Crossfire (US, 1947)

Glorious Grahame

I was prompted to watch Crossfire after seeing Mudbound because I thought it too dealt with the, at the time unacknowledged, PTSD of veterans. Though some of the vets in the film are obviously psychologically scarred by their experience, the social problem it’s dealing with is anti-semitism. Although the film is cast, at first, as a police investigation into a murder as soon as Robert Ryan appears it’s clear who’s guilty; I’m assuming this is true for audiences at the time too. Hence the film is more interested in motivation which, although clear to modern audiences as soon as Ryan says “Jew boy”, may not have been in 1947 (my assumption that racism is obvious today is probably too optimistic actually).

From the opening murder scene Dmytryk’s direction uses shadows expressively placing us directly in film noir territory, and there are some great compositions. It’s a talky film but the dynamism with which he frames the characters is gripping in itself. The great cast also is enough reason to watch; in addition to Ryan there’s Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame. Grahame, whose story is featured in the just-released Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK), plays her moll with typical bruised tenderness. Although she was typecast as a ‘tart with a heart’ there’s no doubt that her heart is, by necessity, hard. Another great performance is given by Paul Kelly (as The Man) who might be her husband. His slightly demented delivery is almost as disturbing as Ryan’s psychosis.

Noir for a dark world

These performances give the film a modern edge only ameliorated by George Montgomery’s slightly complacent detective; he even smokes a pipe. Montgomery does the character’s world weariness well but he’s too controlled. Mitchum breezes through the film with his usual commanding charm.

I saw the film on the Movies4Men channel; it was sub categorised as Military4Men. I’m not sure who the audience for this channel is (okay obviously men) but they will be better for watching Crossfire.

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Mudbound (US, 2017)

Bound in pain

Mudbound is one of the best films of the year but you’ll be lucky (from a UK perspective) if you can see it in cinemas even though it was only released yesterday; it’s a ‘Netflix original’. I wish I could see it in the cinema if only for Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography. I’m not just referring to the sunsets but also the mud-sodden fields where much of the action takes place. I’m not having a go at Netflix,  at least they supported a black, female director – Dee Rees – in making an uncompromising film about racial hatred in 1940s America.

With high quality television sets, high definition streaming and sound bars, watching films at home has never been better. I remember watching Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR 1972) on a black and white portable television, I still enjoyed it but… One thing we’re likely to never know, however, is how popular Mudbound is with audiences as Netflix doesn’t release figures. That’s commercially sensitive information allowing it to know what types of film to make so anyone with a Netflix subscription watch it! The film’s won festival awards and is being linked to the Oscars but ‘box office’ figures will forever be absent.

I struggled slightly at the start of the film to orientate myself as the film sprawls somewhat in setting up the backgrounds of the two families; I also struggled with the accents of the characters but I could have put on the subtitles. However, the early scenes are important and once the McAllans arrive in Mississippi the narrative grips. Part of my struggle may have been because a number of characters have their own voiceovers which made it uncertain who were the main protagonists. I’m indifferent to voiceovers usually, unless it’s film noir, as they seem to be a failure of cinematic narration; however in Mudbound they work superbly to offer a multiplicity of viewpoints.

All the performances are extraordinary from Carey Mulligan to Mary J. Blige, unrecognisable (she’s in the image above) without her make up. Rees’ direction is subtle: I particularly liked a shot on V.E. Day with Ronsel, a member of General Patton’s Black Panthers, with his German lover looking out of the window at the celebrations in the street. He’s in the background and, despite the joyous scene, it’s clear he’s unhappy because it means his relationship is now over. Rees is equally confident in the battle scenes conveying the visceral horror and fully setting up the relationship between two veterans when they return from war.

As a chunk of Southern Gothic melodrama, Mudbound delivers brilliantly and hopefully Netflix finds it worth while to finance more of Rees’ films.

