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At its best, Polanski’s Frantic (1988) runs like clockwork. The film presents a single narrative, free from sub-plots, which develops quickly and is, for the most part, controlled. (After the first two-thirds of the picture, it all starts to unravel into silliness, as an apparently drug-motivated kidnapping becomes about an unexplained and underdeveloped threat of nuclear war.)
As I suggest about Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), causation is presented as seamless: though Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) is overwhelmed by the situation – unable to understand how one event leads to another – the viewer witnesses a story that unfolds so naturally that it only becomes clear retrospectively quite how far the picture achieves a Pynchonesque strangeness, ascending the rooftops of Paris and locating the end of the world in a miniature Statue of Liberty.
The ticktock of the story’s well-crafted progress is paralleled in the camera’s movement. The picture often preempts the orchestration of the actors or the props, nuzzling into or drawing away from what is at first blank space, creating a frame that is more ready to present the objects within it in rich and ambivalent ways. Just like Walker around Paris, the viewer is led around the scenes, as the camera moves before the props or the actors (rather than the other way round). The result is a slick mode of visual storytelling. It is a shame that the script cannot maintain such class, eventually running out of control.
A friend of mine recently showed me Alexandra Monro + Sheila Menon’s short film No Way Through (2009). One of five winning scripts entered into Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s short film competition, the picture tries to ‘highlight […] mobility restrictions imposed in the West Bank, that are limiting its habitants’ access to health care, thus violating a fundamental human right.’ On the whole, it’s an effective film. You can watch it here: http://www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk/video/nowaythrough.
The picture is quickly rooted in London. We recognise the squashed together suburban housing of the opening and notice the almost obscured ‘LONDON’ on the front of Rob’s (Tim Plester) folded-over roadmap. Almost as quickly, we feel this is not the city we know; as Rob approaches a roadblock, rather than a hospital, greeted by armed guards, rather than paramedics, we begin to wonder where we are. Monro and Menon convincingly establish a sort of dystopian Never Never Land. Their London invites comparison with Gilliam’s unidentified city in Brazil (1985) or Jeunet and Caro’s post-apocalyptic France in Delicatessen (1991): all three films present, with varying emphasis, worlds that are both governed by seemingly strange political situations and at the mercy of authoritarian military control.
But Brazil has its steam-machines and Delicatessen has its cannibalism: these films make more telling comments than No Way Through because of their surface absurdity. There is, perhaps, in both the feature films, a moment of insight, when the distorted world of the picture snaps in line with ours. I’m avoiding phrases like ‘political comment’ because I’m not sure that Brazil or Delicatessen attempt to make any; it’s also reductive to root all the joys and questions that come from watching these films into a single ‘pop’ of realisation. Nonetheless, we’re sure that No Way Through has a political point to make. The directors outline it explicitly in their accompanying text.
The one weakness of the short is that Monro and Menon try to bring their dystopia too close to reality too quickly. The epiphanic ‘pop’ becomes instead an instance of dramatic irony. The pieces of graffiti really rubbed: ‘FREE PALESTINE’ written on corrugated iron, for example.
With this political signpost obviously positioned, we’re invited simply to join the dots. If references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are removed, though, notice how much freer we are to revel in the nightmare. The situation would seem so absurd that we would take solace only by thinking that it doesn’t really happen. (How, after all, is a crying child comforted after seeing a particularly scary film? ‘It’s only a film,’ The accompanying adult says. ‘It never really happened.’) Equally, a niggling notion that something like the situation presented on screen happens somewhere in the world is not the same: the loss of specificity is enough to maintain the illusion for a time.
Instead, then, of waiting for the text at the end of the film to explain the link already made between ‘PALESTINE’ and the picture we’re watching, the revelation would be more shocking and longer-lasting if this link were cut. We are told that ‘Around Jerusalem the average ambulance journey time for a Palestinian is now almost 2 hours, compared to 10 minutes in 2001.’ It’s fair to wonder how much more brutal the realisation would be if we weren’t already expecting this grim punch line.
Despite this one arguable point of structure, there are moments of wonderful craft in the picture. My favourite shot in the short is a beautiful image of Amy (Amy Loughton), bloodstained, looking through the car window. The camera is positioned above her and outside the vehicle so we’re presented at once with the girl and the city through the filter of the window.
It’s horrible to realise that Amy will die before she reaches hospital (and we have such a suspicion quite early on). We wonder what she’s thinking and we wonder whether the world reflected in the window is the one in which she wants to live. Just like a similar shot in Midnight Cowboy, Monro and Menon manage to blend Amy’s subjective experience and the objective reality in one shot, finding room for her implicit hopes alongside the grim actuality of her situation.
