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I watched Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) in quick succession last week. Placed so close, each film provides a useful counterpoint to the other. Both handle similar themes: THL is set in Iraq, while Hetherington and Junger follow a US Army platoon in Afghanistan. Restrepo’s tag line is startling to consider: ‘One Platoon, One Valley, One Year’ makes us pause and consider the achievement and bravery of the directors (along with – but separate from – that of the servicemen). A friend in the US Navy pointed me towards the picture and it was with sadness that I heard he had attended Hetherington’s funeral. The photographer died in Libya earlier this year.
In a sense, the camerawork in Restrepo is dictated by the action: often jolty and cramped whenever stable, Hetherington and Junger have to move and film however they could. In contrast, THL – shot on location in Jordan – has the luxury of artistic choice. We can hold up Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953) as an example of shooting war steadily: I’m thinking specifically of the scene where the camera glides above a solider who has gone over the top and is struggling to progress.
THL’s presentation is close – but not identical to – that in Restrepo. Both cameras are restless. Restrepo’s picture is constantly adjusted because of necessity (shook by a nearby explosion – jolted through fear of bullets). The movement is understandably forced. THL relies also on adjustments to the zoom (as well as the camera position) to achieve a similarly anxious tone. By jolting forwards and back, it adjusts the focal length and, as a result, the relationships between the various visual planes. The background is nudged slightly closer to the foreground, before being flung slightly back.
It is the size of these adjustments and how they are handled that creates the atmosphere. THL ‘s camera movement is not the assertive and emphatic lurch forward that characterises Hitchcock’s use of a zoom lens. But neither is it the smoothly orchestrated movement of an Ophulsian tracking shot. In other words, the camera neither guides the viewer to important figures or objects nor follows the principal characters around their environment. Instead, it is not so certain. As if suffering from terror induced ADHD, THL’s camera cannot decide where to position itself.
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.
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.
This is a piece in celebration of Shane Meadows’s This Is England ’86. It finished earlier tonight in terrific style.
It’s interesting to consider how film directors take to working in television, an obviously different context for a familiar medium. Here, for example, themes that run throughout Meadows’s work, as well as characters first introduced in his film This is England (2006), must both be developed as he picks up the narrative three years on and also reconfigured – restructured – for a way of telling that breaks the story into four discreet one hour sections, themselves, when first aired, subdivided into four. It seems that Meadows and Jack Thorne (the writers) answered this formal demand by making each of the episodes connect, using the same characters and continuing the larger narrative, while also remaining self-contained in their emotional structure. Episodes three and four are arguably the most satisfying television because, while they bring the grand narrative to a conclusion, they have a clearer internal structure than episodes one and two, each moving from tongue-in-cheek comedy to a powerful emotional climax. I felt something building in the first two episodes – the larger narrative of ’86 – but they both felt a little wooly. They each played like a quarter of a film, rather than a television episode. That my father could watch and engage with episode three in isolation, having missed not only the previous two but the film as well, perhaps indicates what I mean. (This is no knock on Tom Harper, who directed episodes one and two.)
Despite certain reservations about the structure of the first two episodes, my favourite song from the series comes at the end of the second. It’s Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful Berlin Song. The pianist’s haunting compositions provide another, more emotionally driven, means of connecting the series together. Used extensively throughout, his songs often occur at the most engaging and challenging moments. For example, at the end of episode three, Meadows uses Einaudi’s Solo as the non-diegetic accompaniment to the violent raping of Trev (Danielle Watson) by Mick (Johnny Harris). This montage is really something. (The term’s used here in two senses: the more general description of a selection of shots accompanied by music and the stricter definition of the combined effect achieved through the juxtaposition of these shots.)
Four scenes are involved. There is the rape, using a staggeringly still camera, reminiscent of Kubrick’s portrayal of violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971). There are moments of joyous friendship, as Milky (Andrew Shim) mounts Gadget (Andrew Ellis) to celebrate an England goal. The football is also celebrated in the pub, in the toilet of which Lol (Vicky McClure) drunkenly ponders. Finally, there is the shock of Combo (Stephen Graham) falling through Shaun’s (Thomas Turgoose) window. The combined effect of the images is complex: for example, the action of thrusting is played out in a minor key by Mick but counterpointed in a major by the elated Milky; Lol’s isolated sadness is matched only a room away by the happiness of her sister Kelly (Chanel Cresswell), surrounded by the rest of the group; a close up of Trev’s hand gripping the sofa makes the wide shot in which she is confined to the left third of the frame, buried in said sofa, feel all the more empty. Einaudi’s piece is combined with two strands of diegetic sound: the football commentary, including the memorable line ‘you can only stand and stare at English joy’, and Mick incessantly grunting ‘Fuck you’. It’s a powerful and poetic end.