 

Z (France-Algeria, 1969)

Doing the right thing

Z‘s one of those increasingly rare films that I’ve wanted to see for years. I first heard about it around 35 years ago and I’m sure my reaction to it then would have been different to now. Z follows the investigation into a politically motivated murder of an opposition senator in an unnamed country. Costa-Gavras is Greek but as Greece was controlled by a military junta at the time, he made the film in Algeria. Not that the country is meant to be Greece as one of the police chiefs says, we live in a democracy. Costa-Gavras’ film shows democracy is a sham in this place.

I imagine my twentysomething self would have been gripped by the juge‘s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation as he doggedly resists pressure to arrive at the truth. Challenging ‘authoritative’ voices was the zeitgeist for the young, in particular, in the ’60s but now we are far less likely to believe the official story. Indeed, for some anything that doesn’t follow their ideological preference becomes lies. Trump didn’t create that trend, though he would probably take credit for it, but he is riding the wave of disinformation and propaganda. So now the film doesn’t seem as exciting as I would have (probably) felt if I’d seen in my twenties.

I’m not sure what I would have made of the way the film slides increasingly into farce after Z’s (Yves Montand) death. The serious tone gradually gives way to absurdity that, from 2017, seems perfectly valid. In fact, farce and satire are what constitutes much of political discourse today; a potentially dangerous situation.

Z is (unsurprisingly) also dated in its visual style. The then fashionable use of the telephoto lens is distracting but it remains, nevertheless, a film well worth seeing. Another retro aspect of seeing the film was the sound in Leeds Town Hall, where it was screened as part of the Leeds Film Festival. It’s a long time since I’ve experienced that mono echoey effect of old cinemas; a long way from the focused soundscape we here today.

Koyaanisqatsi (US, 1982)

Mind blowing, mind expanding eco cinema

The content of the images of this film, mostly shot in the ’70s, may have dated but its portrayal of human (capitalist?) stupidity is even more relevant as our planet is now kicking back at us for the way we have treated it. The screening I saw had a live accompaniment, of their new score for the film, by GoGo Penguin. It was a fantastic performance.

Godfrey Reggio’s (mostly) fast motion montage of city life – bookended by images of the Grand Canyon – is in the tradition of the city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin, Symphony of a City (Germany 1927). Graphic matches in the editing, for example fast motion clouds flowing over hills is cut to water flowing, link the images but the lack of a voiceover requires the audience to construct the narrative. Reggio’s purpose, however, is clear; shots of sausages being produced on a production line are followed by (fast motion) people flooding into a commuter station, tells you what you need to know about his opinion of modern life. Toward the end the frenetic pace accelerates and I felt like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) – see image above – as he enters a worm hole (or something).

The shots of factory workers operating robotically shows the dehumanising effect of the production line. Today their function will probably have been taken over by actual robots. On one level this is an improvement; on the other, it’s not: what jobs are there for the factory workers? The answer is low paid, ‘flexible’ (for the employer) hours contracts. Instead of using the savings created by using robots, in time and money, to better the life of humanity, wealth has percolated upwards to those who don’t need it. This madness, which won’t end well, is different to the madness of modern life portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi but, nevertheless, is incredibly stupid.

I’m a fan of GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), but was sceptical about what they could bring to a film that benefited enormously from Philip Glass’s hypnotic score. At first I found the live performance distracting as you have to concentrate on the images, remember what follows what to create the narrative, and so can’t ‘follow’ the music. However, I soon tuned in and was gobsmacked by the trio’s integration with the images; if they missed a cue it was only by tenths of a second. The crashes of cymbals as bombs exploded was truly visceral. Brilliant playing of a superb score.

35 years after the film’s release, which only happened thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola, we are surely at a watershed in terms of whether we are going to repair our planet in time. In America the disconnect between political leadership and the need for ecological change could hardly be greater. This week California experienced record temperatures for the time of year and winter is now two weeks shorter than it was one hundred years ago. One scene in Koyaanisqatsi shows dollar bills being counted and for many money is all that matters. For an increasing number that’s simply a matter of survival; for the rich… Well, I don’t know why they need more; do they?

The only thing I missed hearing in this screening was the Hopi Indian chants of ‘koyaanisqatsi’ (‘unbalanced life’) that occur, if I remember correctly, at the end. If life was unbalanced in the ’80s we’re now in a tail spin.

