an old man with the appearance of a tramp, and Jean (Laurent Terzieff), a younger man who wears a pretty cool leather jacket. They’re undertaking a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where they intend to pay worship at the tomb of James the apostle. En route, they meet an inn-keeper and a police officer who debate the doctrine of transubstantiation with a priest (the priest takes umbrage at certain comments, throws his glass of wine in the cop’s face and is promptly escorted back to a mental institution); two fellow pilgrims who take a detour (geographically and through time) to dispute dogma regarding the Holy Trinity; a nun who is rather too enthusiastic about sharing the suffering of Christ on the cross; a Jesuit and a Jansenist who decide to settle their differences* in a duel and appoint our heroes as their seconds; and the pious headmistress of a girls’ school whose theological brainwashing of her young charges is applauded during an open day.

This latter is simultaneously the funniest, most chilling and most subversive scene in a film that compacts a plethora of hilarious and subversive moments into its pacy and endlessly entertaining hour-and-a-half running time. Pierre and Jean have happened upon the private school, gatecrashed the open day and successfully begged food and wine. They lounge on the beautifully-kept lawn along with the parents and other visitors while the headmistress presents “a prologue by our young girls”. These impeccably mannered little moppets, not one of them older than ten, take the stage and curtsey, then proceed to recite a catechism of unforgiveness: “If anyone holds that the sacrifice of the Mass is a blasphemy against the sacrifice of Christ who died upon the cross … anathema upon him! If anyone holds that God’s commandments are impossible to keep even for one who is justified and in a state of grace … anathema upon him!” Buñuel cuts to a group of grim-faced revolutionaries taking aim at a white-robed figure up against a wall. The scene cuts back to the school as the gunfire rings out. One of the parents looks around as if the sounds were coterminous to the current setting; “Is there a shooting range around here?” he asks. “No, it’s me,” Jean replies, totally deadpan: “I was imagining they were shooting a Pope.”

It’s an either/or kind of scene. You’ll either find it acerbically funny (like me) or you won’t. No inbetween. (It’s Buñuel playing the Pope, by the way.)

The ending is pitched on a similar level – funny, but barbed with the sharpest cynicism. Pierre and Jean reach Compostela, but are tempted by the devil (in the shapely shape of Delphine Seyrig in a too-tight blouse: hell, I’d be tempted) and don’t make it to the shrine. They also miss the Second Coming. Two other drifters do. Encountering the returned Jesus, he cures them of their blindness. A wickedly effective last shot suggests, however, that a miracle isn’t necessarily a cure.

*Jesuit: I know that you … still deny the true doctrine of Grace.
Jansenist: In the fallen state of nature, inward grace is irresistible.
Jesuit: Do you dare repeat that in a more retired spot?
Jansenist: Sir, I am at your disposal.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ten favourite movie characters

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy tagged me for the Favourite Film Characters meme. The rules are simple:

1) Name 10 film characters that are your favourite and explain why. We aren’t talking about the actor who played them. Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes or Bond may be your favorite filmic sight on screen but you may hate the Mel Gibsons, Basil Rathbones or George Lazenbys who’ve played them. Of course no one’s stopping you from mentioning your favorite players if you like.

2) Tag 5 more film bloggers when you’re done, e-mail them, let ’em in on it, link back.

3) Read their posts and enjoy!

My immediate reaction was to rub my hands in glee. Lists are fun, and these kind of entries usually write themselves. A nice indulgent little post, I thought, before I get back to some proper writing in the shape of a seven-film Buñuel-fest to round off this month on The Agitation of the Mind.

I drew up a list in no time. Then I realised I’d completely overlooked the remit. I’d focused on great performances, not characters. My first choice, for example: Eli Wallach as Tuco in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. A magnificent, grungy, deliciously amoral barnstorming performance. But when I see the film, or think about it, I think of Eli Wallach as Tuco. Likewise I think of Sean Connery as Bond, with Daniel Craig running a close second. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, Rita Hayworth as Gilda. All great characters, but characters who are a product of the actor playing them.

So I set myself one cast iron rule: characters I think of purely as the character, not as the actor playing them (the first name that sprang to mind was Colonel Kilgore; I had to remind myself that Robert Duvall played him). Or an actor who can appear in many other movies but for me will always be that one character (so when I see Richard E. Grant mugging it in ‘Hudson Hawk’ or morosely underplaying in ‘Henry and June’, every fibre of my being wants Withnail to break cover and demand the finest wines known to humanity).

I had my first two. So – with a cry of “fork it!” and a blast of Wagner – here’s the line-up:

Colonel Kilgore, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Coppola’s genius was to take the original journey-into-the-heart-of-the-unknown/crazed-white-man-goes-native psychological nightmare (Joseph Conrad’s quietly terrifying ‘Heart of Darkness’) and transpose it to the Vietnam war, shoot it full of hallucinogenics and let it fumble its way upriver to a soundtrack of The Doors and Ride of the Valkyries. (In composer heaven, Richard Wagner has probably spent the last three decades mooning Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and going “Who the man? Who the man?”) War as futility; war as madness; war as a bad trip. And in the middle of all this, a surf-loving, Wagner-loving demented fucking lunatic in a cowboy hat, stripping his shirt off to go surfing as incendiaries explode around him. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” is one of the most oft-quoted lines in American cinema, and yet it’s just one line in a speech as memorable and beautifully rendered as Harry Lime’s “cuckoo clock” musings or Rick Blaine’s “maybe not today maybe not tomorrow” soliloquy. When the mad bastard says “some day this war’s gonna end” there’s such sadness in his voice you almost feel sorry for him. Then you check yourself and remember to feel scared.