Poetic is right: this montage is highly crafted, at once tragic, sickening and, it must be admitted, in some senses beautiful. Einaudi’s composition, an important part of the effect, is in the minor key but no less beautiful for being sad. In the final episode, Meadows moves even further towards carefully wrought visual poetry, throwing his gritty subject matter into a new and challenging light. At a larger level, he swirls narratives of different scales together: while the individual stories of Lol, Shaun, Milky and all the others are at the centre of ’86, Meadows demonstrates how connected they all are; he also hints at lives once remembered, as characters central to the plot of the film only nudge their way into the series; the 1986 World Cup – watched by a nation following a national team – gently frames these individuals but only ever obscurely stands for the broader social feelings of the time; in turn, to a certain extent, still raw international tensions are revealed and played out in miniature by England and Argentina on the football pitch. We are brought once again to the individual level, when we remember that Shaun’s dad died in the Falklands War.
Artful in structure at a number of levels, this series is nonetheless emotionally powerful. The performances are super and the dialogue feels wonderfully natural in its funny moments and devastatingly sparse in the tragic. When, I wonder, will we see something like this on television again?
Rightly so, much has been made of the lighting in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975): it’s an impressive example of technical innovation which (perhaps more importantly) achieves a spectacular aesthetic, reminiscent of the works of Gainsborough (1727- 1788) and other eighteenth century painters. More generally though, the film is often respected but not loved: especially when first released, it was held up as unnecessarily slow and lifeless. The critical feeling is summed up by a quotation from a youthful Steven Spielberg, who believed the film was like “going through the Prado without lunch.”
A film about films, Jan Harlan’s Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) reveals the extent to which Kubrick grappled with technical questions to achieve his desired aesthetic. For his candlelit interiors, Kubrick chose to manipulate the camera set up, rather than the light source. He experimented with a number of cameras, lenses and film stocks before finding three high-speed 50mm f/0.70 lenses and getting a custom mount built for them. These lenses (originally developed for N.A.S.A.) have enormous apertures which allow enough of the unique (and notoriously difficult to shoot) candlelight onto the film. The results really do speak for themselves:
But what of the shot choice, the dialogue and the pacing of the piece: why is the combined effect of these factors necessarily a weakness? I believe that Kubrick controls all aspects of the picture to create a deep sense of the period. The impressiveness of the lighting is met by the quality of the costumes and props, many being genuine antiques rather than replicas. The images generated by the carefully positioned and rarely moving camera embody the sense of decorum and an awareness of a public self that Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) strives for in an attempt to advance socially. While the tone of Kubrick’s film is in line with the gleeful cynicism of Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the picture chooses to tell the narrative primarily through its images, reducing the dialogue to necessaries and converting the narration from an extensive first-person account to a cooly delivered (unnamed) third-person voice.
It should be noted too that, directly because of his aesthetic and emotional restraint, Kubrick raises the intensity of the rare moments of broken down decorum. So, for example, the viewer notices that the camera violently follows the erratic movements of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), as she screams for the death of her son; Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) vomits before the duel with his step-father and there is a moment of utter despair, when Lyndon is first told he must suffer amputation and lose a leg.
Part Two begins with a notice: “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon”; a dramatic irony hangs over the final half of the film. (The intermission does come at almost exactly half way.) The viewer becomes aware, then, that Kubrick’s portrayal of a life in the eighteenth century contains a paradox of wonderfully stylised set pieces and brutally realistic social dynamics. We know, perhaps, that the duel will end badly, that the poor Irish boy will not succeed, but we nonetheless feel revolted by the actions of Lord Bullington. Kubrick demands technical perfection not for hollow aesthetics: retrospectively, the once warm but flickering and quickly extinguished candlelight embodies the passions of men and the transitory nature of luxury. As the final title card says: “It was in the reign of George III that the above-named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”
I think Kubrick hints at a way of viewing Eyes Wide Shut (1999) towards the end of the film: when Dr. William (Tom Cruise) and Alice Hartford (Nicole Kidman) are Christmas shopping in the final scene, they discuss the distinction between “reality” and “dream[s]”. As they edge around the events of the night before, they settle upon a middle ground of sorts, placing the goings-on somewhere between consciousness and slumber. While Alice accepts she can’t know entirely what Bill did, he points out that her dreams can’t just be dismissed as subconscious babbling: “the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.” “And no dream is entirely a dream.” It is a complex and loaded exchange but, in one sense, the blurred distinction between the experiential truth and a dream provides a useful lens through which a viewer can consider Kubrick’s last film: it’s neither the whole truth nor just a dream but instead something in-between.