It Follows (US, 2014)

It following

Horror is a genre that has the capacity to regularly renew itself, maybe because its defining character – the monster – is able to adapt easily to changing times. The writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, returns us to the monster without reason (Andrew Tudor’s ‘paranoid horror’), teenage sex and the suburban setting of the seminal Halloween (US, 1976). Like Michael the monsters of It Follows are unrelenting, however Mitchell doesn’t even try to offer an explanation about what’s happening (in interviews he happily accepts differing interpretations – https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/21/it-follows-teen-horror-movie).

The protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) ‘contracts’ a follower after having (first time?) sex with her boyfriend. He explains, after he’s drugged her and tied her, in her underwear, to a chair in a deserted multi-storey car park, that he’s not going to hurt but had to do it to pass on the curse from himself. Jay, too, will have to have sex with someone to avoid being killed by the followers. Very Ringu (Japan, 1999), and very effective dramatically.

Although it may seem to follow the reactionary trope of punishing young women who have sex, it also draws on the satirical Cherry Falls (US, 2000) in which only virgins were killed (that film floundered into reactionary politics by blaming the mother). The only way to survive is to have sex which is true from the perspective of the species.

Mitchell portrays teenage angst (here definitely justified!) beautifully and adults are barely evident, dramatising the solipsism of youngsters who are at a loss at what to do. The thrills and shocks are well paced and we do get to care for the characters which makes the suspense work. Unlike in many teen horrors old gits like me do not care whether they youngsters are eviscerated because their characters are undeveloped.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the film is the ‘confused’ production design; it mashes different eras, superbly explained here.

Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

Blade Runner 2049 (US-UK-Canada, 2017)

Life?

After seeing Arrival (US, 2016) I did start to get excited about this sequel to the 1982 classic, one of my favourite films. Denis Villeneuve is an exciting director and it was co-scripted by Hampton Fancher (who’d also co-scripted the original) thus the outlook was promising. All involved have delivered a visually stunning and mind boggling film; there are spoilers ahead.

It’s difficult to know where to start as there are so many ideas, drawn from the original and placed in a 2017 context, which makes this a film that needs a lot of thought. One thing we didn’t have in 1982, of course, was the Internet so now it is easy to see and engage in the discussion about the film.

In 1982 the buzz was that the film, which in those days were always released in America weeks in advance of their UK distribution, was amazing to look at. As an SF fan, particularly of Philip K. Dick, I had to see it and wasn’t disappointed. Obviously I saw the original version with the tagged on happy ending and explanatory voice over. Apparently Harrison Ford read the voice over, which he didn’t want to do, in as a dead pan way as he could hoping it wouldn’t be used. However, the world weary delivery was perfect for a film noir protagonist so it worked well. As for the ending, I understood it to mean (as we didn’t actually see Deckard and Rachel in a green world, it is only suggested) that we’d better look after our planet or we’ll end up in the dystopian world of 2019. Of course (because capitalism reigns) we haven’t looked after our planet and although I don’t expect it to go ‘tits up’ in two years it’s clear we are heading to a climate apocalypse of some description. The production design of 2049 is phenomenal (take a bow Dennis Gassner), the enormous sea walls of the climax are quite chilling, and the world is convincingly 30 years more shit than in the original.

SF is not a genre of prediction because, at its best, it is always about now. By extrapolating trends it seeks to hold a mirror to our world. AI was SF in 1982; now it’s with us. 2049, where most of the protagonists are not human, brilliantly investigates the philosophy of AI, and therefore what it means to be human. K’s relationship with Joi, an AI holograph, is contrasted with Mariette, a ‘pleasure model’. The latter says to the former, after one of the most bizarre and fascinating love/sex scenes ever filmed, (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s less inside you than you think.” A division between different types of humanoid AI is a fascinating idea.