Withnail, ‘Withnail & I’. Work-shy, egomaniacal, sarcastic, bitter, sometimes spiteful, a drama queen with an acute drink problem, demonstrably ineffective people skills and a hyperinflated sense of both his artistic abilities and his social credence, Withnail is a prime candidate for an exhortation of “get a life, you twat” followed by a swift exit from the cinema or a changing of channels. Really, you ought to. But the fact is, and it’s a nigglingly horrible fact to analyse too deeply – let alone accept – the fact is, Withnail is a lot closer to who we (primarily men) really are. It’s all too easy to identify with him. How many of us have sounded off at some point (“what fucker said that?”) only to bottle it (“I have a weak heart, if you hit me it’s murder”) rather than duke it out? How many of us have made with some drunken rebuttal, delivering it as if we were Olivier doing Hamlet, only to be less-than-cordially escorted out of the drinking establishment in question? And yes, in my bachelor days, concentrated drinking and an inattendance to the kitchen were definitely in evidence. Not that I ever found a rat scurrying around in the kitchen, but if I had the fucker would have rued the day …

Colonel von Waldheim, ‘The Train’. Only two movies had ever had me cheering on the Nazis: ‘The Sound of Music’, where I’ve been known to yell impotently at the screen “They’re in the cellar; lob a grenade!” and ‘The Train’. This is an almost cheat (as is my next choice): I love the actor so much, and the performance is quite brilliant, but it’s also a complete immersion of actor into character. Which is a poncey way of saying that it’s half a great performance and half a fantastic character. Besides, it’s my list so what the hell? From the off, Paul Scofield gets under the skin of Waldheim. Like Kilgore or Withnail, he’s lacking in redeeming features (in fact, he makes Kilgore look like a chilled out doper). His one virtue is a love of art. And it doesn’t matter who dies for it. When he explains himself at the end – “The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. These paintings will always belong to me or a man like me” – it should sound callous. It doesn’t. What he’s done is perfectly understandable and the fact that Labiche, his nemesis, can’t come up with a counter-argument and just pulls the trigger instead leaves Waldheim perversely vindicated.

Gustav von Aschenbach, ‘Death in Venice’. Full disclosure: Dirk Bogarde is my favourite actor. This is a borderline outlawed entry in the list, since I can’t help but think of ‘Death in Venice’ as a film starring Dirk Bogarde instead of a film about Gustav von Aschenbach. And yet the great man’s performance goes beyond mere acting. At the start of the film, he wears Aschenbach around him like a mourning suit. By the end, he has stripped away layer after layer of Aschenbach’s brittle detachment and laid open the all-but-dessicated heart of the character. This is how Bogarde describes the experience in his memoir ‘An Orderly Man’: The five months of work on ‘Death in Venice’ had been the hardest I had ever known for stress and mental strain; daily I had struggled with a personality … who had overwhelmed me to such an extent that every single function I performed in my daily life was as he would have done. I was never without his influence at any time, even in sleep.

Captain Renault, ‘Casablanca’. I took my wife to a Valentine’s Day screening of ‘Casablanca’ a couple of years ago and was amazed, queuing for our tickets, when she said she’d never seen the film before! Afterwards, she came out with the best summarising comment I’ve ever heard on ‘Casablanca’ (although one that’s not likely to guarantee her membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences): “Rick was okay, lassie [Ilsa] got on my nerves after a while, but Captain Renault was great. Yeah he was sleazy, but he was great.” In less than twenty-five words, she’d nailed both the essential problem I’ve always had with ‘Casablanca’ and the reason I love it so much. I don’t, if we’re being completely honest, give a crap whether Rick and Ilsa get back together, have to part, get on a plane, don’t get on plane, whatever. The “maybe not today maybe not tomorrow” speech is immortal – it is to film what “to be or not to be” is to theatre – but it’s “round up the usual suspects” that puts the biggest grin on my face. ‘Casablanca’ is a film where Humphrey Bogart is Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet is Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre is Peter Lorre and Ingrid Bergman looks utterly lovely but way overdoes the trembling bottom lip … and where Captain Renault just happens to be played by Claude Rains and is lecherous, amoral, mercenary and so smooth, charming and likeable that Hannibal Lecter comes off as a stevedore with Tourette’s syndrome by comparison.

Okay, five characters in, all male, very few redeeming features. I’m starting to worry what this list says about me. Let’s have a breath of (non-cynical) air next and spend a few minutes with …

Kiki, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’. Animation is perhaps the most effective cinematic form for appreciating a character as a character and not an extension, or a clever manipulation, of the character who plays them. Granted, many animated films have famous voices behind the drawings, but I’m not thinking of Christian Bale when I watch ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, or Patrick Stewart in ‘Steamboy’. Kiki, in the English language version, was voiced by Kirsten Dunst … when she was much younger. So I don’t hear the Dunst of ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Elizabethtown’. I hear Kiki. ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ isn’t my absolute favourite Miyazaki film, but I’m often more caught up in the sheer visual poetry of his work than I am by individual characters. Kiki I love for her innocence, optimism and exuberance. If this had been a Disney or a Dreamworks production, she’d have been an annoying self-satisfying little brat. Miyazaki, however, with his impressive ability to conjure child protagonists without being condescending about them (as well as his almost feminist sensibilities) delicately breathes life into Kiki. A truly lovely character in a playful, poignant and life-affirming film.

Amelie Poulain, ‘Amelie’. A kind of chic/kind of kooky (but just the right balance), eminently French, grown-up version of Kiki who it’s okay to fancy. Christ, did I just type that? Seriously though, after my wife I can’t think of anyone I’d rather share a crème brulée with.

William Munny, ‘Unforgiven’. “You’d be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children?” “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walked or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” When I watch the Dollars trilogy, I see Clint Eastwood. When I watch ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, I see Clint Eastwood. ‘Hang ’em High’, ‘Pale Rider’, ‘High Plains Drifter’: Clint Eastwood. When I watch ‘Unforgiven’, I see William Munny … and I see regret, remorse and the death of the old west carved into every line on his face.

Les Grossman, ‘Tropic Thunder’. Picture yours truly in the cinema: after half an hour wondering “who’s that guy playing the brass-balls Hollywood producer?”; after an hour thinking “he looks kinda like Tom Cruise if Tom Cruise really let himself go”; an hour and a half later checking the end credits and thinking “fuck me, that was Tom Cruise”. For the record: I’m not a Tom Cruise fan. In fact, more often than not, he annoys the hell out of me. In ‘Tropic Thunder’ – the most bitterly acidic self-reflexive film on the Hollywood system since ‘The Player’ (but with a shitload more laughs) – it’s his character who steals every scene. Grossman makes Hitler look like Mother Teresa, Saddam Hussein like Princess Di. “I want you to take a step back – and literally fuck your own face!” “Instead of ten million, how about I send you a hobo’s dick cheese?” “A nutless monkey could do your job.” Fantastic! And his bladder-looseningly funny end credits dad dance makes David Brent look like Darcey Bussell.

