Monday, June 29, 2009


Posted as part of Radiator Heaven's Michael Mann Week

While it's impossible to overstate the importance of 'Manhunter' in Michael Mann's filmography, something happened five years after its release that has forever left it overshadowed. As Tim Brayton acutely puts it in a recent Antagony & Ecstacy article, "Post-1991, there's a big elephant in the room whenever anyone wants to talk about 'Manhunter', of course: Jonathan's Demme's Oscar-winning 'The Silence of the Lambs'."

Demme's film wasn't just an award winner, wasn't just a sequel to 'Red Dragon' (the Thomas Harris novel 'Manhunter' is adapted from), wasn't just hugely popular and wasn't just populated by a cast of (mainly) better and (certainly) better-known actors ... it also had a performance by Anthony Hopkins that renewed his career and defined, for a generation of film-goers, the character of Hannibal Lecter. Its stratospheric success led to three more Lecter outings: the sequel 'Hannibal', Ridley Scott's thankless take on Harris's least interesting novel; the redundant prequel 'Hannibal Rising', directed by Peter Webber, with Gaspard Ulliel disrespecting Hopkins's characterisation in scene after scene; and an even more redundant remake of 'Manhunter' (here reverting to the original 'Red Dragon' title), which was directed by Brett Ratner. And if the words "a film by Brett Ratner" aren't enough to strike fear into your heart, you are either dead or have questionable taste in cinema.

So: 'The Silence of the Lambs'. Anthony Hopkins redux, Jodie Foster at possibly the peak of her career, an amazing switcheroo wrong-address set-piece, and five golden statues in the bag on Oscar night. Some elephant.

Good job I've got my elephant gun, a fuckload of buckshot and no compunction about spitting on an icon, then.

Because I'm going to say it once and say it proud. I'm going to put on the mantle of the loneliest film blogger on the internet, I'm going to step out of the closet. 'Manhunter' is a more interesting film than 'The Silence of the Lambs'.

Anyone still reading? Anyone out there I haven't pissed off yet? Okay, I've got one more hawk-a-loogie-on-the-icon bit of business left to attend to. Ready? Here goes. Brian Cox's portrayal of Lecter, while different, is every bit as good as Hopkins's - which is a hell of an achievement since he had considerably less screen time in which to make an impression.

(Parenthetically, Lecter is inexplicably credited as "Lecktor" in 'Manhunter'. Since it's Lecter in the novels and the other films - and because I can't be bothered with that keyboard-unfriendly C-K-T combination, I'm using the Lecter spelling throughout this article.)

Not - hastily trotting out the caveat here - that I'm dismissing 'The Silence of the Lambs'. In many respects it has the edge on 'Manhunter' - it's plot-driven where Mann's film tips in favour of stylistic flourishes; it has a gutsy lead performance by Jodie Foster where 'Manhunter' has a rather stilted turn from William Peterson, and it has the smarts to realise that Lecter was the most interesting character on offer and focuses on his unique blend of charm and sociopathic amorality. 'Manhunter' also loses points for its very '80s power-ballad soundtrack and luminous green opening credits that look like Mann handed a work print to some subway graffiti artists and told them which frames to go to town on.

So it's just as well that I didn't start a my-Lecter-could-eat-your-Lecter's-liver kind of pissing contest by claiming that one of these films was better than the other. I do, however, stand by my original claim: 'Manhunter' is the more interesting film. Visually, it's more interesting. As a stylistic exercise in framing, composition and aesthetics, it's more interesting (remember how everyone gassed about the use of the bars between Clarice Starling and Lecter as framing device in 'Silence'? 'Manhunter' uses much more intricate and effective camera angles and movements). As an experiment in editing designed to accentuate fractured/disturbed mindsets and perceptions, it's one hell of a lot more interesting.

'Silence' is a bloody good, deservedly popular mainstream entertainment. But it never really stretches itself beyond that. And much as this blog is probably being logged off in droves and deleted from link lists, I have to say it: 'Silence' is ever-so-slightly overrated.

'Manhunter', though, improves and continues to intrigue with repeated viewings. Plotwise, 'Manhunter' and 'Silence' follow similar lines (substitute "rookie FBI agent" for "former FBI agent" and "Buffalo Bill" for "Tooth Fairy" and you've essentially got the set-up for Demme's opus): former FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson) is brought back from early retirement by Bureau head honcho Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, who is operating to a lunar cycle. With only three weeks till the next full moon, ergo the next killing, Graham reluctantly enlists the help of intellectually brilliant psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox).

Whereas 'Silence' (and, even more explicitly so, 'Hannibal') then veered off into a darkly romantic treatment of the relationship between Lecter and Starling, there is nothing between Lecter and Graham but antagonism. It was Graham who put Lecter away. But not before Lecter attacked Graham viciously. Result: physical and mental scars for Graham; a clinically white cell and a lot more time to catch up on his reading for Lecter. A lot more time to plan his revenge, too. So when Graham comes to Lecter for help, the not-so-good doctor plots his revenge from behind bars, concocting a manipulative scheme to send the Tooth Fairy in Graham's direction.

It is Lecter around whom the two most suspenseful showpieces occur. In one, a fan letter from the Tooth Fairy is found secreted in Lecter's cell during a routine search; Crawford, Graham and Lecter's shrink/jailer Dr Chiltern (Benjamin Hendrickson), realising that a line of communication between the two psychopaths is their only solid lead on the Tooth Fairy, race against the clock to effect a forensic analysis of the letter and return it to Lecter's cell before his suspicions are aroused. Here, style and substance achieve equilibrium: Mann directs the procedural scenes with urgency and precise attention to detail. The other scene has Lecter get the information he needs to sic the Tooth Fairy on Graham using only a telephone and a soupcon of down-home charm. Whereas the charm is the raison d'etre of Lecter according to Hopkins, Cox shows us Lecter putting it on and taking it off like a mask. He also shows us the icily impenetrable face behind the mask. That, for me, makes his Lecter the more chilling, the more unpredictable, the more dangerous.

I started this article off, over 1,000 words ago, by claiming that it's impossible to overstate the importance of 'Manhunter' in Michael Mann's filmography. In it, the cohesion of his overarching theme of men driven by what they have to do (shades of Peckinpah in his aesthetic) never mind that they endanger themselves (the alternative - being untrue to the self - is far worse)*. In it, his talent for the double narrative; the Graham/Lecter plot is thrown into sharp relief by the surprising, unexpected scenes between the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) and Reba (Joan Allen), the blind woman who almost taps into his humanity. Both performances are superb. 'Manhunter' also marked the first collaboration between Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Here, an already mature statement of the awe-spiring visuals that would characterise 'Last of the Mohicans', 'Heat' and - most exquisitely - 'The Insider'. The forthcoming 'Public Enemies' reunites them. Here, too, in 'Manhunter', the visceral staging of action, pulsatingly edited, that tears up the screen in 'Heat'.

But beyond this, there's a weirdness to 'Manhunter', a feeling of wrongness, something off-kilter and slightly surreal. It's in the scene between the Tooth Fairy and hack journo Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang); it's in what happens to Lounds afterwards. It's in the scene with the sleeping tiger. It's in the disorientating slo-mo and lurching editing of the final shoot-out. As 'The Keep' had intimated before 'Manhunter', there's a touch of David Lynch about Michael Mann's worldview; apart from a few surrealist touches in 'The Insider' (I'm thinking of the abstract intro to the golf range sequence), Mann has yet fully to explore this tendency in his work. I'd like to think the man has a fucking great cerebral/psychological horror movie gestating inside him and when he gives it to the world it could be the rival of 'Blue Velvet' or 'The Shining'.

*A tip of the hat to Mark Steensland, whose 'Pocket Essential Michael Mann' perfectly distills the themes and preoccupations of Mann's filmography and remains one of the best titles in that series.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Whisky Galore!

In 1941 the S.S. Politician ran aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Hebrides. It was carrying 24,000 cases of whisky. For the islanders who headed out to the wreck and conducted an unofficial salvage operation, it was like all of their birthdays and Christmases rolled into one. 24,000 cases of whisky - during a period of wartime austerity! It couldn't happen in fiction. So fiction imitated life and popular novelist Compton Mackenzie promptly appropriate the story. His tale - and the Ealing classic adaptated from it - also deal with the aftermath (Customs and Excise men descending on the island to recover the booze) but omit the less-than-happy real-life ending: the Excise men successful and some of the islanders shipped off to the mainland for prison sentences. Still, when the media seldom lets the facts get in the way of the a good story, why should fiction? Particularly when the story can easily be recast as a celebration of working-class cunning; a big screw-you to the authorities.

