Zero Dark Thirty (US, 2012)

War on humanity

War on humanity

Technically proficient, and emotionally cold, Zero Dark Thirty is a paean to revenge. It’s a brilliantly staged reconstruction of the events, including 9/11, that lead to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Disgracefully it implies that torture helped in tracking the terrorist down, though there is no evidence that it did so. When emotion is let into the movie it’s risible: Jennifer Ehle’s over-eager CIA operative, grinning, manically happy, thinking she’s got a lead when she’s only got her death.

The movie’s one long – very long – shout of (understandable) anger that results in an imprisoned diabetic’s death. So much effort to kill one, undoubtedly evil, man. There’s absolutely no consideration of the blowback that US operations abroad created, and continue to do so, for the west. This crushing simplicity condemns the movie as propaganda.

It’s not an easy film to watch or follow; I’m sure it only topped $90m at the North American box office because people wanted to see Bin Laden die.

Se7en (US, 1995) – kindle extract: film noir

Classic neo noir

Classic neo noir

The below is extracted from Film Note: Se7en, available for the next six days for less than half price here!


It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film … movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique kind of eroticism: … The Maltese Falcon, … Laura, … Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and … The Woman in the Window. (Borde and Chaumeton, 1999, p. 17; first published in 1955)

Deprived of Hollywood movies during the German occupation of the Second World War, French critics had the opportunity, after the war’s end, to view a glut of movies made during the war years. They saw a group of films that had a visual style in common and narratives that shared the mood of serie noire novels. They dubbed these film noir and a new genre was born.

The fact that the makers of these movies were not aware of the existence of film noir is not important. The zeitgeist (‘spirit of the times’) of 1940s America, plus changing conditions of film production and of many German emigres, laid the foundation for the new genre. Although there are disputes as to which film qualifies as the first film noir critics cite the John Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the ground-breaking movie. Based on Dashiel Hammett’s novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon had the hard-boiled detective narrative that was characteristic of pulp fiction thrived, in the 1920s, as serials in magazines such as Black Mask. It was not until three years later, with the arrival of the other films cited by Borde and Chaumeton, that the classic film noir cycle got into ‘full-flow, culminating with Touch of Evil in 1958. The hiatus, between and 1944, was probably a result of Hollywood responding to the War effort.

Unsurprisingly, the Second World War caused massive social upheaval, possibly most lastingly felt in the changing role of women. As men fought on the front line, women were drafted into factories to take on ‘men’s’ work. This gave women a sense of independence and helped fuel their husbands’/boyfriends’ fantasies about what ‘their’ women might be up to. In addition, at the war’s end, men wanted ‘their’ jobs back and women were forced back into the home or the menial employment they had ‘enjoyed’ before the war. This eruption of gender identity was expressed in the film noir character of the femme fatale.

In addition, many soldiers were traumatised by their wartime experiences. They had spent up to five years fighting in the company of men and killing in terrifying conditions, so the return to civilian life was anything but easy. Many suffered from the then largely unrecognised post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hence many film noir characters are veterans, suspicious of women, psychologically scarred by their experiences and capable of psychotic violence.

Also during the 1940s, the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud became fashionable in North America. His belief that human beings’ civilised nature was barely skin deep and our ‘animal side’, the id, was never far away can be seen in film noir‘s narratives that investigate the dark side of humanity.

Paul Kerr (1999) has suggested that industrial constraints helped fuel the film noir genre. These films were made as B pictures (as distinct from the prestigious and expensive A pictures) and were made on tight schedules with little interference from the studio producer. This relative independence meant experimentation was possible in both visual style and narrative. With the time constraints (Edgar Ulmer’s classic Detour, 1945, was made in six days), night and location shooting were required, which helped in the development of filmnoir‘s look.

The influx of German directors, who were fleeing the Nazis, was probably most influential. During the early 1920s, a number of German films drew upon the Expressionist visual style that emphasised characters’ state of mind by exaggerating and distorting the exterior world. In film noir, this mutated into lighting patterns that used shadows to distort people and objects, and camera angles that made the ‘normal’ grotesque. This visual style can be considered to be the iconography of film noir; indeed some critics argue that film noir is not a genre at all but a film movement characterised by its visual style (see Place, 1980). Westerns, such as Rancho Notorious (1952), have been shot as film noir. Rancho Notorious was directed by Fritz Lang, who made his name in Germany with films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Lang made many classic films noir, including Woman in the Window and The Big Heat (1953). As we saw in Background: Director as auteur, Lang has influenced David Fincher.