Gromit, ‘Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. A clay figurine. No dialogue. One of the most fully-rounded (and achingly sympathetic) characters ever created. Brian in ‘Family Guy’ has the cutting one-liners and that whole camp Noel Coward thing going on, but it’s Gromit who’d fetch your slippers and your paper and want nowt but a chunk of Wensleydale in return.

Yes, I rather think that list says something about me. My favourite film characters, and it’s only the ladies and the dog I’d care socialise with.

Now it just remains to hand on the baton (with apologies if they’ve already been tagged) to these luminaries of the blogosphere:

Moon in the Gutter
The league of cine-literate gentlemen at Out 1

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale

I was eighteen when ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ came out and giddy with the powers of entry that a provisional driver’s licence gave me in terms of proof of ID.

I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve never looked my age. I’m thirty-six (thirty-seven at the end of next month) and as recently as six weeks ago was asked for proof of ID in a city centre pub.

When I not only turned eighteen but was able to prove it, I indiscriminately attended every 18-rated film that was showing purely because I could. I knew fuck all about cinema back then. I was still a year or so off discovering the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham’s iconic arthouse/independent cinema, the venue at which I gained my education in film. Where I saw the movies that count, where I talked to people who pointed me towards the directors, actors and titles that cemented my appreciation of the art form.

But before I’d received this basic grounding, before I had any concept of how high-calibre the cast, before I’d even heard of the director, Volker Schlöndorff, I wandered into a screening at the now defunct Odeon cinema of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I’d vaguely heard of Margaret Atwood, but had not then read any of her work. I knew of Faye Dunaway from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and Robert Duvall from ‘Apocalypse Now’.

But it was Natasha Richardson who compelled my attention. Her performance went beyond immediate. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Let me stress how green I was then: I had no idea she was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson (I can’t recall if I’d even seen one of his films then); I was still several years off seeing her sister Joely’s uncompromising characterisation of Lady Chatterley in Ken Russell’s TV adaptation. I simply didn’t know who she was, that she was the scion of thespian royalty. Mind you, I didn’t know that Schlöndorff had directed ‘The Tin Drum’ either, so what does that tell you?

Atwood’s novel takes that staple of science fiction, the dystopian future, and puts an excoriating feminist spin on it. Again, at that age, I’d not considered the feminist perspective before. Far from it. I came from an unlettered, unreconstructed background. My father was a truck driver, a brawling and unapologetic product of the ’50s, a man who had it ingrained in him to believe that a woman’s place is in the home; a man who saw the early influx of immigrants into Britain and formed a lifelong allegiance to the BNP; a man who believed that homosexuality was a disease and never really accepted the repeal of that evil law against gay men. A man, in short, who I have lived my life trying not to be the son of.

I mention this because it took the cumulative weight of cinema, literature and a goodly number of true friends to sway me from the worldview he stringently espoused. At a young age, and still discovering what cinema was capable of, before I embraced the possibilities of arthouse cinema, two gut-wrenching performances managed to sneak under the radar into the mainstream and presented me with a female perspective on the bigoted strictures of masculine oppression: Natasha Richardson in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Nastassja Kinski in Jerzy Skolimowski’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s ‘Torrents of Spring’.

I haven’t watched ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a long time. Deliberately. It struck a chord with me at an age when the real me was beginning to form and I’ve been happy since then to remember what it meant to me rather than the exact structure of the film itself. Now, though, in the light of Natasha Richardson’s tragic and too-early death, I will revisit it at the earliest opportunity. A glass will be raised to her memory when I do.

(in memoriam Natasha Richardson, 11 May 1963 – 18 March 2009)

Heartfelt tributes can be read at Antagony & Ecstasy and Moon in the Gutter.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: From Dusk Till Dawn

There’s a scene in Alfonso Cuaròn’s ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ – a masterly paeon to homo-eroticism, political incorrectness and the older woman – in which the horny teenage protagonists, left to their own devices after their girlfriends jet off on an exchange holiday, pass the time by engaging in some wholesome outdoor activity. Such as lying on the diving boards of a deserted country club swimming pool, eyes closed, hands in their trousers, vigorously polishing the lighthouse as they fantasise about their favourite actresses. One of them invokes the name of that Mexican goddess in human form, Salma Hayek, and both are spurred on to greater feats of onanism.

I’m willing to bet the gentlemen in question were thinking of the snake dance scene in ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’.

Directed by Robert Rodriguez from a script by Quentin Tarantino blah blah crims on the run blah blah kidnap a family and cross the border in their RV blah blah Titty Twister blah blah Cheech Marin’s hilarious and definitely NSFW “pussy” speech blah blah wait for their contact blah blah packed with bikers and mariachi musicians blah blah sudden lurch into horror film territory blah blah small group of survivors blah blah and did I mention that there’s this showstopping scene where Salma Hayek does a snake dance?

Sorry. I was eager to cut to the chase there. I’ll try to make amends by at least pretending to write a proper, considered article on the film. The key scene in ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ occurs exactly at the halfway mark. Thus far, script and direction have kept audience sensibilities firmly within an immediately recognisable genre – the crime thriller. There has been shooting, explosions, hostage taking, kidnapping, the evasion of authorities and a tense border crossing. Then the protagonists – brothers in crime Seth and Ritchie (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino), and hostage family Jacob (Harvey Keitel), Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu) – make an ill-advised stop at a lawless roadhouse.

It’s here that a Tex-Mex band are laying down some sleazy tunes while topless go-go dancers gyrate. (Last night I was writing about ‘The Insider’ and musing that “Mann conjures images that are haunting, sometimes surreal … and effortlessly poetic”; twenty-four hours down the line as it’s topless go-go dancers gyrating. God, I love blogging!) The lights go down, a hush falls over the rough-neck crowd. The leader of the mariachis announces the next act: the cryptically named Santanico Pandemonium. It’s Salma time!