If 'I Know Where I'm Going!' provides a heady, romantic take on the myths and mysticism of Scotland, then 'Whisky Galore!' is affectionately satirical. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' is the work of an Englishman and a Hungarian, two outsiders in love with the place; 'Whisky Galore!' was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, an American-born child of Glaswegian parents who left the US for Scotland at the age of seven. An American by birth, a Scot at heart. I've aired the opinion before that these films represent two-thirds of cinema's greatest appreciation of Scotland, with the third being 'Local Hero' (its director, Bill Forsyth, proving the only Scots-born director of the lot); they are also arguably the only good movies ever made which have an exclamation mark in the title.

Clocking in at a scant 80 minutes, part of the charm of 'Whisky Galore!' is its briskness. It zips by, never once threatening to outstay its welcome, and throws out - in roughly equal measure - barbs of satirical humour, good-natured belly laughs, chase scenes, bouts of drunken bravado and a scattering of memorable images. Chief among them, a scene in which a group of locals, the cave in which they've hidden the retrieved whisky targetted by the Excise men, load it precariously onto the back of a rickety old truck and attempt a hasty retreat with the Excise men in swift pursuit. A running joke has the driver labouring over ever-more turns of the starting handle to fire up the engine, the truck spluttering weakly and ticking over so pathetically it threatens to cut out again at any moment. Naturally, when optimum performance from the vehicle is most required, it runs out of fuel. Someone hops out, smashes the neck of a bottle against the sideguard and decants the contents into the fuel tank. The driver runs round the front, cranks the starting handle once and the engine roars monstrously into life. An overhead shot has the driver backing off fearfully as the truck's bonnet, massive in the foreground, judders with the barely contained, new-found power of the engine.

Whisky, it is thus implied, doesn't just make a man of you; it makes your truck run better as well! It's one of those scenes that only cinema can deliver - you couldn't paint or photograph if and it you tried to craft it into words as a story or a poem it would sound ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. Running a truck on whisky! It's probably the only fluid on the planet that's still more expensive than petrol!

However: as random and illogical as that moment is, it fits perfectly into the scheme of 'Whisky Galore!'. As 'Sideways' is a paeon to wine, with a mordantly witty treatise on human relationships floating around in it like a woman in a tequila bottle, so is 'Whisky Galore!' to whisky. The internet and some of the more tabloid-style film magazines are rife with movie-related drinking games. 'Withnail and I' pretty much started it - the simple and potentially liver-destroying rules are absurdly simple: whenever one of the characters takes a drink, the player takes the same drink (the lighter fluid may be omitted). Other versions have developed. James Bond drinking games, for example, stipulate that viewers take a drink whenever 007 uses a gadget, M or Q give him a bollocking, the villain plots world domination or some girl gasps "Oh James".

Can you imagine a 'Whisky Galore!' drinking game? You could have a "sassenach" version, for beginners, in which every onscreen dram is matched (and I'm talking single malt Scotch whisky and no watering it down with soda or lemonade either) in which case you'd probably pass out halfway through the ceildh scene; or an "islanders" version, for the hardcore or suicidal) in which a dram is downed everytime a character says the words "whisky", "uisabaugh" or "slainte" as well. In which case you'd probably die. The Agitation of the Mind does not condone or encourage participation in any 'Whisky Galore!'-based drinking game and accepts no responsibility for any fatalities beyond his own.

What stops 'Whisky Galore!' from descending into whimsy or being overwhelmed by "McScotland" cliches that seem to be lurking just offscreen is how well constructed and how entertaining the film is; and how acidic in its more scathing bits of humour. A voice-over that's pure sing-song in its accent extols the islanders as hard-working people, the selection of images and the intonation of the narrator slyly acknowledging the cliches. "A happy people with few and simple pleasures," the voice-over continues as the montage cuts to a spartan farmhouse, its front door open, out of which a dozen young children emerge. Simple pleasures. Aye, and hockmagandy's one of them!

An expansive cast, the screen time divvied up equitably between them, are introduced and their individual stories established with an economy comparable to John Carpenter's 'The Fog' (which also deals with a coastal community and a ship lost at sea; the horror in 'Whisky Galore!', however, is personified not by reanimated lepers but civil servants who want the whisky back ... the bastards!) There's Sgt Odd (Bruce Seton), visiting the isle of Todday (as in "hot toddy"; geddit?) on leave to propose to sweetheart Peggy Macroon (a radiant and husky Joan Greenwood) and wanting nothing to do with the Home Guard exercises arranged by Captain Waggett (Basil Radford) which are throwing the isle into turmoil and preventing Dr McLaren (James Robertson Justice) from doing his rounds. Then there's Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt), Peggy's sister, who also wants to tie the knot, but with local schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson). The problem is George's mother (Jean Cadell), a dour presbetyrian whose response to her grown-up son's assertion of his individuality is lock him in his bedroom over the weekend ("There'll be no church for you, George Campbell").

Mackendrick's portrayal of how religion imprisons the isle, even though whisky, cameraderie and laughter are the islanders' real joys, is the ace up the film's sleeve. It's what gives 'Whisky Galore!' enough bite to elevate it from a diverting example of light comedy to a bona fide classic and one of the jewels in Ealing's crown. In the most telling scene, the islanders are readying to row out to the floundering vessel (the barely-renamed S.S. Cabinet Minister) under the cover of darkness when the church bell sounds midnight. One of them puts down his oars and plods back home, opining that they can't go through with it. Why not? the others enquire. " 'Tis the Sabbath," comes the despondent reply. "Aye," someone else rejoins, sounding like all the life has gone out of them, "the Sabbath."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hobson's Choice

In one of the greatest tragi-comic scenes in British cinema, the corpulent, arrogant and very inebriated Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) stumbles out of his local watering hole, Moonrakers, after a contretemps with his drinking buddies. Stumbling down a short flight of steps, he finds himself clinging to a lamppost for support. It's at this point he sees the reflection of the moon in a puddle. Guided by a skinful of booze and accompanied by Malcolm Arnold's wonderful score, he undertakes to scoop it up, prancing in an absurdist ballet from one puddle to another only for the moon to be replaced, the moment he bends down, by the heavy-jowled moon of his own face. The moon slides from the rain-slicked street and reappears in the window of corn chandler (and Hobson's teetotal nemesis) Beenstock's office window. A poster leers from the wall: "DEFY THE DEMON DRINK". Hobson sneers at it, pirouettes and goes on his merry way. His next obstacle is a length of chain attached to some temporary posts fencing off a gaping aperture dropping down into Beenstock's cellar. Hobson valiantly extricates himself from the chain and the chain from around the posts and goes plummeting down the chute.

This is the scene everyone remembers from 'Hobson's Choice', but the two which precede it are crucial. In the first, Hobson stomps back into his shoeshop after an aperitif in Moonrakers and calls for his younger daughter Vicky (Prunella Scales) to provide dinner. She does: an unappetising slab of jellied tongue. He calls upon Alice (Daphne Anderson), his middle born daughter, to produce something better. She avers that she's been too busy minding the shop. Almost sheepishly, he asks Vicky what's for pudding. "Rhubarb," she retorts. This is the final straw and Hobson gathers himself up and storms out, declaring that he's going where he'll get the respect he's due. Cut to: Hobson in Moonrakers, the laughing stock of his acquaintances. Fuelled by self-righteousness indignation, Hobson offers them a few home truths then drunkenly exits the establishment.

So what's caused the Moonrakers' regulars to laugh it up over Henry Hobson? Well, it's all the doing of eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) and what she does is not without reason. The Hobson sisters have subjugated their own lives and ambitions to looking after their father since the death of the matriarch. (That's "looking after" as in minding the shop while he goes out drinking and cooking and cleaning up after him when he comes back.) Alice and Vicky both have beaus and Hobson is, to begin with, quite amenable at the prospect of marrying them off. Until he learns how much it would cost him in marriage settlements. The old skinflint can't conceive of spending money unless alcoholic beverages are supplied in return, and decrees that neither of them will marry. That he doesn't include Maggie in this is because he's already written her off as unmarriageable (early in the film he insensitively calls her "an old maid").

He reckons, however, without Maggie's cool, calculating intelligence; her determination; and her incisive business acumen. Determined to better herself and get free from her father's petty tyrannies, and savvy enough to know that she needs to operate within the accepted social norms to do so, Maggie's first hurdle is to find a husband. She looks no further than the cellar, where Willie Mossop (John Mills) thanklessly toils away, making the shoes that are so comfortable and popular they guarantee Hobson's customer base even if the front-of-house service leaves a lot to be desired. Willie is a man of timidity and zero ambition, which makes it much easier for Maggie. "Willie Mossop," she tells him, "you're my man." End of.

