The Fall series 2 (UK, 2014)

She will get her man

She will get her man

I’ve only just finished BBC2’s second series of The Fall otherwise it would have featured in my year’s top 20; I’m sure it will will be there next year. Central to the series, like many serial killer texts, is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Allan Cubitt, he wrote, produced and directed (now that is auteurism in action) is clearly exploring men’s (or is it misogynist men’s?) attitude toward women and so focuses on the psychological, which is also a trope of the genre. So far so conventional but The Fall – both series – have been compelling viewing; what makes it so?

Performance is always important and Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as the ice-woman that spills tears on her virtually unemotional face. Anderson is an hypnotic screen presence (or is that the heterosexual male in me?) and, I guess, a role model for women who would like to deal with male aggression in such a calm way. Her ‘shameless’ attitude toward her sexual appetite was also refreshing to see; I felt the need to put ‘shameless’ in inverted commas because it is often used as a critical term, in this context, to vilify women who ‘sleep around’ whilst reserving the right of allowing ‘men to be men’ as an excuse for their promiscuous behaviour.

Jamie Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector (a mix of ghoul and voyeur), superbly mixes charm and hatred and Aisling Franciosi pulls off a very difficult role of a precocious, and ultimately demented, teenager brilliantly. The Belfast setting, with sectarian violence simmering beneath the peaceful streets, added to the atmosphere of unease.

The whole cast articulated well Cubitt’s purpose to show up hypocritical attitudes toward women and the complexity of relationships. I particularly liked Gibson’s last word on Spector: that she despised him.

Although the psychological climactic battle with the killer didn’t quite come off, Anderson’s Stella (she is a star) Gibson was too unruffled, and the finale was redolent of Se7en (US 1995), The Fall is an prime example of quality television that is, fortunately, characteristic of our age. If The Fall had been included, half of my top ten films/TV programmes last year would have been for television. Whilst there were many films I missed out on, such as Boyhood (US, 2014), there are TV series that I’ve yet to catch up on.

It’s hard to write about television effectively, and even the British quality press TV critics still seem to be unable to deal with the medium seriously, because of time: The Fall series 2 clocked in at almost six and a half hours. Writing about film sometimes requires a second viewing, to do that for television serials would be virtually impossible not simply because of their the time of individual serial or series, but there is so many to see watch!

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Germany, 1920)

Expressionist mise en scene

Expressionist mise en scene

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is indisputably a landmark film; it made a massive impact when it was first released and is as near a unique film that you are likely to see. Its uniqueness (well there are one or two that are similar) resides in its painted Expressionist sets that remain extraordinary to look at even 100 years on. Siegfried Kracauer’s history of German cinema (published 1947), From Caligari to Hitler, suggested that we can see the antecedents of authoritarian Nazis in the character of the director of the asylum, who has a sideline in serial killing. Such teleological historical methods are both out of  fashion and rubbish; Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen suffers similarly in talking about ‘mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves’ (p9).

I think it’s useful to look beyond this historical ‘baggage’ and simply consider it was a film. Of course contextualising film is of utmost importance, it’s just that Kracauer and Eisner’s views may have ‘tainted’ perceptions of Caligari.

As one of the first ‘art film’ successes, it’s ironic that if suffered from producer interference regarding the ending; something that is usually reserved for commercial cinema. But then Caligari was always a commercial enterprise it’s just that it doesn’t look like that, then or now. SPOILER ALERT: to what extent does the framing device that exonerates the director (brilliantly played by Werner Krauss) alter our

Werner Krauss' Caligari (lfet) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

Krauss’ Caligari (left) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

understanding of the film? Does the fact that the ‘Expressionist’ sets merely indicate the ravings of a madman diminish the subversion of the suggestion that the ruler of the asylum is a lunatic? My view is that it doesn’t because too much of the film focuses upon Caligari – as manipulator of the somnambulist Cesare – as a dodgy character for that to be alleviated at the end. It could even be that Francis, the protagonist, has been entrapped in the asylum by director. Too often those in power are able to cover up their own incompetence.

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Regardless of the narrative the key to the film is the marvellous mise en scene where the world is a place of artifice. The wonderful town clerk’s chair that emphasises his superiority; the bunch of houses on a hill; the triangular windows. These are what matter most in Caligari.

Se7en (US, 1995)

This is not going to end well

This is not going to end well

Once upon a time a young idealistic cop, and his wife, moves to the big city because he thinks he can do some good. He’s teamed with a cynical partner who is about to retire. Together they seek a serial killer who’s using the seven deadly sins as his inspiration. The killer is captured and the young cop, and his wife, lives happily ever after. Imagine Se7en concluding in such a way, something studio executives desired. The film would have remained stylish, exciting and depressing. Fortunately we have Se7en as it is, Se7en a film of contradictions: downbeat ending but popular; entertaining and bleak; genre and art house; European and American.

Virtually all Hollywood narratives are structured as fairy tales and so offer a happy ending. Se7en managed to be both subversive in its ending – people do not live ‘happily ever after’ – and popular: it grossed over $100 million at the North American (USA and Canada) box office. The downbeat ending (to understate the case) is not entirely absent in Hollywood’s output, indeed during the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s it was not exceptional (The Godfather, 1971, for example). However after Jaws (1975), the High Concept (see Contexts: Hollywood) summer blockbuster’ became the studios’ preferred method of making money and films conceived as blockbusters generally do not have unhappy endings.

Most people watch Hollywood cinema in order to be entertained. The biggest box office films of the year are invariably ‘popcorn movies’ whose ambition is to do no more than make money by entertaining as many people as possible. In North America, the world’s biggest market, recent top grossing movies have included: Independence Day (1996); Titanic (1997); Armageddon (1998); Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). With the exception of Titanic, which dealt with social class and gender, these films have little, or no, pretensions about making significant statements about the human condition. Se7en, on the other hand, offers a vision that is bleak with virtually no possibility of redemption.

Se7en cover

Se7en, like most entertaining films, is a genre movie; or rather a mix of a number of genres including film noir, serial killer and horror, It is also, in many ways, an art movie where ideas predominate over visceral pleasure. In this it has a European sensibility rather an optimistic brashness that typifies North American product. Despite this all its main creative personnel, cinematographer aside, are American. Many deride Hollywood for producing formulaic and banal films. This it does, but Hollywood also produces masterpieces like Se7en.

Extracted from Film Note: Se7en (available on kindle here)