I start with Rambo only because I’m sure he’d feel right at home messing stuff up on the titular bridge. David Lean’s film often almost slides into First Blood (1982) style melodrama and sentimentality. I’m thinking, for example, of the delayed exchange of a single word, ‘lovely’, between a local woman and an English soldier. At first misunderstood, the word becomes the last thing said to the officer before he begins his destruction of the bridge. Equally, we see quickly that the English officers are wonderfully English, often armed with cups of tea and always demonstrating the bravery that comes from stiff upper lips.
If, though, Sly Stallone every so often threatens to run out of the jungle and singlehandedly destroy The Bridge, he, equipped with his black-and-white (and it must be said entertaining) moral code, is never more than a shadowy figure in the background: Lean’s picture more consistently problematises a conception of war as simply the good guys verses the bad. As the film crescendos, we find ourselves identifying with both the builders and the destroyers. Seemingly clear distinctions in the opening section disintegrate in a mix of parallel shots and scenes. Yes, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is ruthless, threatening to make the sick and the dying help in the construction of the bridge; but we also see him crying in a private moment of weakness and emotion; and, furthermore, we later witness Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) actually sending his own injured men back to work. The bridge becomes not only an act of English defiance but also a point for Nicholson’s life: as he leans over its edge, looking in the river below, he admits that ‘you ask yourself what the sum total of your life represents? What difference your being there at any time made to anything?’
And if, even in the specifics of the ending, such fortuitous and almost heavy-handed symbolism appears again (‘What have I done?’ Nicholson asks), it is kept in check by more ambiguous and moving motifs that recur throughout the film. For example, the diegetic whistling of the Colonel Bogey March, often combined with Malcolm Arnold’s non-diegetic counter-melody of The River Kwai March, is a charged reference point that bookends the picture. As a general emblem of the soldiers’ fortitude, the music looks forward to the whistling of the Mickey Mouse Club Marching Song that brings Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to a close; taken as a specific melody, Colonel Bogey looks back to British defiance against Hitler (who, we’re led to believe, only had one ball).
But even if the picture is loaded with the potential for broader social and martial comment, much of its power lies in the specifics of two individuals: Colonel Nichelson and Colonel Saito. To witness the partial expression of the motivation that drives their actions is both moving and engaging. (Complete revelation is stilted by Japanese notions of ‘honour’ or British conceptions of ‘military behaviour’.) To return to the moment when Nichelson is hanging over bridge, trying to reveal to a silent Saito his feelings at having finished the job, we see this gesture cut short. Just as he approaches a moment of real expression, he drops his stick into the Kwai, leaving Saito and the viewer with just a single word that is almost comic in its retrospective dramatic irony: ‘Blast!’, he says simply.
Very quickly into Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) came to mind. Both films seem to hinge on their leading pair’s drug-induced fancies, producing narratives driven by associations rather than obvious causation. The excitement is initiated by some sort of journey (a trip to Las Vegas or a weekend in the country) but the aims become quickly clouded (if they were ever clear at all).
Both pictures are also rooted in a specific time period. Withnail rests at the end of ‘the greatest decade of mankind’; Fear and Loathing, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, presents ‘the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971’. This specificity is more important that it may seem at first: yes, plenty of films demonstrate a temporal unity but, in vague terms, as I was watching Fear and Loathing, I began to feel that the film’s setting influences its aesthetic beyond simply providing a period backdrop for a potentially universal story. Instead, the broader feelings generated by the social climate of California in the early 1970s affect the way the narrative is told. It’s less about a story that is specific to the seventies than about Gilliam’s attempt, in the late 1990s, to tell it using an aesthetic design that is apt for the subject matter.
An important scene for defining this aesthetic comes about halfway though the picture. Over stock footage of San Francisco from 1965, Duke (Johnny Depp) tells us that: ‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ He tries to describe the belief in ‘that inevitable sense of victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.’ (My emphasis) Film noir lingers here but only in a transformed state. In a short attempt to define a notoriously slippery term, noir is used here to refer to American films from (say) the 1940s and 1950s that present the sleazy side of life: sleazy in the sense that they move away from an everything-is-OK postcard aesthetic and attempt to show an anti-America (which is, it should be noted in passing, no more real, no less stylized, than the other extreme). Often populated by individuals that feel separated from society for some reason, the films present an alternative and more challenging moral system that competes with simple right and wrong. These complexities are reflected in cinematographic choices that involve low-key and high-contrast lighting setups shot on black-and-white film. Within such a varying genre, it’s useful to lean on specific examples of film noir to illustrate points of comparison with Gilliam’s picture.