Next: a benefactor, and who better than moneyed socialite Mrs Hepworth (Helen Haye), already impressed at Mossop's talent with the leather and the last. Premises are found, materials acquired and Maggie and her new (and distinctly nervous) husband set to work. Flyers are printed up and distributed. One is distributed directly into Hobson's hand at Moonrakers, occasioning the merriment amongst his comrades that kicks off the argument-moon/puddle-Beenstock's cellar shenanigans described earlier. Hobson's outrage at his daughter and son-in-law's temerity knows no bounds - that his day-to-day existence quickly unravels without Maggie's sharp effeciency doesn't help - but when Beenstock sues for trespass and damages over the cellar incident, Hobson comes to realise that he'll need Maggie back on his side.

Adapted from Harold Brighouse's hit stageplay, 'Hobson's Choice' may have seemed an odd choice for David Lean. A comedy, and one with a pronounced sense of earthy, working-class Northern humour (it's set in Salford against the backdrop of the Manchester Ship Canal), the aesthetic seems at odds with Lean's previous outings, very few of which show even the vaguest trace elements of humour. His previous outing had been 'The Sound Barrier', a joyless mishmash of boy's own drooling over fast planes and new technology, and a tedious family/class/guilt/recrimination melodrama from the stilted pen of Terence Rattigan. Yet 'Hobson's Choice' is a classic of its kind, acutely observed, perfectly played and often laugh-out-loud funny. In addition to the moon in the puddle, an earlier scene in which Hobson, arriving home sozzled, stumbles back and forth before facing up to the staircase and pelting up it full tilt only to teeter on the top step is physical comedy as good as anything Laurel and Hardy did.

The cast are faultless. John Mills reveals himself as a fine comic actor, so good I found myself regretting the panoply of stiff-upper-lip roles he became known for. Prunella Scales (who would become one of the icons of British comedy twenty years later as Sybil Fawlty) and Daphne Anderson play off each other beautifully, particularly in a scene where they exit the shop in a huff, the bustles swishing in sync. Brenda De Banzie is a revelation, her transformation from spinster-in-waiting to radiant heroine never seeming forced or cliched. She is simply a woman who comes to radiate with the possibilities of what she can achieve. And then there's Charles Laughton. Imagine his Henry VIII with a jellied tongue instead of a leg of chicken; his Captain Bligh empirically ruling a shoeshop instead of a ship. It's a larger than life, deliberately theatrical, barnstorming performance and the fact that everyone else holds their own against it is probably the best indication of just how good 'Hobson's Choice' is.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Proud to be a blogger

With non-stop and ghoulish details being disseminated about Michael Jackson's death (the website of one major UK broadsheet gloatingly offers a "timeline" of his final hours), the passing of Farrah Fawcett seems to have been overlooked by the media.

That's why I'm proud to be a blogger. It's in the blogosphere that the heartfelt and deserving tributes are being made.

Arbogast touches on a conversation I had at work with a friend today - that your idols, the people who turned you on to film and TV and iconography, are the people you fell for when you were younger. Your idols will always be older than you. Your idols, therefore, will die during your lifetime. There's a real melancholy to that and Arbogast expresses it elegantly in his tribute.

There's a brief but also beautifully written article on Sergio Leone & the Infield Fly Rule, while The Classic Maiden posts a triptych of poignantly contrasting photographs. These are just a few of the many bloggers who have paid tribute to Ms Fawcett. For me, her death is perhaps more devastating that Michael Jackson's. His was sudden; hers the culmination of a hard-fought battle against cancer.

Encounters at the End of the World

The great thing about Werner Herzog (or rather, one of the many great things – great and weird and wonderful – about Werner Herzog) is that he doesn’t really adhere to any set definition of what cinema is, its construction or what it should do as an art form. He simply gets on with making his kind of cinema. And Herzog makes unique films. There aren’t many directors of whom you can say this – Powell and Pressburger for their romantic excesses; Ozu, at the other end of the spectrum, for his calmness and classicism – but Herzog’s films look different to other directors. Isolate just a few frames from virtually anything he’s made and it would immediately be apparent that those few frames were from a Herzog film. A film nobody else could have made.

Let’s go further. Werner Herzog doesn’t really adhere to any set definition of the documentary, either. On the face of it, this ought to be simple. Documentary: a non-fiction film that documents a specific subject. Hence “documentary”. Hell, you can even incorporate fictional scenes – from historically accurate re-enactments to pure supposition – and call it a “drama-documentary”. Easy to define, yet remarkably flexible in the approaches one can take. You can make documentaries that use only music and/or landscape. You can have one that’s just a blue screen with a voice-over. You can be subjective or objective. You can call it a documentary but deliver a polemic (anything by Michael Moore) or a work of propaganda (Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’).

Yet when Werner Herzog makes one, you might as well throw away the word documentary because no matter how flexible, how unconstrained in terms of cinematic language or construction, it’s still a definition. And definitions don’t work with Herzog, even here where ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is ostensibly one of the Bavarian director’s more accessible works.

I say accessible because it’s not obtuse (or baffling) as ‘Fata Morgana’, not as impressionistic as ‘Lessons of Darkness’, and not as emotionally devastating in its search for what Herzog terms “ecstatic truth” as ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’. In a nutshell, and Herzog himself sets this out in his typically dry voice-over at the start, this is what ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is about:

Inspired by the stunning underwater photography of his friend Henry Kaiser, Herzog travels to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica under whose gargantuan ice floes Kaiser’s footage was shot. Herzog meets scientists, engineers and eccentrics and determines that he doesn’t want to make “another film about penguins”.

In fact, it’s more easy to categorise what ‘Encounters’ isn’t about. It’s not about global warming, climate change or mankind’s impact on the planet, even though the way Herzog films the wreckage of a helicopter or a juggernaut trundling through the shanty-like buildings that comprise McMurdo makes an environmental point as effectively as anything in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or ‘The 11th Hour’. It’s not about the nature of the research carried out there, even though Herzog gives over chunks of screen time to talking heads whose expositional verbiage threatens to become white noise. It’s not about how you have to be a little bit crazy to work at McMurdo, even though Herzog unblinkingly films a woman contorting herself inside a piece of hand luggage, and two middle-aged scientists with electric guitars throwing shapes against the implacable expanse of the ice fields. And it’s not about penguins, even though the most memorable shot in the film features one.

Ah, yes: the penguin. Despite his disparaging voice-over, Herzog can’t avoid them and penguins totter inevitably into his film. An interview with ecologist David Ainley, in which Herzog blandly eggs the scientist on to a discussion of penguin sexuality (apparently a form of prostitution has been observed on the floes), segues into footage of a lone penguin breaking from its comrades and tottering off in the wrong direction. Ahead, hundreds of miles of nothing, rising to massive glacial peaks. Herzog’s camera frames the frozen wasteland, the penguin receding to a tiny dot as it wobbles off to almost certain death.

I started this blog because of Werner Herzog. He was the subject of my first half dozen or so posts and more than a few subsequently. I’d be lying if I said writing about his work was easy. You can talk about the visuals – few film-makers have ventured as far afield as Herzog and come back with such a striking testament to the danger as well as the grandeur of the natural world. You can talk about the inspired lunacy of some of his projects. You can mention opera, rivers, flight, deserts, grizzly bears and now a suicidal penguin … but you’d just be writing lists of things at that point.

Towards the end of the film, Herzog speculates as to what aliens, arriving on earth long after the disappearance of the human race, would make of the remains of McMurdo; what questions they would ask. They would probably find the answers if they stumbled across Herzog’s filmography – or at least start asking the questions that mattered. In its own demented way, that lone penguin says something about the human race that’s equal parts poignant, pathetic and haunting.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Visual poetry: I Know Where I'm Going!

Having posted some 800 words yesterday in praise of 'I Know Where I'm Going!', I seriously doubt that I've even scratched the surface in terms of just how utterly visually stunning it is. Nor do I think I can achieve this without recourse to the film's imagery itself. Therefore I'm borrowing a style of entry from Jeremy at Moon in the Gutter: a selection of images that distill the essence of the movie.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: I Know Where I'm Going!

The penultimate of Powell and Pressburger's wartime collaborations, 'I Know Where I'm Going!' is beautifully simple in terms of narrative and yet yields more and more with each successive viewing.