Oh shit, I was trying to keep this reasonably intelligent. I was going to compare the scene to Rita Hayworth’s vampish burlesque number in ‘Gilda’ and Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’. I was going to highlight how the narrative is put on hold so the female protagonist can (literally) take centre stage, the piffling concerns of plot and dialogue held in stasis; subjugated to the heroine’s sensual self-expression. I was going to expand on this point and write about the destructive force of the uninhibited sexuality on display – how both ‘Gilda’ and ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ progress from these sequences into examinations of jealousy and fractured relationships. I was going to wind up this scholarly digression by demonstrating how ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ takes things one step further: not only does the smouldering sexuality of Santanico’s dance herald destruction and filial separation (I was going to slip in a clever little parenthetical reference to the Baker boys being brothers as well), it also sends the film spinning off into a completely different narrative and a completely different genre as Santanico morphs into a vampire and one of the sexiest women ever to grace the big screen suddenly turns into something very fucking freaky.

But then I thought, why bother? Film is not analysis it is the agitation of the mind. And ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ doesn’t invite analysis; it invites some mates round and lays on a pizza and a six-pack. It’s a B-movie to the nines and that’s how it should be enjoyed. It’s got gorgeous George being a badass. It’s got Harvey Keitel as a preacher who turns into a vampire-killing “mean mmmm-mmmm servant of God”. It’s got FX meister Tom Savini as a character called Sex Machine who’s got a six-shooter in a codpiece! It’s got Fred Williamson growling “I was in ’Nam.” It’s one hundred minutes of balls to the wall sick twisted fun, all wrapped up in a kick-ass soundtrack.

And it’s got Salma Hayek. Doing a snake dance.

(I may be sleeping on the couch tonight.)

Friday, March 20, 2009


Following on from his sumptuous, critically acclaimed adaptation ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, Michael Mann’s epic 1995 drama ‘Heat’ cemented his position as one of America’s finest directors. A visceral, moody existential re-examination of the crime movie, it teamed him with Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and a who’s who of dynamic actors. It was a hard act to follow.

Four years later, re-teaming with Pacino – and harnessing the talents of a post-‘L.A. Confidential’, pre-global-stardom Russell Crowe – Mann didn’t just follow it. He surpassed it. ‘The Insider’, one of the most intelligent and precisely directed mainstream films of the ’90s, boasts the gripping, compelling narrative and powerhouse acting performances of its iconic predecessor, as well as the same slow-burn intensity played out across a two-and-a-half hour running time, but does so without recourse to heists, shoot-outs and chases.

‘Heat’ is cerebral, suspenseful and packs in a goodly number of shit-hot action scenes. ‘The Insider’ is quite simply cerebral. It’s about corporate power, freedom of speech, the strictures of the law, the necessity of conscience, the pull of family, and the integrity of the serious journalist vs the machinations of big business. And that’s just for starters. On a human level, it’s also about one man trying to keep his word and another man coming to a decision about the wrongdoings of his employer and the public’s right to know, even though the imperatives for keeping his mouth shut are very real and freighted with heavy consequences.

Big, dramatic stuff. Now factor in the factual basis of the story, and ‘The Insider’ really takes off. The starting point was Marie Brenner’s 1996 article for Vanity Fair, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. A suitably Hitchcockian title for the story of an inside man, a corporate whistle-blower, a man whose family life disintegrates under the weight of potential financial desuetude, pervasive media scrutiny and death threats. Apposite, then, that it was expanded and adapted into a movie whose most tense scenes – an unspoken threat at a golf range, a piranha-like lawyer trying to silence a key witness even as he attempts to give a deposition – achieve a level of cinematic frisson that Hitch himself would have been proud of.

Brenner’s article focuses almost exclusively on former Brown & Williamson employee (that’s employee as in high-ranking senior management type on six-figures and a fuckload of benefits a year, as opposed to how the rest of us understand it) Jeffrey Wigand, and how he went public with information pertaining to the deliberate manipulation of tobacco products for maximum addiction potential. His story was featured on the influential and high-rating public affairs show ‘60 Minutes’, produced by Lowell Bergman for the CBS network.

Mann’s film expands on Brenner’s article and counterpoints Wigand’s struggle against the legal shenanigans of his former employers with Bergman’s internal stand-off against the corporate and legal departments of CBS who balk at the possibility of litigation from Brown & Williamson, particularly with a buy-out in the offing that would net big dividends for the top brass. It’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Bergman’s section, if not off the screen entirely, then certainly edited and self-censored.

The screenplay – co-written by Mann and Eric Roth, whose then still-unproduced script ‘The Good Shepherd’ Mann had admired – finds a tense through-line and ties together what could easily have been discursive, digressive and rambling. It gives a high-quality cast – Pacino and Crowe are supported by Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Bruce McGill, Colm Feore, Gina Gershon, Stephen Toblowsky, Lindsay Crouse and Michael Gambon – the opportunity to engage in the dialogue equivalent of swordplay which intermittently erupts into some of the most verbally volcanic explosions this side of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’.

Pacino’s performance recalls the glory days of the ’70s, when he appeared in one masterpiece after another. Crowe’s is quite simply the best work he’s done onscreen, more than confirming the promise inherent in ‘L.A. Confidential’. It’s a crying bloody shame that he went on to become so famous so quickly and has essentially not been called upon to deliver acting of this calibre since.

Mann’s direction, too, represents his highest professional achievement thus far. Subsequently, ‘Ali’ proved incredibly well-made but perhaps a shade too reverent; ‘Collateral’ fell foul of an occasionally clichéd script and a stilted performance from Tom Cruise, while ‘Miami Vice’ was an exercise in the visual potential of digital film-making which offered a jargon-heavy script and zero chemistry between its leads. (Having said all that, the forthcoming ‘Public Enemies’ with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale has got me authentically excited.)

‘The Insider’ is a gem … and that’s not a lapse into cliché. Like a gem, it’s multi-faceted. It reflects and refracts and dazzles. It provides essays on the quality of light. In terms of recent American films, I can only think of Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways’ that infuses the screen with the quality of light so effectively. Mann conjures images that are haunting, sometimes surreal (the sequence of images that open the golf range sequence are astounding), and effortlessly poetic.

‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is more romantic and audience friendly, ‘Heat’ more exciting, and I have no doubt that ‘Public Enemies’ will positively ooze cool from its every frame. But ‘The Insider’ is peerless. I am convinced it is the film Michael Mann will be remembered for.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Personal faves: the story so far

It’s a year to the day since I posted my list of 100 Personal Faves. The intention was to write about one a week, a discipline which would have seen me work through the list in just under two years.

A year on and I’ve covered 33 of them. Last year was something of a roller coaster and my attention got a little sidetracked from The Agitation of the Mind for a while. Still, things are back on course now and to celebrate the first anniversary of the Personal Faves project I’m doubling up. I’ve pulled two titles out of the hat – corporate malfeasance in one, Salma Hayek doing a snake dance in the other – and I’ll be posting on them over the next two evenings.

I’ve also spent this evening gazing back through the reviews I’ve posted so far. So if you’ll permit me the laziest post I’ve ever put on this blog, here’s a quick resumé of the Faves so far and what I said about them:

Blazing Saddles
“… quite simply one of the funniest movies ever made, with an inspired ending that's as demented as it is subversive …”
(posted as a tribute to Harvey Korman)

Bowling for Columbine
“… Moore using his acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Oscar to lambast Dubya. ‘Shame on you, Mr President. Shame on you’ …”

Das Boot
“… you never really think of them as Nazis, consequently you quickly stop thinking of them as Germans; ultimately, they’re simply men … thrust into the middle of a war they’d rather not be fighting.”

Charley Varrick
Siegel’s direction finds and maintains a spot-on balance of wry humour, pacy narrative and a handful of excellently staged and edited action scenes.”

Death in Venice
“… acting on another level. Bogarde progressively tears away layer after layer of his character, culminating in a moment of heart-breaking acceptance …”

Deep Red
“… the combination of image, music and camera movement add up to one of the most effective head-fucks in cinema.”

Donnie Darko
“… demonstrates, more slyly and effectively than any other film I can think of, how every act has a consequence.”

“… a film that seeks not to demonise, but neither sympathise; not to try to ‘understand’ Hitler and his actions, but neither deny or obfuscate them; a film, instead, that portrays him.”

Emperor of the North
“… full-on, attitudinous and brutal – of course it is: this is Robert freakin’ Aldrich we’re talking about …”

The Exorcist
“… a film about possession and exorcism, about the testing of faith by satanic evil, that is shot through with such documentary clarity that you can easily forget it’s a horror film …”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film about failure that’s emerged as so gloriously life-affirming.”

It’s unique. A true one-off. It would never get made today, given the prevailing climate of political correctness.”

The French Connection
The best car chase in the movies. Ever. So says I and anyone who disagrees is welcome to accompany Doyle and Russo down the station and talk about it there.”

From Russia With Love
It’s the most un-Bond of the Bond movies ... and, paradoxically, that’s what makes it the best.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
“… a film where the Ugly grungily fits the description, the Bad is even badder than bad, and the Good is only the good because (a) he’s marginally less of a bastard than the other two, and (b) Clint Eastwood’s playing him …”

The Incredibles
“… taut and suspenseful, the structure intricate, the writing witty and intelligent, and the whole thing put together with eye-catching visual flair.”

LA Confidential
“… stylish, gripping, intriguing, multi-layered and downright well-directed …”

A Matter of Life and Death
It does everything cinema should do, everything art should do, and speaks to the heart, the mind and the soul with equal intensity and sincerity.”

North by Northwest
“… a masterpiece of narrative propulsion, joining the dots between the set-pieces with such speed and glib humour that stopping to examine the construct under the critical lens would just be bad sportsmanship.”

Ocean’s 11
“… there really is no other way of describing ‘Ocean’s 11’: it’s cool. Suavely, stylishly, seriously cool.”

The Prestige
Does it agitate the mind? Oh, you sweet fucking-A betcha!!

The cooking scenes are so evocative you can almost smell the food.”

Seven Days to Noon
“… a bloody good thriller that … comes across, and does so emphatically with repeated viewings, as years ahead of its time.”

Shadow of a Doubt
“… rich in gallows humour and laced with irony.”

The Straight Story
“… easily the most non-David-Lynch David Lynch film, and yet it’s quintessentially Lynch. No-one else could have put such a quirky and individualistic spin on the story.”

Taking Liberties
“… seek out a copy of ‘Taking Liberties’, watch it, press it on to all of your friends and - god damn it! - get angry.”

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Never mind that there aren’t that many action scenes, the sheer sense of urgency propels the narrative.”

A Tale of Two Sisters
“… proves that ‘The Ring’ doesn’t necessarily have the monopoly on freaky women with lank black hair creeping slowly towards you …”

That Obscure Object of Desire
“… Buñuel achieves cinema’s most absolute – and phenomenally witty – comment on sexual frustration.”

The Train
“… a shatteringly nihilistic ending … the ostensible villain is passionate, articulate and an aesthete, and the ostensible hero little more than a bull-headed thug.”
(posted as a tribute to Paul Schofield)

Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit
“… a series of frenetic set-pieces culminating in a showdown at the vegetable competition …”

Where Eagles Dare
I know that war is hell … but we’re talking about straight-down-the-line action movies here and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ ranks among the best.”
(posted as part of Final Girl’s Hey-Internet-Stop-Being-Such-Cynical-Effing-Douchebags blog-a-thon)

Wings of Desire
“… pure cinema, from its director’s astoundingly realised vision, to the pitch-perfect humanity of Bruno Ganz’s performance, to its captivating romantic heroine.”
(posted as a tribute to Solveig Dommartin)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

There’s a scene in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ where Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) – thinly fictionalised versions of Hunter S Thompson and Samoan attorney Oscar Acosta – are driving through the neon-lit artifice of Las Vegas in a convertible. They pull up next to a car full of straight-laced, middle-aged, middle-class white people (let’s call them ‘squares’ for short). Duke is hunched over the steering wheel, under the influence of just about every narcotic substance known to mankind; Dr Gonzo is hanging out the window, whining and blubbering pathetically, his moustache and the side of the car pebble-dashed with vomit.

The squares try heroically to ignore him. Then Dr Gonzo addresses them directly: “You folks wanna buy some heroin? God damn it, I’m serious. All I’m trying to sell you is some pure fucking smack. This is the real stuff. You won’t get hooked. I just got back from Vietnam ... I wanna sell you some pure fucking smack ... puuuuure ... fuuuuuuck ...”