Although critics suggest the classic film noir cycle ended in 1958, films noir continued to be made: Odds Against Tomorrow was released in 1959 and Cape Fear three years later. However, it was not until the 1980s that there appeared a large number of films that shared film noir characteristics and these have been dubbed neo noir. Body Heat (1981) possibly heralded this return to favour of the convoluted narrative dealing with corrupt individuals. As a 1980s’ remake of Double Indemnity, the sex scenes in Body Heat could be as explicit as those in the earlier films noir had been implicit.

A number of neo-noirs, including Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), can be considered as pastiches that knowingly, and lovingly, recreate the style of earlier films, albeit in colour and with a modern sensibility. Other neo noirs, such as Se7en, move the genre forward and so avoid pastiche. Se7en‘s unmitigated tale of woe (most classic films noir did at least gesture toward a happy ending), suggests there is little, or no hope for modern society (see Critical Responses).

There is not enough space here to do justice to the variations and complexity of film noir; for a more in-depth, though still relatively brief survey, see Lacey (2000) or any of the following books dedicated to the genre: Cameron (1992), Hirsch (1999), Kaplan (1980) or Krutnik (1991).


Riddles of the Sphinx (UK, 1977)

Still making sense

Still making sense

Whilst studying Film/Literature, at Warwick University in the early 1980s, we had an opportunity to see, in 16mm, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx and I vividly remember one shot from the film and that I liked it. Now the BFI have re-released the film, along with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons made by the wife-husband pair three years earlier, in a dual format edition. So here’s a great opportunity to revisit the fertile time of the ’70s when Marxist politics were to fore. Not that Marx has been shown to be wrong, or irrelevant, of course just that he has seemed to have gone out of ‘fashion’ in academia (I observe that as an outsider so may be wrong). I notice that economics students in Manchester are campaigning to get Marx back on their curriculum; it’s remarkable that he’s not especially in the light of the free-market driven financial collapse.

I got Riddles on rental but, as I liked the film again and the package was so generous, including a booklet, that I’ve bought the er ‘limited edition’ (I believe that refers to the Blu-ray disc). What’s particularly interesting is how the film now as much an historical document showing, as it does, slices (or rather ’round bits’) of life from the ’70s. The ’round bits’ refers to the bulk of the film that has six (I think) scenes where a rostrum camera pans slowly as the action happens in front of it. What’s seen appears to be controlled as much by the technology as the directors; the framing isn’t aesthetically pleasing and so draws attention to the material nature of what we’re seeing. As does a sequence where we see the very grainy footage of an old film of Egyptian monuments (the only passage of the film that tested by patience). The film’s not just ‘historical’ in what it shows but also in how it shows it utilising modernist techniques to ‘estrange’ the spectator.

The narrative follows the life of a mother, whose husband (probably not ‘just’ a partner in the ’70s) has left her with their young daughter. Each ‘slice’ focuses on a different event such as starting work, socialising in the work canteen and shopping. The latter slice, in an early version of the late capitalist hell, shopping malls, is particularly interesting to look at. These are mundane events, the antithesis of Hollywood, but integral to our lives and, particularly, the lives of women.

Mulvey and Wollen are better known as film theorists than film-makers and theirs was a fascinating project to turn theory, particularly the ‘male gaze’ and ‘counter cinema’ respectively, into film. The ’70s were a fertile time for such experimentation and it was good to see the BFI, which funded this film, recently backing the intellectually adventurous Stuart Hall Project. With feminism making a long-needed comeback, Hollywood giving up on thought-provoking cinema, the time is right for new ways of creating meaning in film.

The shot I remembered over 30-years later, by the way, was when the stately pan suddenly began moving on top of a vehicle.

Gravity (US, 2013)

Out of this world

Out of this world

Hollywood has lost the plot; Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Hollywood) dates the institution’s loss of nerve to 2008 when the only game in town became franchises aimed primarily at the international market. This year is the first time, I think, that I’ve not seen any of the ‘big summer movies’; I’d assumed fogeyism had gotten me at last but maybe it isn’t my fault and Hollywood no longer knows how to make interesting big budget movies.  All this is to put into context Warner Bros.’s risky $80m project that has become the biggest grossing October release ever; the autumn being a slack time at the box office traditionally. Risky, presumably, as it’s not part of a franchise.

You will be aware that the film is also a critical success and even moved Mark Kermode to state that it must be seen in 3D; I share his dislike of the medium and he’s right in this instance. I’m an admirer of director (and co-scriptwriter) Alfonso Cuaron: his Y tu mama tambien and Children of Men  are amongst my favourite films of this century. His trademark long takes are breathtakingly evident in Gravity adding to the brilliance of the special effects by London’s Framestore. The film’s also powered by ‘old fashioned’ stars that not only lend their charisma to the screen but, particularly in Bullock’s case as she did the bulk of the publicity circus, help to market the film worldwide. Obst also remarks that Hollywood is no longer producing stars; Jennifer Lawrence may be an exception.