As Bill’s journey through the night unfolds, causation is presented as seamless: events lead so easily to other events that Bill seems to be guided by a force other than his own will. The impeccable logic of the flow of occurrences and locations lends to Bill’s movements a sense of inevitability. If the viewer thinks back from the climax of this section, from the orgy scene, to the normal beginnings of the Hartford home, she is jarred by how far Bill has come: the sense of inevitability is retrospectively tempered by the night’s sheer oddity. The night is dreamlike because Bill moves with an ominous ease towards the strangest of spatial and moral places without receiving answers about what’s really happening.
The narrative unfolds linearly but tangentially, then, as Bill moves (or is moved) from the Christmas party to a secret ritualistic orgy, apparently without scope to escape once his journey starts. Kubrick’s aesthetic choices strengthen this dreamscape in a different way: colours, images and linguistic phrases interact associatively, remaining present, rather than leading sequentially from one to another. While the narrative unfolds in time, motifs interweave throughout the picture, being refracted as the film progresses but consistently resurfacing. If the events of the narrative have the strangeness of a dream in their progression, the visual and aural motifs of Eyes Wide Shut achieve a kaleidoscopic playfulness.
Take, for example, Bill’s exchanges with the two girls at the opening Christmas party. He asks “Where we going girls?” One replies “Where the rainbow ends.” The other asks “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?” The question is allowed to hang for a moment but Bill quickly forgets the proposition as he is drawn away to more practical matters: he must help an overdosing girl who is lying naked upstairs in the host’s room. The end of the rainbow, then, hints at carnal satisfaction (with the two women, in this instance) but in fact leads to a more ambiguous blend of sexuality, vulnerability and, in a sense, self-objectifying voyeurism (the overdosing girl is unaware of her own nakedness, when Bill enters). This cluster of images – the rainbow, idealistic carnality and a more complex reality – embodies Bill’s larger movement.
Later in the film, the first image resurfaces: the shop from which he hires his costume is called Rainbow. An aural utterance (“where the rainbow ends”) is transplanted onto the shop’s sign, an image accompanied by printed text (RAINBOW). The second image also appears: while he does not take it, his brush with a prostitute presents Bill with an opportunity for pure sexual fulfilment. Such idealistic carnality slides into something more complex: when it is revealed later that the girl has been diagnosed H.I.V. positive, Bill is left ambivalent, thankful that he did not sleep with her but nonetheless sorry for her situation. At the out-of-the-way mansion that holds the ritualistic orgy, the motif of carnal delight is intensified: the women increase in number and beauty, if Nick (Todd Field) is trustworthy; he apparently has “never seen such women.” The purity of the moment is increased with anonymity: these beautiful women, as well as the men, are objectified with their identities hidden behind masks. Sex becomes nameless, an action free from individuals.
The forced removal of Bill’s mask muddies the social hierarchy within the mansion. It restores his identity among this group of faceless bodies, in one sense, returning his subjectivity. Equally, the action renders Bill the ultimate object: in an environment in which people wish to hide their identity he is made to flaunt his own. He cannot stop the combined gaze of everyone in the room, as they take more than he wishes to give, at once understanding who he is in the world proper. He is exposed, vulnerable and emphatically himself.
Throughout the film, the apparently inevitable progression from one event to another combines with the kaleidoscopic resurfacing of images and phrases to achieve the dreamscape quality. Alice ends the picture with a monosyllabic snap: “there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” “Fuck.” In contrast with the earlier dreamlike presentation of carnality, Alice’s vulgarity feels pragmatic: it is something that needs to be done to set things right. The bluntness of delivery, as well as of sentiment, brings the dream to a close and confirms that, as Alice says, “We’re awake now.”
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.