One of them snaps: “God damn it, you bastards!” he yells, hammering on the car window with his fist. “Pull over! I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.”

Which was pretty much how the critics reacted when ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was originally released in 1998. “Simply unwatchable” opined Mike Clarke in USA Today and he wasn’t alone in that opinion. The majority of the film-going public didn’t even have an opinion – ‘F&L in LV’ did about $10 million at the American box office, earning back just over half of its budget.

I saw it on the big screen back in ’98 and loved it. Bought the video – loved it. Wore the VHS out and bought the DVD – still love it. And yet most people I talk to haven’t seen it; many have never heard of it. It came as pleasant and long-awaited validation, when I started the new job a few weeks ago, to find that one of my colleagues had not only seen the film but loves it wholeheartedly, and we had a grand time comparing our favourite scenes.

‘F&L in LV’ is zonked-out, screwed-up film-making with an emphasis on self-destructive behaviour, illicit substances and the over-consumption thereof. Politically incorrect? Hell, yeah. Irresponsible? Probably, but who’s counting? Not me. There’s a case to be made that we need a few more films to be irresponsible and politically incorrect – otherwise cinema, as with any art form that’s not given a thorough shaking up every so often, stagnates.

‘F&L in LV’ sets out its stall in the first scene, Duke and Dr Gonzo cutting through the desert in a big open-top car with fins and whitewall tyres and a flame red paint job. They’re on the outskirts of Barstow and the drugs have just kicked in. “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers and laughers,” Duke enumerates (Depp’s pitch-perfect voiceover is one of the chief joys of the film). “Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.”

By this time the pair have hallucinated a sky full of attacking bats. It gets worse: checking into a plush hotel, Duke’s base of operations while he ostensibly covers a motorcycle race in the desert, the psychedelically patterned carpet comes bleeding to life. A lounge full of bloated gamblers turns into a rutting grotesquery of giant lizards.

It gets worse: Duke and Dr Gonzo freak out, run up epic room service bills, destroy said hotel rooms, skip paying for both, damage cars, terrorize the innocent, insult authority, brandish weapons, rail against a government and a country going to hell, and merrily drink, snort and in any way possible ingest everything they can get their hands on, all the while encountering any number of other oddballs from an underage and possibly mentally deficient artist (Christina Ricci) who paints nothing but portraits of Barbara Streisand (Duke warns Dr Gonzo off her thusly: “in a few hours, she'll probably be sane enough to work herself into some kind of towering Jesus-based rage at the hazy recollection of being seduced by some kind of cruel Samoan who fed her liquor and LSD, dragged her to a Vegas hotel room and then savagely penetrated every orifice in her little body with his throbbing, uncircumcised member”) to a traffic cop (Gary Busey) who enthusiastically pursues a way over-the-limit* Duke only to let him off with a warning and ask for a kiss (“I’m very lonely here”).

For all that the critics didn’t get it and the majority of cinema-goers didn’t bother with it, ‘F&L in LV’ achieves a perfect marriage of source material, cast and director. It’s a blast, a trip and a head-fuck. Anyone whose sensibilities are easily offended would do best to avoid. But to anyone who likes cinema in the fast lane, 100mph, drunk in charge and not wearing a seatbelt, all I can say is: buy the ticket, take the ride.

*In both senses.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson

Having gone out to bat against corporate evil and political evil in, respectively, ‘Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room’ and ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’, documentarist Alex Gibney’s latest is a change of direction – a celebration of someone who was on the side of the angels … if, that is, your definition of the side of the angels is elastic enough to admit a heavy-drinking dope fiend with a predilection for political agitation and gun ownership.

‘Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson’ is about … well, the clue’s in the title. Hunter S Thompson was the enfant terrible of American journalism – and the patron saint of Gonzo journalism. He didn’t coin the term, but he certainly invented the concept. Gonzo is a style of reporting where the reporter is at the centre of the story, their experiences reported subjectively, in the first person and informed by personal opinion, instead of objectively and in the third person.

Thompson made an early impact with a non-fiction book on the Hell’s Angels, research for which entailed ingratiating himself into a local chapter and immersing himself in their lifestyle, but it was his article “The Kentucky Derby is Depraved and Decadent” – with illustrations by the incomparable Ralph Steadman – that truly defined his literary style.

It opened the door for his key works, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’, the former a thinly fictionalised account of Thompson’s hallucinogenic attempt to find the American dream (he finds fear and loathing instead), the latter an account of the 1972 election campaign – one of the most coruscating and jaw-droppingly brilliant pieces of political writing in print.

Then there was the little matter of Thompson’s own electoral campaign, when he stood for Sheriff of his home town of Aspen, Colorado. He shaved his head just so he could refer to his opponent, who sported a sharp military buzz-cut, as “a long-hair”, and went after what he called the “freak power” vote, ie. appealing to the sensibilities of students, hippies, dopers and basically anyone from whom the prevailing white middle-class Aspen citizenry would run in fear. The surprise is not that he lost, but that he lost by such a small margin.

Of course, there was a price to be paid. You don’t bait the establishment for most of your career without becoming a legend – and it’s awfully hard to remain a legend unless you die young. Thompson was defined by his Gonzo image, and the line between the man and his public persona quickly blurred. There were those who thought he’d done his best work by the ’70s and what remained was a cliché of himself.

I’ve probably not read enough of Thompson’s work to call it. What I will say, on the basis of Gibney’s documentary is that he was a complete one-off: by turns a man of great integrity and a raving loon, a liberal and gun nut, penetrating insightful and fiercely dedicated to proscribed substances, a man of the people and a collector of celebrity friends.

It was one of the most iconoclastic of these friends, Johnny Depp, who paid for Thompson’s typically flamboyant funeral, his ashes fired from a 150ft tube amidst a blaze of fireworks.

Depp also contributes to the documentary, giving wonderfully resonant readings from Thompson’s work. Footage of the good doctor is plentiful, friends and family are forthcoming, colleagues are candid and the Hell's Angels (in the form of Ralph “Sonny” Barger) are hellishly antagonistic. There are anecdotes, particularly from Ralph Steadman and Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, that are screamingly funny. A sense of the absurd lingers over the entire film.

