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.

Privilege (UK, 1967)

Some targets hit

Some targets hit

Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late ‘560s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenges Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.

As to the film itself… Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.

I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point…

Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Aus-US, 2015)

What's cookin'?

What’s cookin’?

‘It’s a long time since I enjoyed a Hollywood summer movie,’ says the jaded fifty-plus blogger who’s seen too many samey films. Mad Max is samey; the originals were made 35 plus years ago and I vaguely remember them. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is different because it’s a fabulous, unironic two hours of action with dashes of character development and a hugely welcome dose of sexual politics that sees women on top (at least some of the time). Charlize Theron’s fantastically named Imperator Furiosa harks back to Ripley of the alien series with her haircut (from Alien3) and her indomitable refusal to let men get in her way.

The original Mad Max creator, George Miller, returns and uses Warner’s millions to get it right spending the dosh on old skool stunts, though there are obviously also lashings of CGI. It takes a lot to get me excited in action cinema, but Miller pulls it off by ensuring we are always clear who is where and doing what to whom. My only quibble is the 3D – though that’s my fault for choosing the format – as it made all objects and characters look flat in a three-dimensional narrative world. It was no better than the way Georges Melies created the waves 110 years ago.

It’s not just positive about women, we can see Furiosa’s disability in the picture above, old age gets a welcome action cinema re-write too. These differences, alongside great stunts (those poles are fantastic), make Mad Max: Fury Road a go-to movie for anyone who likes chase movies.

Blade Runner (US, 1982, 1991, 2007)

Getting better all the time?

Getting better all the time?

The rerelease of ‘the final cut’ of Blade Runner charted in the UK top ten last weekend; not many 33 year old films do that; although this cut is only eight years old. I’ve extracted the introduction to the Film Note I wrote before the final version was released:

Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by Ridley Scott, was originally released in 1982 to general critical derision and was a box office failure. However it became a cult movie (see Part Four: Contexts – Audience) and was eventually re-released as Blade Runner – the Director’s Cut in 1992. Critical reception was again mixed but the box office, on a restricted release, was relatively good. In 1982 most viewers were impressed by the astounding vision of the future presented by the film but many were confused by the narrative and assumed it to be incoherent.

Now the film is ‘canonised’ by York Film Notes and the British Film Institute’s ‘modern classics’ series, it is seen to be an endlessly fascinating movie and one of the few great science fiction films of the twentieth century.

In Britain at least, science fiction (SF) remains in the literary ghetto inhabited by pulp fiction. In bookshops the genre is corralled on its own – like Crime – and the glaring, lurid, Day-Glo colours of the books seem to ‘warn off’ non-anoraks. In North America, however, the genre thrives in academic journals and is recognised as one of the most vibrant areas of literature.

It is probably the ‘fantasy’ element of SF that puts many off the genre: the belief that it has nothing to say about contemporary life and that its narrative worlds are unbelievable. Certainly much of SF, like all genres, is essentially escapist and, as such, performs an important function. However we must distinguish between these SF texts which are ‘non-genre’, or ‘soft’, SF, and those which deal with issues concerning what it means to be human which are ‘genre’, or ‘hard’, SF. Far from escaping everyday life, these texts often lead us into the mire of contemporary existence. Genre SF is never about the future, it is about now.

Blade Runner is ‘genre’ SF and deals with questions of humanity through a comparison between the replicants – particularly Roy Batty – and their hunter, Deckard. Although the replicants are machines the film suggests that, in the characters of Batty and Rachel, they have much to teach us about acting like a human being. Although Deckard appears to be the central character, he verges on being an anti-hero in his attitude and actions.

Fans of ‘genre’ SF are used to considering such issues, just as they are used to creating – through their reading – alien worlds. The critics who complained that they could not make sense of the world of L.A. 2019 were simply not working hard enough. For example, it is quite easy to infer the answers to the following questions:

  • Question: Why is it always dark? Answer: There has been an ecological disaster that has polluted the atmosphere, virtually obliterating the sun.
  • Why is the city full of ‘foreigners’? A. Everyone who can has gone Off-world and the races left behind are those who have been economically discriminated against.
  • Why is the language spoken on the street unlike our own? A. Language is constantly changing and the cityspeak of LA 2019 is a melange of Japanese, German and Spanish. This evokes the future by combining languages to make the familiar different.
  • Why are some parts of the city overcrowded and others deserted? A. The over-crowding is seen in the market sector; Sebastian’s apartment is deserted but who would want to live there?