Ambitious twenty-something Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) has bagged herself a rich older man, Sir Robert Berringer, CEO of Consolidated Chemical Industries. The date set for their wedding, she begins a journey which will take her to the Scottish Isles, specifically the isle of Killoran which she is led to believe Berringer owns. Arriving at Tobermory, a storm prevents her from crossing to Killoran. While the storm rages and Joan impatiently waits, she makes the acquaintance of some of Sir Robert's toffee-nosed friends, as well as Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a navy officer on leave and also wanting to make it to the island.

In quick succession, Joan learns from the locals that Sir Robert is a parvenu ("quite the little king, he is"), that MacNeil is the actual Laird of Kiloran (he leases the island out: "if I rent it for three years, I can live on it for six - Highland economics"), that MacNeil's friends are the opposite of Sir Robert's (earthy instead of stuffy, full of life instead of half dead), and that - most troublingly of all - she's starting to fall for him.

Desparate now to make the crossing, her entreaties to boatman Ruairidh Mhor (Finlay Currie) fall on deaf ears, so she bribes his impressionable son Kenny (Murdo Morrison). But the storm proves the least of their worries when the diminutive boat gets under way and the raging whirlpool that is Corryvreckan threatens to drag all on board to their deaths ...

As he had proved with his pre-Pressburger masterpiece 'The Edge of the World', Michael Powell was an Englishman in love with the rugged landscape, ancient mysticism and cultural heritage of Scotland (and in this respect a man after my own heart). Many a film has drawn from a Scottish setting its inspiration, its flavour and its wry humour - 'Whisky Galore!' (up next on the personal faves project) and 'Local Hero' being sterling examples. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' takes gold to their silver and bronze.

It also belongs to a tradition in cinema that stretches back to the very beginning of the art form, that of an investigation into the urban vs the pastoral, the city vs the country; a tradition perhaps best epitomised in silent film by F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans'. There is much in 'I Know Where I'm Going!' that evokes the cinematic purity of silent movies. The voice-over accompanying the opening sequence could easily be a series of title cards interspersing the imaginative tableaux that sketch in Joan's growth from small child to young woman, a fixation on self-betterment greedily evident at every stage.

Subsequent scenes depict Joan in her element - a city girl, in fancy restaurants, trendy clubs; in charge, in control; dead certain of everything. Her idea of Scotland, however, is woefully naive: some words on a map, a snatch of the hackneyed old song "Ye Tak the High Road", a dream of her train trundling through a tartan landscape. The real Scotland is as fiercely elemental as it is beautiful. Weather is a metaphor for the passion that becomes aroused in Joan; a force she cannot control. Almost immediately on arrival, a strong gust of wind rips Sir Robert's carefully compiled itinerary from her hand and deposits it in the harbour. The storm dashes her plans of marrying him. Corryvreckan nearly drowns her. Ultimately, though, it's her wedding dress that's lost to the waves, and Joan is freed from the falsity of her engagement to Sir Robert and a marriage that would have been founded on materialism.

Anti-materialism was something of a theme in Powell and Pressburger's work. 'A Canterbury Tale' was a hymn to everyday miracles. In 'A Matter of Life and Death', art and science are the noble pursuits. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' values tradition, loyalty and comradeship. When Joan remarks that many of the islanders are poor, MacNeil corrects her: "They're not poor, they just don't have money." City girl that she is, Joan mistakenly believes the two states of being are synonymous.

If the sentiment sounds twee - the kind of message that many a Hollywood production would labour - the execution is anything but. In 'Arrows of Desire', his illuminating but too-brief study of Powell and Pressburger's work, Ian Christie notes that some scenes have "a rare cinematic intensity ... A fable of the age-old opposition between head and heart, the corruption of riches and the collision between commerce and tradition, becomes also a fable of post-war optimism."

But not restricted to post-war audiences. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' is a fable for any age, a timeless and life-affirming work of art, visually beautiful and emotionally transcendental.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

And then the screaming stopped

I'd been enjoying June's ad hoc horror season. I'd got 'The Eye' lined up as the next title in the personal faves project, with 'Pan's Labyrinth' after that. I was planning a lycanthropic double bill of 'The Howling' and 'Ginger Snaps'. A trawl through the DVD collection produced 'Witchfinder General', 'The Tenant', 'The Devil's Backbone' and a goodly number of others. Even the stuff that wasn't first tier, I decided, could be shoehorned into an overview/compare-and-contrast kind of article. I'd also started sketching out an article deconstructing what's cathartically pleasurable about the horror genre and what's just plain unpleasant. I was looking forward to the the frisson of fear shivering its way down the spine of the next fortnight.

Then I got a call at work this afternoon. My wife's aunt had suddenly and unexpectedly been rushed into hospital last night. She passed away at 1pm. This afternoon has been, at one and the same time, lasted as long as a year and gone by in a split-second blur. That makes no sense at all and is incredibly clumsily expressed, but it's the only way I can describe it.

I didn't know my wife's aunt all that well - I'd met her a handful of times, had a couple of brief conversations; enough to know that I liked her - but even grief experienced at one remove is a powerful and devastating thing. I have seldom felt as useless on a emotional level, murmuring condolences and driving people where they needed to go and wishing I could do something, than I did today. And yet, curiously, I also felt an unshakable certainty that I had to do those small but practical things, to provide as calm and sensitive an influence as I could.

And sensitivity being paramount, it's hardly appropriate that I continue this diet of horror movies. The above mentioned DVDs have been slotted back into the cabinet. I'll be taking a few days off from blogging. The Agitation of the Mind will back, with less gory content, hopefully some time next week.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Scream trilogy

The horror film was in a moribund state in the mid-90s. The stalk ‘n’ slash genre had reached not so much its apogee (it never really had one) but a point of saturation the previous decade, endless ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ sequels and equally innumerable micro-budget imitators adding up to a graveyard of stock characters and shopworn clichés.

Then along came Kevin Williamson and a whip-smart script loaded with post-modern irony which managed to have its cake and eat it by effortlessly operating within the very generic conventions it so satirically sent up. That script was entitled ‘Scary Movie’ (a titled later hijacked by for increasingly unfunny franchise of puerile comedies founded on spoofing a film that was itself a spoof … only in Hollywood!), and it found its way to Wes Craven.

Craven had the horror genre in his blood – he made his directorial debut with ‘Last House on the Left’, made the original, gut-wrenchingly tense ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and scored a massive hit with the first ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. He revisited the franchise six films down the line with the much underrated ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’, something of a precursor to ‘Scream’ in its self-reflexive approach to genre material.

‘New Nightmare’ failed to find an audience, however, and his follow-up ‘Vampire in Brooklyn’ fared no better. ‘Scream’ changed all that, giving Craven a career renaissance which only faltered with ‘Cursed’ as well as paving the way for a stalk ‘n’ slash revival headed by Jim Gillespie’s ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (from a script by Williamson that jettisoned the ironies of ‘Scream’ and played the whole thing straight), which snowballed into the “torture porn” movement epitomised by Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’ and saw virtually every key horror movie of the ’70s remade and eagerly gobbled up by a new generation of gore hounds (although not, and the power Christ compels Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production from ever getting their mitts on it, ‘The Exorcist’).

‘Scream’ tips its hat to Craven’s most iconic creation, with the director himself appearing, in Freddy sweater and hat, as a school janitor (elsewhere, one of the high school students name-checks ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ as their favourite scary movie, adding “the sequels sucked, though”), as well as slyly evoking a panoply of classic creepfests. You’ve got the white picket fences of ‘Blue Velvet’, the tree-lined avenues of ‘Halloween’, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from ‘Exorcist’ star Linda Blair, and more video-store movie geek references than you can shake a knife at.

Better still, ‘Scream’ pays lip service to the interchangeable victims of so many slashers by having a smart and snarky cast – resilient survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell), sassy best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), wiseass film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy), hardass reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and affable but hapless Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) – happily mock them even as the body count piles up.

The little matter of the killer’s identity (or did I put that apostrophe in the wrong place?) is almost beside the point. Plot mechanics, sleight of hand and a working knowledge of the genre are Craven and Williamson’s touchstones here. ‘Scream’ is a movie movie and as self-consciously cool as anything in Tarantino’s ouvre.

A sequel was inevitable. Let’s face it, which even moderately success horror film hasn’t spawned at least a couple of sequels if not a bona fide franchise? “By definition alone, sequels are inferior films,” Randy pontificates, setting off a film class debate as to whether ‘Aliens’ outclasses its predecessor or ‘House II: The Second Story’ represents the pinnacle of that particular saga. Later, he succinctly lays out the rules of the sequel: higher body count (check: it’s double the first film) and more elaborate death scenes.