And the soundtrack - featuring just about the best of everything from the ’60s and ’70s - is freakin’ awesome.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Che - Part Two

‘Che – Part Two’ is at the same time more immediate and less satisfying that its predecessor.

More immediate because it’s free of the self-consciously arty black-and-white New York City sequences that interrupt the flow of part one; because the pursuit of Guevara and his small band of Bolivian freedom fighters by a remorseless military gives the film a constant senses of movement, as well as imbuing every frame with threat and tension.

Less satisfying for mostly the same reasons.

As with the first film, it’s not a biopic – it’s a treatise on the logistics of organising a revolution. As such, it feels very much like a variation on a theme. The main differences are geographical (Bolivia instead of Cuba) and historical (the ’60s, not the ’50s; Guevara is an older man) – but the principal different is the outcome.

The Cuban revolution was successful. Guevara’s Bolivian campaign was a failure.

Abandoning the political stage, a heavily disguised Guevara (Benicio del Toro in even more impressive form than part one) fetches up in Bolivia. With no supplies and with none of the manpower he had as Castro’s right hand man, he attempts to transform a painfully small and disorganised group into guerrilla fighters. Everything is against him: his health worsens (the asthma attacks he suffered before have become more severe, more debilitating); his men are undisciplined and infighting abounds; food is hard to come by; the peasants they are fighting to protect betray them under bribery and threats from the Bolivian army; American involvement exacerbates things.

The two films are yin and yang. Opposites but mirror images. Part one is the rise of Che Guevara. Part two is his fall. Part one is about the planning and coming together of a revolution. Part two is about disintegration. Part one ends in triumph, part two in failure.

Part one works as a stand-alone film. Part two doesn’t. It needs the events of the first instalment for context, otherwise it would be too fragmentary, too downbeat; the sucker punch of the ending wouldn’t resonate half as effectively.

When I wrote about ‘Che – Part One’, I was disappointed that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the four and half hour roadshow version. I’m glad now that that was the case. The similarities would have been too pronounced.

So would the differences.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


‘McLibel’ documents the longest-running case in British legal history, that of McDonald’s Restaurants vs. Morris and Steel. It dragged on for seven years. McDonald’s retained the best legal team money could buy*, haemorrhaging millions in legal fees. David Morris and Helen Steel, denied legal aid because this was a defamation case**, represented themselves and spent £30,000, a defence fund contributed by supporters and well-wishers.

It’s appropriate, then, that the film itself has a chequered eight-year history and was made for little or nothing. Not only was David and Helen’s battle with McDonald’s an according-to-Hoyle David and Goliath saga; so was the production of the film that tells their story.

Director Franny Armstrong originally made ‘McLibel’ as an hour-long TV documentary in 1997. Cuts demanded by the BBC brought the running time down to 40 minutes. Ten days before its scheduled transmission, legal pressure was brought to bear and the BBC pulled the plug. Channel 4 showed some interest, but their legal department balked: “McDonald’s would almost certainly sue Channel 4 and would almost certainly win” (quoted in Franny Armstrong’s article in The Guardian, 19 June 1998 – click here to read the full text).

In 2005, Armstrong updated the documentary in light of David and Helen’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, who found that the case had violated their rights to freedom of speech and to a fair trial. Accordingly, Armstrong documented their visit to Strasbourg for the hearing and updated ‘McLibel’ into a feature length (85 minute) film.

The no-budget ‘McLibel’ is almost overshadowed by the very story it documents. And yet it holds up as a piece of film-making. Besides, to criticise it for its production values is to miss the point. David Morris and Helen Steel (and, boy, does that lady have an apposite surname!) took on a corporation who had happily bullied everyone from Time Out to the BBC into retracting and apologising for negative reporting about them. They refused to be intimidated and they refused to back down. It’s utterly in keeping that the film which champions them is itself an underdog. So forget the utilitarian camerawork, occasional deficiencies in the sound quality and the surprisingly dull courtroom re-enactments (surprisingly given that Ken Loach directed those scenes – kudos to him, though, for offering his services gratis).

‘McLibel’ kicks off with an inspired bit of scene-setting. A title crawl in bright yellow letters, hilariously reminiscent of a certain George Lucas film, announces:

A long time ago there was a company that made lots of money by selling bits of meat between two bits of bread.

Many people were employed to put the meat between the bread and many animals were killed to be the meat. A friendly clown persuaded children to love the company.

Some decades passed and all was well. The company became very, very rich. Richer even than many countries.

And then some people wrote in their newspapers than eating lots of the meat and bread could make people ill. Other people said on television that too many trees had been cut down and that the workers were unhappy.

This made the company very angry.

The company looked around the world and saw that in England there was a special law that could stop people saying things the company didn't like.

And make them say sorry.

Using interviews, news footage and (mercifully) keeping the re-enactments to a minimum, Armstrong tells the story efficiently and, certainly during the latter stages of the documentary, with some sense of pace. It all started in 1989 when David and Helen, members of London Greenpeace (not affiliated with its significantly more famous oil-rig-protesting namesake) distributed a pamphlet entitled ‘What’s Wrong With McDonald’s’.

Private detectives infiltrated the group. There’s an irony to be relished that McDonald’s outsourced from more than one firm without letting on to the existing operatives: “The spies spent as much time spying on each other”. Then, in 1990, McDonald’s slapped David and Helen with writs. The corporation was confident of an easy victory within a few weeks.

They didn’t get it. As the case dragged on, McDonald’s offered on the QT to resolve things out of court. Their only stipulation was that David and Helen discontinue public criticism of the chain and limit their anti-McDonald’s comments to privately expressed opinions to immediate friends. Helen’s response was priceless: that McDonald’s similarly discontinue advertising and only recommended the restaurants to friends.

Despite a dearth of representation, staff or funds (barrister Keir Starmer, seeing how one-sided the trial was, offered his assistance; a group of volunteers ran their campaign HQ), David and Helen managed to find witnesses – including Stephen Gardener of the District Attorney’s office, Texas, who flew over to give evidence. Gardener had investigated McDonald’s in the mid-80s over deceptive marketing. Interviewed for the documentary, he says, “The point was, the whole advertising campaign – not just one claim in one little ad – the whole campaign was intrinsically deceptive … and I do believe that for McDonald’s to call its food nutritious is lie to the public, whether the British or the American public.”