Could Gravity‘s success make Hollywood realise that there’s more to financial success than franchises? I haven’t seen Captain Phillips but that isn’t a major studio production and it is quite terrifying how the Marvel sequels are out-grossing their predecessors powered by last year’s The Avengers. I can see why studio execs are thinking franchises are the only game in town. Disney, which owns Marvel, is also poised to reboot Star Wars… Aaaaagh! 

A hailstorm forced me into an Odeon early to see the film and so I had to suffer 30 minutes of marketing. Cinemas should charge less the earlier you go in so at least we get something for our pain.

Hopefully there are plenty of good movies to come this year but it’ll take something special to prevent this being in my top two, along with Before Midnight, of the year.

Philomena (UK-US-France, 2013)

Doing the right thing

Doing the right thing

The Magdalene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) brilliantly exposed the inhumanity of the Catholic Church in their treatment of women. Philomena follows the same theme with a more contemporary story that once again highlights the inhumanity of that institution. Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, it tells the tale of how he stumbles across Philomena Lee looking for her ‘lost’ son, after been ousted as a New Labour spin doctor. I haven’t read the book but it is clear that Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote and produced the film, has not tried to wholly inhabit Sixsmith’s character as Coogan’s persona (how he appears in film and TV programmes) is present throughout. This is evident in the first scene where he mistakes his doctor’s description of his ‘outstanding’ (sounds like an Ofsted judgement) ‘stool’ as  as suggesting ‘high quality’ rather than ‘missing’.

Coogan’s humour, I am told, is at odds with the book and so adds to the entertainment. It also reminds us that Coogan is a high profile campaigner for proper press regulation (which is looking increasingly unlikely) and he memorably ripped into an ex-News of the World scumbag here. I’d be interested in what Sixsmith made of his portrayal as it isn’t flattering, the media elite’s snobbery is evident though the journalist is certainly celebrated in his determination to complete his investigation; this Guardian interview doesn’t touch upon it.

Sailing effortless, and movingly, through the narrative is Judi Dench’s Philomena who portrays a betrayed and ordinary woman as having great dignity in the face of her treatment. This contrasts with Coogan’s (he’s a lapsed Catholic) outrage at the Church; I know who’s side I was on. This is likely to be one of my favourite films of the year.

The Stuart Hall Project (UK, 2013)

A force for good

A force for good

This film was a bit of a ‘blast from the past’ not simply because it focused on the 1950s-70s of Stuart Hall’s life, but the form of John Akomfrah’s film  reminded me of the experimental 1980s. Older folk may remember Hall’s appearances on television; from the film it seemed he was used as the ‘voice of the left’ by the BBC at least in the ’60s. I say ‘seemed’ because it’s not a straightforward expository documentary; the voice over consists of Hall’s voice from different contexts. I don’t remember seeing Hall on telly at the time and was intrigued as to how Hall’s Afro-Carribean ethnicity might have affected the perception of his views. However, Roy Stafford – who introduced the film and led a post-screening discussion – said that the wasn’t seen as ‘black’ at the time so his skin colour was irrelevant.

For those who weren’t watching the news in the ’60s, Hall is known for his brilliant work in Media Studies, particularly on representation and audience readings, as well as his Open University programmes. Of course, many won’t have heard of him at all.

Akomfrah’s film took a bit of ‘tuning in’ to but once I was into the rhythms, almost literally with its fantastic Miles Davis soundtrack, the film was an affecting concoction of ideas and history. I’ve just noticed that Riddles of the Sphinx is my next video rental – more nostalgia for me then!

The Selfish Giant (UK, 2013)

Big mouth strikes

Big mouth strikes

This film has been widely lauded but I didn’t like it. I’m not sure why; is it the fact that I come across tykes like Arbor (‘big mouth’ above) as part of my day job? Maybe it’s my dislike of naturalism, texts that look at ‘low life’ without any political framework (though Mark Kermode says it is political here). I wasn’t engaged by the opening scene where Arbor and his mate, Swifty, opportunistically nick someone else’s thieving; I thought the scene badly directed and so unconvincing. There were loose ends: the electric cable lying around on waste land; the fact that Swifty can sit in the school’s reception despite being excluded; the absence of social services; it was explicitly set in Bradford but you wouldn’t know it from the mise en scene. And I wasn’t won over by the performances, despite the fact that they were convincing.

I saw it in Bradford and, for the art house screen, it was pretty full for an early evening screening though that might be simply to do with the local factor as it didn’t perform well nationally. The people I saw it with were ‘moved’ by the film so maybe it’s my jaundiced perception, as a teacher, who has to deal with ‘Arbors’ in a system that has no place for them.