A friend of mine believes that the slow start and theatrical denouement are deliberate ploys by Craven to pitch ‘Scream 2’ as a slightly less satisfying film than the original – a bravura decision if it that was the case. In my opinion, though, ‘Scream 2’ is the better film: the high water mark of the trilogy. And it works so well because of its theatricality.

Craven has stated that ‘Scream 2’ was specifically conceived as a sequel about sequels. But it goes a lot further than that. The plot has Sidney trying to forge a new life for herself and integrate into university (her drama teacher – David Warner in an effective cameo – encourages her to use art as catharsis by taking on the role of Cassandra in a student production of the Greek tragedy) while shadows from the past continue to plague her, not least Gale Weathers’ sensationalist book ‘The Woodboro Murders’ and its unsubtly-titled movie adaptation ‘Stab!’

‘Scream 2’ opens with a double murder at the ‘Stab!’ premier, the killings intercut with footage from the film which basically replays the opening sequence of ‘Scream’ (but done in deliberately naff exploitative fashion). Heather Graham essays the Drew Barrymore role and – later – we see Tori Spelling interviewed about her role as Sidney (a nifty in-joke, Dewey commenting in the first film that “a young Meg Ryan” would be ideal to play Sidney in the inevitable movie only for Sidney to muse that “knowing my luck they’d cast Tori Spelling”).

Sidney, then, is dealing with a kind of warped celebrity – one she doesn’t want. Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber), exonerated after a year in prison for the killing of Sidney’s mother, wants the limelight: clearing his name is not enough – he views celebrity and the financial rewards that go with it as compensation for the year of his life lost to incarceration.

The killer wants their fifteen minutes of fame (or rather infamy): “I got my whole defense planned out. I'm gonna blame the movies ... This [the spate of murders] is just the beginning, a prelude to the trial … These days it’s all about the trial. Can you see it? The effects of cinema violence on society. I’ll get Dershowitz or Cochran to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. Hell, the Christian Coalition’ll pay my legal fees.”

This, for me, is what kicks ‘Scream 2’ up a notch. If ‘Scream’ is a skit on the conventions of genre movies with the odd sideswipe at the media, then ‘Scream 2’ not only sends up sequels but raises questions about the media in all of its forms – reporting, publishing, cinema, theatre, the cult of celebrity – and how it disseminates horror as entertainment, as well as the audiences who lap it up, ie. us. That the killer delivers the rationale quoted above against the backdrop of the ‘Cassandra’ stage production makes it all the juicier.

‘Scream 3’, then, had a lot to live up to. Craven returned to the fold, but with Williamson busy on other projects scripting duties went to Ehren Kruger, working from notes sketched out by Williamson. With a name like that, he was pretty much destined to work with Craven. And while his continuation of the series is thematically in keeping with the previous instalments, it’s nonetheless disappointing that the whole trilogy couldn’t have been a unified writer/director collaboration.

Kruger’s set-up takes its cue from the film-within-a-film of ‘Scream 2’ and has the set of the in-production ‘Stab 3’ as backdrop to, yup, another spate of murders. Sidney takes something of a backseat, spending the first half of the film living in seclusion while dealing with memories/hallucinations of her mother. Meanwhile, Dewey and Gale are drawn into the escalating tensions on set, Dewey working as an ‘advisor’ on the production and dating the star of ‘Stab 3’, Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey). Jennifer is playing Gale, and relations prove fractious when Gale herself turns up at the studio in pursuit of a story.

With the self-reflexive inclusion of ‘Stab’ already used to its fullest in ‘Scream 2’, and the under-use of Sidney leaving the film curiously devoid of a protagonist (the script never really settles on Dewey or Gale or any of the new characters as the focus of the narrative), ‘Scream 3’ doesn’t engage or cohere as effectively as its predecessors. There are a couple of effective set pieces and the Gale/Jennifer interplay makes for some spiky comedy, but none of this can disguise the fact that the series had simply run out of ideas by this point.

Sadly, it seemed to mark a downturn in the fortunes of its creative team. Craven and Williamson reteamed for the disastrous ‘Cursed’, which Craven followed up with the formulaic thriller ‘Red Eye’. Williamson’s directorial debut ‘Teaching Mrs Tingle’ (the original title, ‘Killing Mrs Tingle’, was subject to a hasty rethink post-Columbine) flopped. Much of his work as writer has since been for TV.

With ‘Scream 4’ in the offing, is there anything to be excited about – even with Williamson scripting again – or will the biggest scream be that of the flogged horse just as it expires? I fear part three has already proved that they tried to go an irony too far.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It lives!

Continued from yesterday’s melodramatic and adjective-spattered entry …

The weary and dejected figure of the daemon blogger detached itself from the computer late last night and, pausing only to howl at the moon and pour another glass of pinot grigio, trudged evilly into the marble-floored bedchamber and heaved itself onto the Ikea bottom-of-the-range coffin (okay, bed actually, but I’m still in the mood to grant myself poetic licence!)

Bride of blogger turned cool appraising eyes on her daemon lover and enquired in dulcet tones, “So what was all the swearing about?”

“The memory stick, my preccccciousssssss,” daemon blogger lisped. “Lost to me and all it contains.”

“So you broke it then?”


“What was on it that you needed so badly.”

“An article on the ‘Scream’ trilogy. 1,500 words.”

“When did you write that?”

A horrible sound gurgled through the night air. It was daemon blogger coughing and saying, “At work,” at the same time.

With a rolling of the eyes – for bride of blogger had a strong work ethic and knew a fearful curse would fall on her should she ever do stuff like that on the firm’s time (the Curse, ’twas called, of the Written Warning) – she held out her hand for the memory stick. Daemon blogger handed the wretched talisman over, drank deep of his pinot grigio and slipped into an agitated slumber …

… only to waken, some time later, as thunder boomed through the heavens and see, illuminated in a jagged flash of lightning, bride of blogger jamming the memory stick into a USB port at an unnatural angle, like a maniac’s knife twisting in a wound, and crying, “Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiivvvve! Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiivvvve!”

And so it was, by sheer brute force triumphing over any semblance of technical know-how, the 1,500 word article on the ‘Scream’ trilogy was brought back to life. Thrill to its reanimated corpse on this very blog tomorrow.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The horror, the horror

It was a dark and stormy night. Rainclouds the colour of hearses loomed above Nottingham. From the upper room of a gothic slab of architecture (actually a nondescript semi-detached house, but fuck it I’m not in a happy mood and I’m allowing myself a little poetic licence), came the banshee-like blood-curdling howl of …

the blogger.

The blogger was a creature of evil and cunning, a creature that didn’t care about petty rules and whether it was right or wrong to spend a slow afternoon at work composing a 1,500 word article on the ‘Scream’ trilogy – 1,500 words that alternated between incisive film writing and flippant sarcasm; 1,500 words that gave him great pleasure to write. An article he spent the afternoon anticipating uploading to the blogosphere along with a triptych of illustrative material.

An article he swiped from his “My Documents” folder at work and bunged onto a memory stick.

A memory stick that suffered a violent mishap between the dungeon and the crypt (sorry, I mean between work and home). A memory stick which is now as dead as a vampire with a garlic seasoned stake in its heart, a werewolf gut shot by a silver bullet and one in the head for good measure (“ba-da-bing, ya fockin’ lycanthrope mook”) or a zombie shot in the head, burned and had the piss taken out of it by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg for good measure.

All of which wouldn’t be much of a big deal if it were simply a matter of going into work tomorrow, putting the article on the spare memory stick or emailing it to my home account, and posting it on The Agitation of the Mind a day later than scheduled.

Only …

Worried that the powers that be at work might be suspicious of his article-writing activities (our daemon blogger can’t post from work as the company’s server filters internet access to deny, amongst other things, “weblogs and social interaction”), a quick culling of non-work-related material was executed this afternoon.

If, by some deus ex machina, I didn’t send the ‘Scream’ trilogy article to cyberspace purgatory – or I can retrieve it – look out for it tomorrow. Otherwise, a wailing and a gnashing of teeth may be heard from chez Agitation as yours truly vents his spleen, blows his top, throws his toys out of the pram, gets it off his chest then sits down to rework the article from word go.

After all, T.E. Lawrence left the first draft (and his only copy) of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ on a train and promptly started re-writing that 700-page motherfucker from scratch, so what’s my excuse?

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Right. I’m going to kick off this piece with a bit of straight-up, unapologetic opinionism:

‘The Thing’ is to the horror movie what Beethoven’s 9th is to the symphony, what Henri Cartier-Bresson is to photography and what Talisker is to single malt whisky. It’s the bee’s knees; the mutt’s nuts; the daddy; da bomb.

