Hidden Figures (US, 2016)

Amazing women

I mentioned in the posting about Moonlight that the Academy’s guilt about last year’s blatant disrespect toward films focusing on African Americans has been addressed this year. Hidden Figures, and that must be the best pun in any film title from last year, uncovers (based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book) the role of African American women in NASA’s 1960s space programme. When I heard of the film I was gobsmacked that black, females had such an important role and I hadn’t heard of it. Then I woke up and remembered how discriminatory the ‘60s were.

The film’s to be celebrated in telling a great story, in a similar way to United Kingdom, uncovering historic challenges to racism that had been erased from mainstream history. The women’s fight is superbly told, easing much detail fluidly into a dynamic narrative; very Hollywood. Also Hollywood is its ‘based on a true story’ looseness with the facts. For example, the first black NASA supervisor attained the position in 1948 not the early ‘60s of the film. The ‘based on a true story’ statement during the credits is, as always, a warning we are not watching history. I’m relaxed about such ‘distortions’ as they don’t obscure an essential truth about the dual-struggle, as women and as part of an ethnic minority, these women experienced. However, although wonderfully dramatic, (spoiler ahead) the scene were the Al Harrison, essentially in charge of space travel calculations, smashes a ‘coloreds only’ toilet sign in disgust is apparently fictional. So what’s the purpose of that scene?

Hollywood has a tradition of filtering black emancipation narratives, such as Mississippi Burning (US, 1988), through a white perspective and although this film is resolutely from the women’s points of view, primarily Taraji P Henson’s Katherine G Johnson, the Harrison character offers a point of identity for those in the audience who cannot allow themselves simply to root for the women. The fact that he is charismatically played by Kevin Costner adds heft to white dispensed justice. Kirsten Dunst’s character, unremittingly polite and racist throughout, is also given a redeeming coda; as is the superbly cast Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory). In the latter cases it could be argued that they represent how previously racist individuals, when they come into contact with African-Americans, learn the error of their ways.

The film occupies similar territory to The Help (US-India-UAE, 2011), which was filtered through a white protagonist, though that film was making the point that oppressed minorities need the help of majority members in their fight for justice. I’ve just noticed a viral video of straight men holding hands, in the Netherlands, as a statement against homophobia; a powerful way of marginalising hatred.

Hidden Figures, in the centrality of the black women, and the fact the story is true, is so powerful in its condemnation of racism that I’ll forgive the narrative transgression involving Harrison. It’s interesting that it was distributed via Fox 2000, the Hollywood major studio’s more ‘indie’ distributor. Clearly executives didn’t have a lot of faith in the film’s commercial prospects; I wonder if its $150m plus take in North America alone will alter their thinking about minority stories?

Enemy of the State (US, 1998)

They ARE all around us

They ARE all around us

I really enjoyed this film when it came out and have used it in the classroom. I wondered how it stood up given the Edward Snowden revelations about how our online and telephonic presences are surveilled and the answer is ‘very well’. That’s because it’s a superbly scripted (David Marconi), shot (Daniel Mindel), directed (Tony Scott) and performed thriller. The cast is stellar and Will Smith’s malleable charm works well against Gene Hackman’s flinty cynic. I was gripped and it’s telling that the spooks could penetrate our lives fully at the end of the 20th century and appalling to know what they are doing now see Citizenfour.

The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (US, 1931)

Interesting transformation

Interesting transformation

Apparently the AQA exam board in the UK claimed that their selection of 19th century novels (which students have to study for GCSE) all had good film versions. Teachers know that for many youngsters (and oldsters) 19th century lit teaching needs the extra help provided by visuals that bring to life the often torpid prose. Like the insistence that pupils be assessed on Shakespeare, this is class-based elitism that intends to ensure ‘culture’ remains the provence of the upper middle classes. There’s no reason why youngsters shouldn’t be introduced to the 19th century literature, or Shakespeare, but to insist they are assessed upon for their final grade is farcical. So how does this Dr. Jekyll stack up? Risibly I’m afraid though there is much to like in the film.

The performance style of early 1930s Hollywood; the pronunciation of Jekyll as Je-kill; the slightly ridiculous incarnation of Hyde; the aristocratic milieux so loved by Hollywood at the time… I could go on… are all off-putting. There’s nothing in the film that will help lower ability kids get their heads around Stevenson’s great novella.

However, as a pre-Code movie, starring the excellent Frederic March, with some adventurous camerawork from director Rouben Mamoulian, there’s enough to keep the cinephile interested. The transformation scenes are an absolute triumph; apparently March’s face was heavily made up in blue and then a blue filter was removed as March gurned into the monster. It still looks great. In order to set this up, so the character is looking directly into the camera, the opening shot is an ambitious, and rare, subjective shot including seeng March in a mirror. Technically brilliant at the time and now.

There are virtually no women in Stevenson’s novella (homosexuality repressed?) but Hollywood needs the ‘love interest’ and its provided by the ‘tinsel town’ trope of virgin (Rose Hobart) and whore (Miriam Hopkins). The pre-Code nature is evident when Hopkins’ Ivy tries to seduce Jekyll; she’s clearly naked and it’s so obvious what she’s after even my Year 10 knew. Despite its inauthenticity, this works to enhance Stevenson’s themes as the protagonist’s need for sex, his father-in-law won’t let him marry for eight months, serves as his motivation to become Hyde. Less successful is the moment when Hyde seems to be a black man; typical of the racism of the time (and now in ‘Trump’s America’).

However, as a film it will only confirm to youngsters that black and white movies have nothing for them and it will serve only to further alienate them from the text they are struggling to study. But then that’s the Establishment’s purpose isn’t it.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.

The French Connection (US, 1971)

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin's febrile direction

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin’s febrile direction

In the posting about The Sugarland Express I mentioned how, in the early ’70s, the Hollywood studios were not afraid to back innovative films (though this was more through desperation than a love of art); The French Connection is another example of what happens when talented directors get to call the shots. In this case, William Friedkin, who won a Oscar (not necessarily a sign of brilliance) for this film which was a box office hit. He followed up, two years later, with The Exorcist; he was on a roll.

I hadn’t seen the film for some time and am delighted to report it stands up well 44 years after its release. It’s justly famous chase sequence is still absolutely gripping. The use of sound is very striking, there’s no music and although we can see Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screaming ‘Get out of the way!’, or some such, through the windscreen we can only hear the car’s horn and squealing tyres. The tension of the chase, intercut with the train on which his quarry is seeking to escape, does not need music to boost the audience’s feelings.

The use of locations also stands out: a wintry and grotty New York. Clearly they’d chosen the shittiest places to film: these certainly weren’t ‘good old days’. I suspect the TV series Kojak (1973-8) took its cue from the film; at the time it seemed the epitome of realism.

The cast is excellent but the film is driven by Gene Hackman, possibly his greatest role in a great career (also awarded an Oscar). He is a total scumbag but wedded to getting the ‘bad guy’.  I hope I can catch the sequel again; a film that, when I saw it in the early ’80s, I thought to be even better than the original.

It’s dangerous to say that Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore because fogeyism is never a good form of criticism but I suspect it’s true. I recently saw the well regarded (independently produced) Nightcrawler (US, 2014), where Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a great performance as an ambulance chasing cameraman, but I was unimpressed. Maybe it is my cynicism, I wasn’t surprised by the film’s satire as it’s obvious ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is the tabloid TV philosophy, as I didn’t think the film was showing me anything I didn’t know (Riz Ahmed’s also great in it by the way). I’m not knocking it, at least it was trying to say something and it is worth seeing.

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’.