The Sugarland Express (US, 1974)

'What do I do now?'

‘What do I do now?’

During the early 1970s the Hollywood studios, for the only time in their existence, were interested in art-cinema. After the success of Easy Rider (1969), at a time when audiences were in decline, directors got to ‘call the shots’. The Godfather‘s (1971) success gave hope that the mass audience would appreciate the auteur-driven films but most, by directors such as Robert Altman, Alan J Pakula, Bob Rafelson and Martiin Scorsese, were not successful enough to stop producers taking control again after the summer blockbuster success of Jaws (1975). Ironically Steven Spielberg contributed The Sugarland Express to art-cinema Hollywood (it was produced through Universal) the year before Jaws ‘ate the movies’.

Spielberg had learned his craft directing three TV movies, including the celebrated Duel (1971), before making Sugarland, his first feature. Duel was broadcast on ABC where Barry Diller and Michael Eisner had developed the TV movie as a way of creating cheap programming. They realised that small screen movies had to be easy to market as they wouldn’t be pre-sold by cinema exhibition and so developed the High Concept. This allows films to be summarised in a sentence and so are easily understood by audiences; Duel, for instance: ‘A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death.’

Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who like fellow Hungarian Laszlo Kovacs had a great influence on the look of New Hollywood films, The Sugarland Express is based on a true story: Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of an open prison to get their son back. It’s a road movie that descends into farce as they kidnap a policeman and are then tailed by a phalanx of police cars as they make their way to Sugarland and their son. The film features three American obsessions: cars, families and guns and if Spielberg over-emphasises the car smashes he does leave room for character development and the eccentricities of American life. Like many cinematic outlaws before them, such as those in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the ‘people’ are on their side and shower them with gifts. Hawn (who frighteningly looks the same as she does now) is an entirely dumb blonde but you could argue that Clovis’ (Atherton) inability to oppose her situates him in the same intellectual bracket. An interesting review in Jump Cut points out the film’s misogyny as well as Spielberg’s inability (like much of American cinema) to deal with social class.

Ben Johnson’s casting as the sympathetic police captain gives us a clue to the film’s despair at contemporary America (still embroiled in the Vietnam war at the time). His associations (usually as a good guy) with Westerns, and the fact he sports a ten-gallon hat, harks back to the ‘old days’ when you could tell what was right from wrong. The America of this film, like the one now unfortunately, is full of trigger-happy men and you know, like most of New Hollywood films, it is going to end badly. Which, of course, is why audiences didn’t flock to the films as they are more interested in the ‘cinema of reassurance’, where narratives end ‘happily ever after’.

No (Chile-France-US-Mexico, 2012)

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

General Pinochet, whose CIA-backed coup overthrew Salvatore Allende’s democratically elected Socialist government on September 11 1973, was almost held accountable for his crimes when he visited the UK in 1998. He was let go on health grounds: the ruling classes certainly look after their own as there was nothing wrong with him! This film recounts how Pinochet was deposed: a Referendum, as to whether he should continue as President, in 1988 imposed on Pinochet by his western backers. They wanted him to have the veneer of democratic respectability but were surprised by the victory of the ‘no’ vote. No recounts how the ‘no’ campaign was successful and uses footage from both the actual campaigns and the brutality of Pinochet’s troops.

From a naive perspective it is surprising that many would vote ‘yes’ for a military dictatorship but that neglects the fact that many, in the middle class, had benefited from Pinochet’s rule. So it’s self-interest over democratic ideals and fairness; a ‘principle’ that goes some way to explain why many voted for the Conservatives in the May UK Election. Democracy is a fig-leaf that is useful to gain consent (‘hegemony’) from the masses and if people dare to misuse their vote – as in the Greek Referendum on the economic destruction of their country – they will be ignored; in the Greek case by the EU and  European Bank (the World Bank at least acknowledges that Greece can never pay back its debt under the terms it’s been given).