I dig ‘The Thing’. Here’s a few equally superlative-laden paragraphs to explain why.

Did I mention that Dean Cundey’s cinematography was one of the chief assets of ‘The Fog’? That goes double here. Of the five John Carpenter films he shot – and all of them look amazing – ‘The Thing’ boasts easily the most impressive visuals. The anamorphic ratio is used to astounding effect. Cundey’s work here puts him in the same league as Lucien Ballard, Vittorio Storaro or Roger Deakins. Besides, you’ve got to love someone who has ‘Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ on their CV.

Bill Lancaster’s script is tight as a snare-drum, shucking off the McCarthyist undertones of Howard Hughes’ original (‘The Thing From Another World’) and getting back to the isolationism and clammy paranoia of the source material, the short story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell. It avoids politics other than to have Nauls (T.K. Carter) speculate, “Maybe we’re at war with Norway.”

The incident that occasions this conjecture is a superbly realised set-piece which opens the film. A husky runs panting through the wastes of Antarctica, towards United States National Science Institute Station 4, whose mismatched occupants are weathering a particularly ferocious winter and unable to effect radio contact with the outside world. The husky is being pursued by a helicopter from a Scandinavian research complex. The two Norwegians in said whirlybird use semi-automatic rifles and grenades against it, but demonstrate terminal incompetency. Not only does every shot miss, but one of them drops a grenade into the snow as the helicopter sets down, blowing up both ’copter and pilot and barely escaping with his own life. When he stalks the husky into Station 4, letting rip with another pathetically aimed burst of fire, base commander Garry (Donald Moffat) proves himself a considerably better shot and the Norwegian is despatched before anyone can ask themselves – and they certainly can’t ask him now – just why it was so important to whack the dog.

While pilot MacCready (Kurt Russell) and medico Dr Copper (Richard Dysart) brave the bad weather and fly to the Norwegian base – they find everyone dead, the place half burned to the ground, and the remains of something that doesn’t look human – tensions rise at Station 4 and it’s not long before Garry’s crew have more to worry about than Nauls playing his music too loud or MacCready accusing the computer of cheating at a chess game and tipping a glass of J&B into the mainframe.

If the presence of J&B evokes the giallo, then the ice station is as effective a backdrop to the carnage that ensues as any fashion house or stylish apartment building, and who needs a black-gloved killer with a fetish for broken dolls and sharp knives when a shape-changing alien thingie is running around killing the cast off in a various horrific ways, assimilating them into its physiognomy and imitating them in order to get close to its next intended victim.

One of the scientists, Blair (Wilford Brimley), postulates that if the creature were to make contact with a heavily populated area the effects on humankind would be apocalyptic: mass infection within 27,000 hours. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and Blair reacts by going loco, smashing the radio to pieces, destroying supplies and equipment, and disabling the snow-cat.

MacCready, coming to the fore as a leader when Garry almost shoots Childs (Keith David) and resigns his position professing no further confidence in himself, overpowers Blair and orders him locked away. Urging everyone to stay together and “watch who you’re with”, MacCready is nonetheless powerless to prevent further deaths. Mistrust runs rife. Rivalries surface. There is speculation that MacCready himself is the thing.

The blood reaction test MacCready devises to prove who’s who is a showstopper in a film wall-to-wall with tense set-pieces, edgy confrontations and jump-out-of-your seat moment. Carpenter generates tension worthy of Hitchcock. Elsewhere, Rob Bottin’s FX work is nothing short of miraculous for a film made twenty-seven years ago and without a pixel of CGI. If H.R. Giger’s work on ‘Alien’ was terrifying, Bottin’s achieves the sweaty clamminess of a waking nightmare, grotesqueries out of Hieronymus Bosch come to life.

‘The Thing’ is Carpenter’s masterwork: there isn’t an ounce of flab on the film; there isn’t an image or a line of dialogue that doesn’t empirically contribute to the overall sense of gnawing tension and unremitting dread. ‘The Thing’ is one of the darkest horror films there is – not because it’s visceral, unflinching and dripping with gruesome effects (although it certainly ticks all of those boxes and then some), but because the horror comes from the darkest place of all: the human condition.

‘The Thing’ throws a group of ordinary people (ordinary in the sense that, while they might be pilots, doctors or scientists, they’re ultimately just a bunch of guys doing a job and it’s generally a shitty job and they bitch about it and bitch at each other and in short behave exactly how men in any job behave) – next to Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘The Thing’ is one of cinema’s most acutely-observed statements on masculine interaction – into an extraordinary situation and observes how little friendship, camaraderie and calm, reasonable behaviour count for anything once a huge dose of paranoia has been injected into the proceedings.

And having done this, it segues from an explosive denouement to an open-ended coda, signing off with an enigma in place of an ending, and making sure ‘The Thing’ will rattle around in your mind, in your imagination, in your subconscious for plenty of time to come. Years, in my case.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Fog

Posted to coincide with Adrienne Barbeau’s 64th birthday.

There is much to like about ‘The Fog’ – its effortlessly eerie atmosphere, Dean Cundey’s glorious widescreen cinematography, Carpenter’s minimalist score – but where it excels is in its economy of narrative and characterisation.

A pre-credits sequence in which old-timer Mr Machen (John Houseman) tells a campfire tale to a group of children pretty much sets the whole film up in less than five minutes. This done, we’re introduced in quick succession to our half-dozen protagonists: DJ Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau), hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), boatman Nick (Tom Atkins), mayor Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh), her PA Sandy (Nancy Loomis) and alcoholic priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook).

These characters and their interactions (in more ways than one in the case of Nick and Elizabeth who, unlike Kelly Clarkson, do hook up – and do so without any preliminaries) also help establish the film’s locale. Antonio Bay is a coastal town on the eve of its 100th anniversary celebrations. While Kathy oversees the preparations, Stevie broadcasts about the event from her station (housed in an isolated lighthouse). One person not in a party mood is Father Malone, whose discovery of his grandfather’s journal reveals that the town was founded on an act of murder.

In brief, a rich leper named Blake pays good money to Antonio Bay’s founding fathers so he could establish a colony nearby. Horrified at the prospect, but seduced by greed, they ruthlessly betray him. Fires lit on the beaches – ostensibly to guide Blake’s ship, the ‘Elizabeth Dane’, to safe mooring – lure it onto the rocks. All onboard perish. One hundred years later, the sea gives up its dead (well, Blake’s contingent of them anyway) and it’s vengeance-a-go-go.

John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s script is a symphony of spooky set-pieces, often leapfrogging from one ghostly bit of business to the next with such single-mindedness that the plot devices connecting them have a wonderfully admirable sense of honesty about them when, by any set of objective critical perameters, they ought seem hokey, contrived and laughable.

Need a piece of exposition vis-a-vis the dark secret the township was built on and the relevance of it being the 100th anniversary – one, moreover, that implicates Father Malone’s grandfather? Have a brick fall out of the rectory wall revealing granddad’s diary shortly before Kathy and Sandy turn up for no other reason than Malone can sit them down and read the pertinent entries to them. Oh yeah, and have this happen just after midnight on the day of the anniversary.

Need a primer that the vengeful ghosts will take their cutlasses and fish-hooks to six unlucky individuals, this being the number of original conspirators? Have someone find a piece of driftwood bearing the lettering ‘DANE’ (guess where it came from? and while you’re guessing, please overlook the fact that the ship went down a century ago!) and then have the lettering change mysteriously to ‘SIX MUST DIE’.

Okay, those last couple of paragraphs are as redolent with nitpicking as they are with cheap sarcasm and probably make it sound like I’m knocking ‘The Fog’. Far from it. It’s one of my favourite Carpenter movies, the equal of ‘Halloween’ and surpassed only by ‘The Thing’; and it speaks for itself that the contrivances of its construction – which would annoy the hell out of me in any other movie – somehow add to the pleasure of ‘The Fog’.

I think this owes to seeing it at a young age. ‘The Fog’ was one of the rare horror films my father let me stay up and watch. War movies and westerns were his preference – staying up was permissible when ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ were on – but he didn’t like horror. A child’s imagination is an open window and for me ‘The Fog’ wasn’t just a horror film: it was a distillation of all the horror films the old man hadn’t let me watch. It was everything I’d imagined they were like.