Even more damning is a comment, apropos of McDonald’s specific targeting of children in the advertising campaigns, from Geoff Guiliano, a former Ronald McDonald: “I was like the guy in the Third Reich who was the propaganda minister.” That’s right, kiddies, Ronnie McD is Goebbels in greasepaint.

Perhaps the most pertinent quote is from Helen Steel herself – a summation not just of what ‘McLibel’ is about but why they refused to back down to McDonald’s in the first place: “The government referred to fact that the protection of freedom of speech should require that campaigners put the balance in their leaftlets, McDonald’s responses for example, but there’s no requirement for McDonald’s to put the balance in their advertising.” To which Dave adds: “The campaigners are the balance and we’ll continue to campaign till there’s a just world.”

*Led by Richard Rampton, QC, who is alleged to have charged £2,000 a day for his services. Am I alone in finding that almost obscene?

*They were also denied their right to a jury. In essence, a single judge heard everything and decided the whole thing himself. So much for our wonderful English legal system.

(More information on this film and McLibel trial itself, including witness statement transcripts, can be found on the McSpotlight website.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Samantha Morton: respect!

Work commitments prevented me from attending, but I wish I’d been at the Old Market Square in my home town of Nottingham yesterday afternoon to hear Samantha Morton’s speech outside the Council House.

Lending her weight to healthcare union Unison, Ms Morton spoke out against proposed budget cuts that threaten closure of one of Nottingham’s four children’s homes.

Ms Morton was born in Clifton, a few miles outside the city centre, and spent her formative years in a children’s home. In the footage shown on last night’s local news, it was clear how passionate she is about the subject; that her success as an actress has definitely not eclipsed memories of her upbringing.

“I was in care most of my life,” she said. “I wouldn’t have got where I’ve got today without the care of the social workers and residential social workers.

“I’m proud of Nottingham,” she added, “I’m proud of being from Nottingham and I’m proud of being a kid in care. Children’s homes work, they really work.”

Fingers crossed that the council listen.

Click here to read an article in The Independent about Ms Morton’s protest.

Monday, March 09, 2009

French Connection II

I’m going to say something controversial:

William Friedkin directed ‘The French Connection’ and John Frankenheimer ‘French Connection II’ – it should have been the other way round.

Frankenheimer was at his best helming films where attention to detail was the key: the raison d’être for narrative and mise-en-scene. Please, before you haul me up against a wall, give me the kind of hiding that makes ‘The Sweeney’ look like the girl scouts and accuse me of picking my feet in Poughkeepsie – all of which I probably deserve for my two sins of (a) suggesting Friedkin shouldn’t have directed ‘The French Connection’ and (b) being a pretentious twat by using raison d’être and mise-en-scene in the same sentence – allow me to explain. Just give me one paragraph. That’s all I ask.

Okay. John Frankenheimer did his best work when close observation of a milieu and precise attention to detail were the watchwords of plot, narrative and aesthetic. Consider ‘The Train’, which I have described elsewhere in these pages as “a battle of wits between the two men, a game of forward thinking and low cunning, not unlike a chess match but with the French railway system as the board and a steam loco and a couple of dozen waggons for pieces. Frankenheimer's …talent for incorporating technical minutiae into the narrative - indeed, using it as the cornerstone of scenes of suspense - is pure genius.” Or ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, an exercise in documenting the logistics of a conspiracy – its planning and execution. Or atmosphere and routine of prison life in ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. The procedural aspects of ‘The French Connection’ – surveillance, evidence, tailing suspects, putting the case together – would have seen Frankenheimer in his element. Friedkin, on the other hand, was renowned as a director who put his actors through the mill. Imagine his take on the cold turkey sequence which forms the centrepiece of ‘French Connection II’. Imagine the cultural clash element of the film shot through with Friedkin’s trademark sense of belligerence.

As it was, though, Friedkin directed the first film and made a classic. Frankenheimer helmed the second and, to be fair, came bloody close – the problem with ‘French Connection II’ is something no director could arguably have surmounted anyway.

The problem is the ending of the first film. Not only has Doyle shot a fellow cop, not only does the last frame of the film suggest he’s crossed the line between grimly determined policework and certifiably obsessional behaviour, but a closing credits title card informs us that Doyle and Russo were transferred out of narcotics and reassigned.

And yet the opening scene of the sequel has Doyle (Gene Hackman) happily – well, no, not happily: the man’s a total fucking grouch – arrive in Marseilles, on secondment to the local cops and hellbent on taking Charnier (Fernando Rey) down. Charnier, improbably living in the same house (after narrowly escaping a sting that sees the rest of his collaborators arrested, you’d think he’d have gone to ground), is still looking to corner the American market: in an undeveloped subplot, he’s seen making a deal with a corrupt US army officer.

Without Russo to provide double-act bantering possibilities, Doyle’s conversational imperative becomes a one-note exercise in how to offend his hosts (on national differences: “I’d rather be a lamp-post in New York than the President of France”; on the local cuisine: “What did you do, cremate it? Where’s the mayo?”). Meanwhile, the Marseilles PD prove more effective in putting a tail on Doyle than actually locating Charnier.

The first film was based on an actual case, Doyle and Russo prowling their home turf, knowing when something doesn’t add up, knowing when someone’s dirty. It’s immediate, edgy, gritty. The sequel – an entirely fictional work – squanders its first half on Doyle’s fish-out-of-water integration into a different city, a different country, a different culture. It’s only when Charnier’s men shanghai him and shoot him full of H that things get interesting.

The second half is one barnstorming set-piece after another: Doyle going cold turkey, the dry dock shoot-out, Doyle indulging in a little pyromania to flush out Charnier’s men, and a full-tilt exhausting chase scene (the car chase of the original here transmuting into something just as pounding but on foot) which climaxes in one of the most abrupt endings in mainstream film.

Ultimately though, I can only damn ‘French Connection II’ with faint praise: it’s a well-made and eminently watchable film that served no purpose in being made.