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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.

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?’