It struck me also how Pinochet’s Minister responsible for the ‘yes’ campaign referred to his opponents as ‘fools'; anyone who opposes their ideas must by definition, they think, be idiots. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, for the leadership of the Labour Party, have been characterised in similar ways. Corbyn is challenging the status quo and has a high level of support, this the Establishment cannot tolerate (because it means that they aren’t necessarily right) and cognitive dissonance kicks in, so they start ridiculing what is opposing them as they can’t rationally argue against them.

Back to the film: obviously well worth seeing but Larrain’s direction did irritate me. He seemed to delight in shooting into the sun presumably to give the film a documentary feel with its ‘uncomposed’ shots. It was shot on 1983 U-matic video camera (in the 4:3 ratio) which means the image quality is poor; that didn’t bother me. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the ‘heroic’ ad exec (that phrase doesn’t occur very often), is brilliant as usual. His appearance in a film, in itself, seems to guarantee quality.

Calvary (Ireland-UK, 2014)

Crisis of religion

Crisis of religion

It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.

McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.

Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.

The Party’s Over (UK, 1965)

Over before it started

Over before it started

This is the latest film I’ve caught on BFI’s Flipside DVD and Blu-ray series investigating 1960s ‘under the radar’ films and it is really interesting.  As ‘interesting’ suggests it’s the film’s position in history that makes it worth seeing rather than its intrinsic merits. The date on the print is 1963 but it was two years before it was released, because of problems with the BBFC, and then it was hacked so much that the director and producers had their name taken off the credits. The BFI have restored the original and although some scenes are pretty scratched it generally looks good; some of the cinematography, by Larry Pizer, is striking. Of course the rating has changed: from the original adults-only X to 12. I wonder if it had been submitted for certification a few years later whether it would have encountered the same problems as the nudity is all indirect, unlike in say Blow-Up (UK-US-Italy, 1967). Probably, like the banned until 1968 The Wild One (US, 1954), the lack of moral condemnation of the ‘beatniks’,  at the end of the film, worked against it. Apparently the version that was released does have a change of focus at the end. That said, there’s no doubt the film is condemning the youngsters, just not enough for the moral arbiters who probably believed ‘weak’ minded young people would want to be like the nihilistic wastrels.

The film features Oliver Reed, who unsurprisingly out-charismas most in the film, as Moise the conflicted ‘beatnik’ and was directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make Goldfinger (1964) and three other Bond movies.

It’s not just the changes in censorship that makes the film interesting. The representation of young people (the ‘beatniks’) at a time when London hadn’t quite yet started swinging is fascinating. It’s clear that screenwriter Marc Behm (b. 1925) absolutely hates them as they are shown to be a particularly unpleasant bunch of hedonists; the conclusion of the film urges them to ‘grow up’.  A Hard Day’s Night (1964), often thought of as the precursor to the Swinging Sixties films, hadn’t been released (Behm scripted the later Beatles film, Help!, 1965) but it’s clear that the bohemian lifestyle that became emblematic of the ’60s was already annoying fogies, such as the 38 year old Behm. By the time the film was released it would be hopelessly out of touch with the zeitgeist of British cinema that was. in its youth pics at least, celebrating young people; though often in a reactionary way – see Here We Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).

Apart from its fogeyness, the other disappointing aspect of the film is the narrative structure of the script. It has a quite good conceit, involving retelling of an event, that could have been at the centre of the film. But the meandering opening fails to gain the narrative drive that would help the audience to care about what happened. My overall impression, however, is the middle aged resentment at young people supposedly enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle that had not been available to them in their youth.

Eden (US, 2012)

Men's entitlement to women

Men’s entitlement to women

A film about sex trafficking would fit readily into exploitation film and so it was a relief that director Megan Griffiths, who also co-scripted, avoided the potential for salacious representation and simply focused on the degradation. It’s based on Kim Chong’s, a Korean-American, true story of abduction and induction into sex slavery in the American South. Ex MTV-presenter, Jamie Chung, brilliantly fills the role from bewildered teen to one who will do whatever is required to escape. The fact that the other women are under-characterised may be intentional and reflect their submission to their exploitation. Matt O’Leary is similarly excellent as the guy running the operation, under Beau Bridge’s corrupt eye; O’Leary captures the junkie’s twitch brilliantly.