So, in Fear and Loathing, the pair are, in a sense, victims of their circumstances, as is Bigelow (Eadmond O’Brien) in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), but we notice that they don’t feel much dread: instead, any urgency is swapped for a trippy ride on universal energy. The Las Vegas that Gilliam presents places no emphasis on guns or firepower and the corruption that comes with them (‘We didn’t need that’): instead we witness the psychedelic degradation of a pair of minds that are emblematic of the society in which they play. I limited the use of film noir to American films above because I think there is a larger and specifically American story here: the alternative moral system generated during the Depression is replaced in Fear and Loathing by no morals at all.
But the diffracted half-similarities of plot are only preamble to what is, for me, the strongest link between film noir and Fear and Loathing: the lighting. I believe the cinematographic choices of Gilliam’s picture reveal a desire to load the lighting with significance, an importance reminiscent of that given to the set-ups in, say, Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). In both films the lighting is stylized and noticeably low-key and high-contrast. But the startling black-and-white chiaroscuro that suits the violence and danger of The Big Combo becomes instead the psychedelic rainfall of always-changing always-blinking Las Vegas advertisements.
The emphasis shifts from tone to colour but black and darkness still linger behind it all. Furthermore, as the sights, sounds and opportunities of Las Vegas infect Duke and Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), we see the disintegration of personal boundaries played out visually: there is, for example, a beautiful and loaded scene where the bright lights of the city are refracted in the the pair’s car window. What we see is an underworld in which universal vibrations are temporarily on show in glorious saccharine technicolor. As I (Paul McGann) wonders in Withnail: ‘The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?’
I recently watched John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). It was partly an attempt to put off school work for a few hours but also to watch an often-mentioned-at-least-in-passing film by the director of The Breakfast Club (1985).
Its editing, especially in the opening scene, brought to mind a more recent film: Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010). It’s perhaps fair to say that both pictures are aimed predominantly at teenage viewers. Objectivity is lent to Scott Pilgrim by the fast paced cuts, comic book framing and game system life bars; Bueller has a similarly fast pace and cheeky comments directed at the camera. Both share on-screen lists, which, in Scott Pilgrim, name characters and, in Bueller, explain the perfect means of getting off school.
But in a film that is undeniably objective in the main, there is an ambiguous set-up in the opening scene that caught my eye because it seems so subjective. Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris is, from the very start, over the top and tongue-in-cheek. Simply, we understand that he is not unwell. As the scene progresses, there is a shot reverse shot sequence involving Ferris and his parents. When his sister (Jennifer Grey) enters, she glares at Ferris, complaining about the situation. After a close shot of Ferris tucked under his covers, we see what must be a point of view shot from the bed at Jeanie. As she stands there, she begins to go out of focus until she is a real blur.
What happens here? We are presented apparently with what Ferris sees. We feel by this point that he is actually in perfect health and it’s fair to believe, then, that his sight has no reason to shift in and out of focus. The set-up is surely not what Ferris sees but what his parents (not Jeanie, who suspects he’s well) think he is seeing. It halts the narrative’s linear temporal development for a moment and presents a few seconds of a could-be or could-have-been.
Anyway, just a thought. After this set-up, the film’s relentlessly entertaining.
While Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) is difficult to place for certain, I think it sits closer to romance than horror.
Yes, one of the kids is a vampire but who’s to say they can’t fall in love? Vincenzo Natali’s contribution to Paris, je t’aime (2006) is a short about an infatuated female vampire, who ends up devouring Elijah Wood. Violence is always near the surface of the film, though so too is tenderness. For every instance of a teenager being strung up by their feet, drained of blood, there is the touching delivery of a Morse code message from Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) to Eli (Lina Leandersson), tapped out gently on a dividing bedroom wall.
While watching, I thought of Żuławski’s picture Possession (1981). It’s pretty crazy and the lump of tentacled flesh with which Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is captivated is certainly more monstrous than eleven year old Eli. But, like Let The Right One In, Possession does not sit easily in the horror genre. It probes the nature of love (and the loss of it), exploring a messy divorce and its effect on a child.
Here’s a short post on two complex films that are beautifully shot and about which there is a lot more to say.
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) is unnerving. From the opening scene, in which a series of young men are given buzz-cuts, accompanied by Johnnie Wright’s upbeat track Hello Vietnam, to the closing sequence of marines singing the Mickey Mouse Club Marching Song, the film portrays war in an unexpected way.