I don’t tend to get misty-eyed over my childhood or spend time dwelling on the past, but in some respects it was great being a kid. Particularly where movies were concerned. Staying up late to watch a “grown up” movie – awesome! – and not having my enjoyment spoiled because I had the critical facilities to deconstruct, analyse and weigh up whether it was good or bad. I had no idea back then of what a plot device was, or a plot hole, or a contrivance. The “why?” of things never mattered. It was all about getting caught up in what was happening, holding your breath during the scary bits and relishing that delicious shiver when something creeped you out.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Shining

As a corrective to the rather heavy-handed statement in my last post that I prefer Stephen King as a writer of short fiction, that’s not to say that he hasn’t written some bloody brilliant novels. And there’s a strong case to be made for ‘The Shining’ as the best of them. Dark, unflinching, compelling, it boasts one of the best opening sentences in the English language and moves inexorably towards an explosive climax.

In his introduction to the latest edition, King describes it as “a ‘crossroads novel’, where the writer is presented with a choice: either doing what you have done before, or try to reach a little higher”. His choice with ‘The Shining’ was whether to carry on writing what is essentially a haunted house story, or delve a little deeper into Jack Torrance’s psychology, particularly in terms of his relationship with his abusive father and his problems with alcohol. As King put it, “instead of changing from a relatively nice guy to a two-dimensional villain … Jack Torrance became a more realistic (and therefore more frightening) figure … a killer [motivated] because of childhood abuse as well as those ghostly forces …”

Stanley Kubrick, adapting the novel with Diane Johnson, omits Torrance’s thorny relationship with his father and gives the alcoholism issue only the most fleeting mention. The narrative arc of Torrance’s descent into madness is more carefully in the novel (the film casts Torrance in a fairly sinister light early on and loses no time in having him behave irrationally as soon as he and his family are installed in The Overlook). The character of Wendy, a sympathetic and quite resilient character in the novel, is remodelled as simpering, irritating and finally hysterical. The topiary animals are jettisoned in favour of a maze, the facts pertaining to Halloran’s return to The Overlook differ significantly and the denouement is a complete divergence.

On the whole, it’s easy to appreciate King’s dislike of the film and his famous remark “that Kubrick set out to make a horror film with no apparent understanding of the genre” is cruelly accurate. Kubrick and Johnson throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix – Indian burial ground, ghosts in the bath, ghosts in the ballroom, ghosts getting up to weird kinky stuff in animal costumes, creepy ghost kids in the corridors, elevators vomiting blood, history repeating itself, Freudian imagery, Laingian behaviourism, a WTF final shot that’s probably still fuelling discussion forums – but never really settle on what tips Torrance over the edge, beyond a severe case of writer’s block. Which isn’t to say writer’s block can’t be frustrating, but it doesn’t make you take an axe to your family.

All told, ‘The Shining’ ought to be an abject failure as an adaptation and, as a film, little more than a feature length advert for Garrett Brown’s Steadicam (Brown not only invented Steadicam, but shot all the sequences in ‘The Shining’ that utilise it, including Danny Torrance pedalling around The Overlook on a tricycle and the climactic scene in the maze). And yet, after a lukewarm critical reception on its original release, it’s now revered as a modern classic and, at time of writing, ranks at 53 on IMDb’s Top 250 list. So what went right?

Well, almost everything bar direction and performances, and even the over-the-top performances aren’t necessarily the fault of the actors. John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick quotes editor Gordon Stainforth: “That long tracking shot where Jack Nicholson pursues Shelley Duvall up the staircase … was taken fifty or sixty times. Typically, Nicholson’s first take would be absolutely brilliant. Then the thing would start to get stale after ten takes. Then you can see he’s almost marking time … Then he’s going right over the top. The impression I got was that Stanley tended to go for the most eccentric and rather over-the-top ones.”

What ‘The Shining’ does right is establish an atmosphere of unease straightaway. The girls in the corridor (“we want you to play with us, Danny, for ever and ever and ever”) and the blood spewing out of the elevator are iconic images and are still being homaged, thirty years down the line, by the likes of ‘Family Guy’. The music, a very minimal original score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind supplemented with eerie soundscapes by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, would give you the creeps if it was laid over a Rice Krispies ad, let alone married to Kubrick’s ominous visuals.

The Overlook is a splendid creation, a disquieting and disorientating place that’s virtually the main character in its own right. While some exteriors were shot at the Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, Oregon, a full scale exterior was built at EMI’s Elstree studios, along with sets for the interiors. The awesome helicopter shots of Torrance’s VW negotiating winding mountain roads that open the film were second unit footage. Kubrick, as was his wont, never left England for the shooting of the project. Interiors for The Overlook were chiefly inspired by Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel, while the white-and-red headache of a restroom where, in the film’s most chilling scene, Torrance’s mind is poisoned against his family by the ghost of his predecessor Delbert Grady (a quietly terrifying Philip Stone), was based, according to Vincent LoBrutto in his exhaustive biography, “on a men’s room in an Arizona hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

I’ve come across the phrase “architecture porn” on various blogs, mainly in connection with ‘North by Northwest’ and its almost erotic fixation on the Lloyd Wright-esque stylisations of Vandamm’s hillside lair. A great phrase, and entirely apposite for Hitchcock’s classic. Kubrick’s film, however, is less a porno than an architectural snuff movie. The cumulative effect is visually overpowering: death by set design. Seriously, just the fucking carpets are enough to drive you to madness.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Mist

I much prefer Stephen King’s short stories to his novels. Focused, compelling and free of the increasingly self-reflexive verbiage that mars some of his longer works, King excels when he simply and cleanly tells a story.

He’s also a master of that curious, much maligned, not-quite-one-thing-not-quite-the-other literary beast, the novella.

‘The Mist’ was one of his first novellas to be collected, in the anthology ‘Skeleton Crew’. In his notes section (another thing I love about King as a short story writer: he always includes the literary equivalent of liner notes), he describes ‘The Mist’ as having a “cheery cheesiness – you’re supposed to see this one in black-and-white … with a big speaker stuck in the window. You make up the second feature.”

This, for me, is the key to appreciating Frank Darabont’s divisive adaptation. Which isn’t to say “ah, Frank Darabont has deliberately made a B-movie, replete with low-budget locations, stock characters and slightly naff special effects”. It’s a reasonably accurate summarising comment, but Darabont has fashioned something a tad more sneaky and subversive than that.

Before we go any further, let’s offer a handful of peanuts to the elephant in the room and talk about the special cinematic relationship between Frank Darabont and Stephen King.

IMDb lists 109 credits for King as a writer, with another seven in development. This takes into account both work written directly for the screen (from his original screenplay ‘Sleepwalkers’ to his “novel for television” ‘Storm of the Century’ by way of his ‘X Files’ episode) and adaptations by other writers/directors of his original novels and stories. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the likes of ‘Sometimes They Come Back’ and ‘Children of the Corn’ (30-page stories dragged out to feature length running times and made on the cheap) have grown into veritable franchises. ‘CotC’ has notched up seven instalments, not counting an imminent TV remake of the first film!

Filtering out TV credits and direct-to-video fodder results in a more manageable list. Further reducing it to films that are actually good – setting the criteria as titles included in the DVD collection or that I’ve watched or would be happy to watch more than once; and allowing for ‘Christine’ as a guilty pleasure – and suddenly it’s barely at double figures. And of this select company, Darabont’s much-beloved debut ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is surely the reigning king of Kings. (Sorry, that was an utterly dreadful and borderline unforgivable pun. I won’t do it again.) There’s a case to be made, with ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Misery’ close to the top spot, that King’s non-supernatural tales have made the transition to the big screen more successfully than the out-and-out horrors for which he’s best known … but I’ll leave that for another article.

The Stephen King adaptations that do work have had big name directors behind them: Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Rob Reiner, Taylor Hackford. But it’s Darabont who has distinguished himself with, to date, four adaptations: ‘The Woman in the Room’ (a 30-minute short), ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘The Green Mile’ and most recently ‘The Mist’. Which King likens, in its original novella form, to a “cheesy” drive-in movie.

Which is where we came in.

Darabont’s film follows the novella’s story arc pretty faithfully for most of its running time: a violent storm lashes a lakeside community whose denizens are made up of affluent out-of-towners who own summerhouses and considerably less affluent locals who don’t. Damage is done to said summerhouses, most notably a flattening of graphic artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane)’s boathouse and neighbour Brent Norton (Andre Braugher)’s vintage Mercedes sports car. At loggerheads over a property dispute, Drayton and Norton share an awkward car ride into town to buy supplies from a W—Mart-style shopping centre*. A mist rolls in and brings something with it. Something unspeakable and with lots of tentacles. Something that gets its jollies dragging people into the mist and emasculating them.