Ostensibly the film is a thriller, however Kim’s resistance is long-developing which works against the genre. Correctly, the ‘real life’ source material over-rides the genre’s prerogative and any audience frustration that Kim isn’t fighting back enough works to enhance the feeling of entrapment. Griffiths is excellent in her representation of men, most of whom have no interest in women other than as sex objects and recipients of their ejaculate. Men are shown to feel entitled to the women. It seems that society socialises men to believe they are better than women and any woman who challenges that needs ‘taking down'; hence the bile of trolls against any feminist discourse. The fact that all of these men are pathetic in some way, because they cannot take being challenged by a woman, is something that inevitably escapes them.

Eden works both as a thriller and a feminist film that attacks complacency regarding the position of women in our society.

I recently caught up with a brilliant BBC documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes; a look at the comments below the YouTube video (link) gives a clue as to some men’s inability to understand feminism. Laughably (well it’s not that funny) many of them suggest it is men who are victims. The merest challenge to their entitlement of superiority sets them off on egregious rants. I do sense we are at a tipping point, as in the ’60s and ’80s, when feminism is going to make a big impact and, hopefully, not be recouped by patriarchy.

 

Gone Girl (US, 2014)

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel and she has adeptly written the screenplay, directed by David Fincher. I didn’t bother with the film in the cinema because Fincher’s movies have disappointed me since Fight Club (US, 1999) and I didn’t fancy two and a half hours of a narrative I knew. However, primarily through the power of Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, this is an adaptation well worth watching. Fincher’s mise en scene, with his characteristic flat, antiseptic shooting of bourgeois modernity, is ideal for the film and Ben Affleck, as the slightly vacant hunk, is perfectly cast.

Although I’ve tagged the film ‘feminist’ I’m not sure it is; the debates are well summarised on Bitchflicks. I think the film is an exceptionally ‘open’ (or writerly in Barthes’ terms) text and so what follows is my reading although I’m conscious that this is exceptionally personal (by that I mean, although all readings we make are ‘personal’, with open texts our understanding of the world is likely to have a greater impact on the reading).

As Megan Kearns points out, on the Bitchflicks site, the ‘cool girl’ speech that Amy makes is key:

“The cool girl. The cool girl is hot. Cool girl doesn’t get angry. … And she presents her mouth for fucking.”

This is accompanied by shots of women (chosen by Fincher) and so suggests women are complicit (which they are) in allowing the ‘cool girl’ trope to be exploited by men. However, men are more complicit because of patriarchy, and Fincher should at least have included men within the mise en scene for this speech. Spoiler alert: also, the use of rape by Amy (Pike) to frame a man is contentious however I read her psychopathology as being the result of being pressured to be the ‘perfect woman’ (which began with her parents cannibalising her life as Amazing Amy). So although her murder of controlling millionaire Desi Collins isn’t justifiable in moral terms, I felt it was the right thing for Amy to do in her circumstances (that is, in the plot of a film and not reality). Amy does what it takes to take control of her life in a patriarchal world and, as such, is a feminist character.

This is a femme fatale that destroys the man who falls for her without destroying herself; although that was her original intention.

Flynn’s work is also a brilliant takedown of the romance of marriage; the roles and games we play that are not sustainable. This brings us back to Fight Club (which was a very faithful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) which similarly excoriated 21st century, bourgeois existence and Gone Girl is Fincher’s best film since then. His ‘cool’ visual style is a perfect accompaniment for the soullessness of modern existence.

The Game (UK, 2014)

Satisfying complex

Satisfying complex

I’ve no idea why the BBC shelved this spy drama for 18 months and ran it on BBC America six months before its UK premiere as Toby Whitehouse’s series is top drawer. It convincingly recreated dingy 1970s complimented by an excellent cast and a suitably noir narrative that managed to pull all its threads together without too much straining of credulity. I think I read somewhere that it was a mix of Spooks (action-orientated) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the TV series and the film): that just about sums it up.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 455 other followers