To start, a large part of the picture takes place on Parris Island (the induction and training centre for marines) before the recruits reach combat. In this act of the film, drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) is relentless. He finishes what the haircuts begin: he totally deconstructs the men in an attempt to turn them from “maggots” into killing machines. Overweight private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) bears the brunt of Hartman’s ridicule. The sequence on Parris Island is reminiscent of the gladiator training regime in Spartacus (1960) and the viewer knows that a transformation of sorts is complete when Pyle begins to resemble one of Kubrick’s ape-men, his deranged stare paralleling Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining (1980). Immediately after completing his eight-weeks, Pyle shoots Hartman and commits suicide: it is the overarching irony of this section that Pyle’s “killer-instinct” is intentionally developed by the man it eventually destroys.
The aesthetic of the Parris Island sequence is clean: the camera moves in straight lines, often following a parallel created by the rows of bunk beds or the movements of the drill sergeant; the lighting is limited to the blue hue of night time, the artificial bulbs of the barracks and the blank tone of a slightly overcast and not too bright sun; the marines look startlingly similar and move like robots (making the out-of-time Pyle all the more glaring). The viewer is reminded that these “maggots” are human, however, when Pyle’s blood splatters across the ordered bathroom tiles.
The enduring humanity of “the phoney-tough and the crazy-brave” that survive Parris Island is reinforced when they leave the sterile homogeneity of their training environment and are dropped in Vietnam. The hair grows back and idiosyncrasies begin to appear. For example, the combination of private Joker’s (Matthew Modine) peace badge and his helmet, which reads “BORN TO KILL”: he’s apparently aiming at “the duality of man […] the Jungian thing.” The change of location not only exposes the marines as (fallible) humans but also ushers in a more chaotic aesthetic: well ordered furniture is replaced by scattered rubble and ruins; the overpowering sound of Hartman’s barking, almost the only authoritative sound to be heard on Parris Island, is replaced by gunfire, bombs and arguments; the red flames of explosions bleed into the black and blue of the night.
War, from the creation of soldiers to the brutality of killing, is presented as perverse, chaotic and complex. That Kubrick does not flinch in his portrayal is exemplified by his lingering close-shot of the young female sniper, writhing like as insect and repeatedly saying “kill me”. The quick movement from such a gruesome shot to the marines’ (apparently) childlike Disney song illustrates the extent to which those facing battle must retreat within themselves, if they are not all to end like private Pyle, who is, in a sense, the purest product of Parris Island.
I found myself wondering recently why I laugh at Woody Allen’s films so long after watching them. There are certainly moments of physical comedy and lines perfectly timed and weighted: for example, in Sleeper (1973), when Miles Monroe (Allen) wakes from cryogenic freezing and struggles to walk or, later in the picture, when he is asked to explain a photograph: “This is some girl burning a brassiere [pause]: you’ll notice it’s a very small fire.” Equally, once the laughs die down in the theatre, there are lines which niggle the viewer: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) asks in Manhattan (1979) “why is life worth living?”; in Deconstructing Harry (1997) life is summed up: “it’s nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.” Allen’s work seems to blend the comic and the philosophical in an odd way: the relationship between the two is ambiguous and hard to decipher.
Cliff Stern (Allen) says in Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) that “nobody committed suicide: everyone was too unhappy.” The remark is witty because it feels paradoxical and almost certainly yields a laugh but the mental state described is tremendously bleak. There is a fuller development of the sense in Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist: he cites “Paris in the 1920s” and Marcel Arland who “discusses self-destruction, remarking that just as the limit of daring was to be found in silence, so ‘the real despair lies in acceptance rather than suicide.'” The city had an effect on Beckett: it is “notable how much of his outlook and concerns are reflected in the outlook and concerns of the younger writers of the decade […] He was, in a sense, made for twentieth-century France.” He expresses this sentiment of despairing acceptance in the opening line of his (originally French) poem Dieppe: “Again the last ebb”. Woody Allen glances towards this last ebb starting again – this terrible inability to end – in the quoted line above. Beckett finishes The Unnamable without a full stop, only allowing the narrator to say “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Allen often voices equally grim attitudes but delivers them through smiling lips.
The Unnamable ends ambiguously, as the reader is unsure if the narrator is trapped as a puppet in the perpetual speech of someone else or instead performing joyous self-affirmation: Allen’s films are quite often less ambiguous at their closes, leaning more towards optimism. That last ebb may come again but it’s certainly a fun one at times. Deconstructing Harry offers pragmatism at its close, when the writer Harry Block (Allen) comes literally face to face with his characters: “life sometimes takes very strange twists and turns”; “Death is a natural part of life: you have to embrace them both”; “accept your limitations and get on with life.” It’s said in Manhattan that “the important thing in life is courage.” Allen suggests courage helps us to face this mix of “nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm”. It can apparently make us laugh if we feel like we’ve made a mistake, if we feel like Holly Reed (Mia Farrow) in Crimes and Misdemeanors when she says: “My husband and I fell in love at first sight. Maybe I should have taken a second look.”