Joi is a male fantasy in terms of her looks, and domestic devotion, and there’s a degree of understandable feminist flak about the representation of women in the film. The film is representing a patriarchal world, though few would dominate Robin Wright’s Lieut. Joshi, and so sexist representations are going to be used. The final time K sees Joi could be particularly exploitative of the female body, the narrative freezes in the way Laura Mulvey describes as typical of Classical Hollywood, but then ‘she’ speaks to him and the point is made. Our understanding of Joi’s and K’s relationship is that it was one of love. However, when she calls him Joe here, and it was she who had named him, we are reminded that she isn’t real, she calls everybody Joe. K stares at her presumably grieving for her but also questioning whether the love was real between them. Hence the narrative isn’t freezing but giving time for the audience (and K) to think: was his relationship with Joi real or a fantasy?

Objectified gratuitously?

Ryan Gosling’s taciturn (he’s always taciturn isn’t he?) Joe K refers to Franz Kafka’s The Trial; the modernist parable of an absurd world. The reference is to the existential angst of a meaningless life which fuels the film’s narrative trajectory; ultimately K’s life has meaning through altruistic sacrifice. His death scene in the snow, where the ‘tears in the rain’ music beautifully infiltrates the soundtrack, is extremely moving. One of the advantages for those of us old enough to have seen the original in 1982 is that 2049 works on our memories through subtle references. Of course anyone who’s seen the original will get the reference however, particularly sitting in the cinema, in an almost Proustian way, the references trigger vivid memories of the first experience of the film; well, they did for me. I was taken back 35 years and watched it with my, now long dead, dad.

Seeking a father is a key narrative driver of both films and movingly, through K, portrays the angst (maybe) experienced by a cyborg; a being with no biological father (or mother). Unlike the original, 2049 is equally interested in mothers and (evil capitalist) Niander Wallace wants to appropriate the female prerogative of being able to give birth. His actual blindness is a metaphor for his inability to understand that women are not meant to be under male power; in that he stands in for the numerous exploitative men that inhabit the film industry.

Male hubris

His (literal) sidekick, Luv, is another type of cyborg, one with fascist tendencies. She relishes being the ‘best’, as she says after beating up K. She enjoys destroying Joi and is aligned with capitalism when she remarks that she’s pleased K was satisfied with their product.

Another strong female, the cyborg revolutionary named after a Norse goddess, is Freysa and although a sequel in the near future seems unlikely, given 2049’s poor North American box office, it does appear that the human race in the film are doomed. To be honest, from the perspective of the dystopia of 2017, we probably deserve to be.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is brilliant, particularly the way he’s shot water (which brings us life) whether it’s the drops running down windscreens or the gorgeous ripple reflections in Wallace’s lair.

Hollywood is primarily interested in ‘worlds’ which can be transformed into franchises so, in some ways, box office failure is good as it discourages exploitation of ideas for purely commercial gain. Earlier this year Ghost in the Shell (UK-China-India-Hong Kong-US) attempted to remake the brilliant anime (Japan, 1995) into an origin story and I trust its poor quality (and box office) means that won’t happen. However, it is disappointing that cerebral SF films, that require $150m to make, are not a box office attraction; although it’s performed well in the UK and not bad internationally.

I’ve mentioned a few of ideas that are raised in Blade Runner 2049 but there’s a lot more to say. The ‘father-son’ fight, K and Deckard, played out amongst malfunctioning holograms in a ruined Las Vegas, was a tour de force and the eerie red lit mise en scene was haunting until, bizarrely, the sky turned red in the UK a few days ago as the ex-hurricane Ophelia barrelled up the coast of Ireland. It is a film that needs seeing more than once and, for once, the long running time is a bonus because there’s so much to see and you get time to think.

Climactic apocalypse

One thing that I don’t think the makers have right about the world of the future and that is it will be dominated by Caucasians. Like the original, 2049 has been taken to task for its representation of race. Like the original, most white people have gone ‘off world’ to escape the hellish world. They do so because they can afford it; the ‘little people’ are left behind. One shift of the last 35 years is the declining influence of white American power, accelerating under Trump, and the rise of Chinese and Indian influence. The protagonists of international cinema in 30 years time won’t necessarily be American. However, while North America remains the world’s biggest box office it’s likely that the hegemonic white (and male) perspective will continue.

Blade Runner 2049 is a haunting film that asks big questions and is great cinema.