And so on.

The film’s fascination does not simply reside in its philosophy; the extraordinary nature of its visual conception provides virtually endless visual pleasure and presents a well rounded, convincing view of our future.

Because the film became a cult, obsessive fans have analysed the film frame by frame and shared their conclusions on the internet. In addition, the ‘false’ ending in the original version provided fuel for much debate during the 1980s which the release of the ‘director’s cut’ in 1991 only partially dampened. Discussion of Blade Runner is encouraged because it is an open text that allows a wide range of interpretation to be justified from a close reading.

To enjoy Blade Runner you do not have to be a fan of SF you simply have to be interested in what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.

If that whetted your appetite you can buy the kindle edition: Film Notes: Blade Runner

Interstellar (US-UK, 2014)

Mind bending reality

Mind bending reality

I’ve been avoiding Interstellar a bit because I’ve been seeing the marketing for nearly a year. Also the trailer made it seem like Terrence Malick was going to tackle the meaning of life again with Matthew McConaughey’s portentous voiceover allied to poetic imagery. Thankfully it’s much more engaging and at least as profound as Malick’s movie. It’s true the script clunks occasionally but I can forgive that in a film with immense ambition: bringing ‘hard’ SF to the masses. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity can rarely have been represented so dramatically.

Also striking for SF was the film’s emotive heft; often, in the genre, the characters are subservient to the ideas (that’s certainly not a criticism). The portrayal of the father-daughter relationship, and the discussions about love, are extremely moving. This is aided by performances that inspire belief in the characters; McConaughey’s obviously’s hit a hot streak and MacKenzie Foy (as the 10 year version) is his equal.

Visually the film is brilliant and I liked (if that’s the word) the portrayal of the dying Earth; a fate we’re hurtling toward at the moment. Will most of the audience understand that the Nolans are making a comment on our treatment of the planet? The name of Matt Damon (uncredited) character – Mann – suggests that he personifies masculinity (I won’t spoil).

Hans Zimmer’s score is exceptionally good; the use of the organ reminded me of Solaris (USSR, 1972) a film that, at the time, was called Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s landmark film is a touchstone for the Nolans; it was a favourite of mine for many years but it disappointed me last time I saw it, I shall have to revisit it.

Even approaching three hours Interstellar isn’t too long as there’s plenty of mind bending physics as well as physical tension to make this particular Hollywood roller coaster ride a great mind-body experience.

Divergent (US, 2014)

Women as action heroes

Women as action heroes

As Hollywood thrashes around for the next ‘young adult’ franchise, it looks as though Maze Runner‘s worked for 20th Century Fox, you might be forgiven for ignoring the films if you’re several decades beyond the core audience. It was out of duty I watched Divergent and was delighted to find a narrative that wasn’t compromising over its representation of women. Like The Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence constantly looks uncomfortable when she’s wearing the fancy clothes of the Capitol, Divergent looks beyond the looks of its lead women. We are at a moment where women are becoming more visible (I note that the President of the PGA has just been sacked for misogynist remarks) but are having to withstand a Neanderthal male backlash: see #gamergate for example.

The DVD cover is not exactly encouraging as it repeats the trope that attractive women must twist their bodies so their bum and breasts are visible, but Theo James’ ‘helper’ is definitely in his place.

"Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body..."

“Turn your bum toward me and then twist your body…”

What matters is the film and Shailene Woodley’s Tris is a well drawn character who excels both in mind and body. Unlike The Hunger Games (so far in the films at least) she is also a sexual being and the growing attraction between her and James’ Four is well played and directed. And I particularly liked the scene where she teams up with her mother (Ashley Judd – see pic above) to shoot their way out of  trouble.

Whilst Hollywood apparently prevaricates over whether to actually produce a woman superhero film, audiences are voting with their tickets and the sequel to Divergent follows next year. Hopefully the brave women who are the focus of men’s bile, particularly online where anonymity makes the attacks more frequent, can withstand the pressure and the mass media can start representing women as more than pretty adjuncts to men. Men, of course, have their role in this as well by challenging the everyday sexism that pervades many work environments and not giving any consideration to the Daily Mail who delight in having misogynist female columnists.

Under the Skin (UK, 2013)

Getting under the skin

Getting under the skin

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scene. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.