Trapped inside the shopping mart, tensions run high between the haves and have-nots. Norton won’t have it that there’s an evil beastie outside and starts some shit with Drayton. Loudmouthed and yellow-bellied local Jim (William Sadler) gets someone killed and when Drayton doles out a tongue-lashing takes against him. Oh yes, it’s powder keg stuff all right and those big ole pterodactyl-like things bashing against the window aren’t helping the frayed nerves.

So what’s behind it all? Some of the townsfolk speculate that an experiment – the mysterious Arrowhead Project – has gone catastrophically wrong at a nearby military base. According to religious nutcase Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), it’s the wrath of the God, the end of days, the last trumpet, judgement upon us all, fire and brimstone, revelations, the seventh seal and quite possible some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The beasties battering away at the windows outside are merely the catalyst for (and reflection of) the beasts of irrationality and paranoia rearing their ugly heads inside; and it’s not long until Drayton and a small cluster of non-religious-nutcases are holding out against Mrs Carmody’s increasingly delusional followers.

Frank Darabont shot ‘The Mist’ fast and relatively cheap. He mentions, in an interview with Empire magazine, that he usually preps for at least six months before shooting a movie. Here, he prepped for just a few weeks then hit the ground running. The finished product has a ragged, aggressive feel. The anchoring of the film in one location for most of its running time emphasises its B-movie qualities, as do the slightly unconvincing tentacles looping out of the mist, the occasional tendency to cornball dialogue and the ease with which Mrs Carmody wins over the others to her way of thinking (one minute they’re a bunch of ordinary people, albeit utterly scared, the next they’re chanting “expiation” and all in favour of a blood sacrifice).

And, yes, all of these elements are a deliberate ploy on Darabont’s part. The material is familiar, even if you haven’t read King’s novella. Think ‘The Fog’ meets ‘Dawn of the Dead’ by way of Lovecraft. From the edgy local who you just know is going to put our hero on the spot, to the meek guy who proves himself more than capable when the chips are down, you pretty much know what’s coming. And again, that’s just how Darabont’s planned it. He wants you in a nice little horror genre familiarity comfort zone. Because while he’s been channelling John Carpenter and George A. Romero (mismatched survivors; consumerist setting) and doing it quite obviously, he’s setting you up for the ending.

Oh, the ending. It departs from King’s ambiguous but semi-hopeful denouement and channels a considerably more cynical and despairing influence. The ending of ‘The Mist’ is like Darabont put his fingertips on the planchette and called up the spirit of Henri-George Clouzot and asked him to spell out a final scene guaranteed to devastate the audience.

And therein lies the brilliance and the dichotomy of ‘The Mist’: it’s meant to resemble a B-movie, but in the courage of its convictions it defines itself as something more.

*I championed an anti-W—Mart documentary on these pages a few months ago, so I’ll err on the side of caution and lawsuit-avoidance here, I think.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Dead of Night

For even the most passionate movie lover, there are aspects of cinema which are capable of striking terror into the heart. Such as (speaking for myself) the title card “based on a true story” or the credit “directed by Michael Bay”.

Or portmanteau films.

Portmanteau films, one the whole, aren’t very good. Pick any of the Amicus crop from the ’70s: average. Or the ill-advised Tarantino/Rodriguez/Anders/Rockwell collaboration ‘Four Rooms’ from 1995: a better framing device than most, but still a heinous waste of talent. Even ‘Three Extremes’, by those masters of the offbeat Fruit Chan, Takeshi Miike and Chanwook Park, worked better when its most accomplished segment, ‘Dumplings’, was expanded to feature length.

It’s almost doing ‘Dead of Night’ a disservice to describe it as the best portmanteau film ever made. That’s akin to saying it’s the least awful of a generally bad lot. But ‘Dead of Night’ deserves more than a backhanded compliment. More than just an excellent portmanteau film or an excellent horror film, it deserves to be freed from genre pigeonholes – it’s a great film, period.

Produced by Ealing Studios in 1945 (and proving, alongside gritty dramas like ‘Went the Day Well?’ and ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’, that they didn’t just make comedies), ‘Dead of Night’ brought together four directors on the cusp of immense commercial success and popularity: Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer.

Cavalanti had already directed ‘Went the Day Well?’ and went onto helm ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’; Dearden had a string of hits over the next two and half decades, including ‘The Blue Lamp’ and ‘Victim’; Crichton called the shots on perennial Ealing faves ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ and would prove that he’d lost none of his flair for comedy when he made ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ in 1988 (44 years after his directorial debut); and Hamer, whose death from pneumonia in 1963 cut short his career, made one of the best of all Ealing films ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ as well as the ever-popular Terry-Thomas starrer ‘School for Scoundrels’.

‘Dead of Night’ opens with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving at a Suffolk cottage where he’s been invited to spend the weekend with prospective client Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). Threading his way down the country lanes, his first glimpse of the property imbues him with a troubling sense of déjà vu. Inside, the realisation clicks: the cottage has featured in a recurring dream – a nightmare – that’s been plaguing him for weeks.

He’s introduced to Foley’s other guests, including psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk), and his disorientation worsens. Asked what’s wrong, he haltingly explains that not only does the house feature in his dreams, but all of them play their part. Increasingly agitated, Craig comes to feel that he should leave as soon as possible, otherwise something terrible will occur. Dr van Straaten reasons with him, urging him to stay and thereby overcome his neuroses.

The stage is set for five tales of the supernatural (based on works by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, Angus MacPhail and John Baines) as the guests give individual accounts of some brush with the unexplained, some encounter with the ethereal, while Dr van Straaten insists on keeping everything rooted in reality by pursuing a logical, scientific discourse.

Racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) recounts his near-death experience on the track; convalescing afterwards, he hallucinates a hearse outside his hospital window, the driver (Miles Malleson) lugubriously looking up and saying “Room for one more inside.” Discharged shortly afterwards, he encounters the same man, this time in a bus driver’s uniform. “Room for one more inside,” he urges as Grainger hesitates. The briefest story in the anthology, as well as the most obvious in its set-up and denouement, it’s still a decent curtain-raiser and played straight enough to come across as a simple tale of coincidence.

A ghost story in the English tradition follows, and what could be more traditional than a Christmas setting? Teenager Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) recounts a festive game of hide and seek in a big old house. Escaping the tactile attentions of would-be suitor Jimmy (Michael Allan), who’s been trying to creep her out with a story of filial murder in the upper rooms a hundred years ago, Sally comes upon a long corridor which leads her to another part of the house and the realisation that Jimmy’s story might have a little more truth to it than she imagined.

The past also impinges on the present in the next story. Bride-to-be Joan (Googie Withers) buys an antique mirror for her betrothed, Peter (Ralph Michael), only for its reflection to change whenever he looks in it. Peter finds himself in another room – a room, he’s certain, where something nasty has happened. Or is going to happen. Joan worries for his health (all she sees in the mirror is the reflection of their bland fitted bedroom) and then, when his moods turn ugly, for her safety.

In penultimate place – and the least of the film’s offerings – is the shaggy dog story of rival golfers George Parratt (Basil Radford), Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) and the woman, Mary (Peggy Bryan), who comes between them. A gentlemen’s wager involving eighteen holes, the hand of the delectable Mary for the winner and the loser to “vanish from the scene”. Unfortunately, the winner cheats and the loser takes his forfeit literally, wading out into the water hazard and drowning himself. So far, so dark and twisted. Things quickly become farcical, though, all pratfalls and “humorous” misunderstandings. First time I saw ‘Dead of Night’ this section annoyed me: the shift in tone seemed awkward; it was the odd one out in a quintet of stories that grew progressively more sinister.

On reflection, though, I think the golfing sequence (from one of H.G. Wells’s lesser short stories) is needed – it’s a cleansing of the palate before the film’s piece de resistance. Introduced by Dr van Straaten as the “one case that really made me wonder”, Michael Redgrave stars in a career-best performance as Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist controlled by his wheedling, temperamental dummy Hugo. Atmospherically directed by Cavalcanti, the sweltering lights and dingy dressing rooms of the venues Frere and Hugo play are brought evocatively to life. Frere’s nervy descent into paranoia is thrown into sharp relief by the calm rationalism of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power), whom Frere comes to suspect of having designs on Hugo.

And then there’s Hugo himself. Smiling, goading, waspish, sarcastic Hugo. One of British cinema’s greatest villains, period. Hugo, whom Dr van Straaten thinks he can use to probe Frere’s condition. A mistake on the good doctor’s part, but not as a great a mistake as his insistence that Craig stays in the cottage as each facet of the evening draws together the strands of his nightmare.

The framing narrative climaxes with an act of brutality and a dizzying lurch into surrealism, coda becoming prologue as ‘Dead of Night’ twists itself into an ouroboros.