7 November 2018
trouble on the line
The December Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing The Guilty, a Danish film about a police officer trying to control a tense situation down the phone which has been well received everywhere. Except by me, shrugging as I am at the theory that a sequence of duologues in one setting backed up by intelligent sound design is inherently cinematic, a notion that a few playwrights and radio dramatists might have something to say about. The name Locke has been dropped everywhere, this week’s example of critics fixated on content and oblivious to form, given the constant wash of colour and movement and reflections in glass that occupy Locke’s every frame, none of which The Guilty is even conceived to attempt. Plus the policeman at the centre of the plot is guilty of the most heinous offence a fictional white authority figure can commit. For a current film not to flay him open for it might be a suitably Scandinavian act of reconciliation, but raises questions about the film’s intent just in time for it to avoid them by ending.
The Forbidden and Beyond The Black Rainbow: long live the new skin
Horror films are always about form and content too, plus a certain amount of flaying. I liked The Haunting of Hill House, gingering up one model of horror story by the unlikely tactic of stretching it out to six times the normal length, and episode five ended with a blast of one of Alan Moore’s most poignant literary ideas about time and history; an unexpected place to find it, but there it was. And The Witch was on TV for Halloween, still sparse and terse and pagan, unknowably strange. But marooned as we are in an era when irony distorts everything like a fish-eye lens already, the more horror tries to be reflexive and ironic, the more the results fly apart under the strain. I’m not even convinced any more that the true core of horror fiction, the painful gaining of personal self-knowledge that has made it a young person’s genre for 200 years, is now best served by cinema in the first place, or that the border between parody and sincerity isn’t so weak that horror films can end up tripping backwards straight out of the door they just arrived through. How Possum can be treated independently of the fact that director Matthew Holness is a maker of parodies and written about as if he hadn’t now made another one, is a mystery. What is Sean Harris pulling that face for, exactly, if not that?
I bring this up having watched Mandy and the 1996 Clive Barker film Lord of Illusions back to back, two horror stories about cult leaders and the people they destroy, both of which are in more complicated relationships with their audience than either Hill House or The Witch. The dripping latex and early granular CGI in Barker’s film date it precisely to the minute, and although occult noir and its magical private investigators is a rock solid genre, Barker ultimately has a foreigner’s perspective rather than an innate feel for its tensions. But he and his fictions remain the only horror brand I really connect with, fully social and psychosexual and analogue. Barker’s starting point is always Jean Cocteau and Orphée, dreams and the sub-conscious, and he believes the old Cocteau principle of combining unsettling concepts with accessible imagery. “The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic,” said the old boy, and he was right. Barker’s also a libertine in the finest sense, and his films are voluptuously sexual.
Mandy is as voluptuous as a knee injury, and its presiding spirit is less Jean Cocteau and more Jim Steinman. To let ironic homage take the place of actual self-knowledge—and most certainly take the place of horror’s highest engagement with social comment or cohesion, which Panos Cosmatos doesn’t seem to have much interest in if this and Beyond The Black Rainbow are anything to go by—is to drag any art towards fan service, of which one drop goes a long way. Beyond The Black Rainbow presages some of Mandy’s specific shots but does without its dollops of shaggy hysteria, replacing it instead with a trancey-stupor metaphysical style conspicuously waving at Stanley Kubrick and Nic Roeg. But fan credentials will out, so it ends with a quote from Buckaroo Banzai. Once upon a time, a quote from Buckaroo Banzai was because the director had seen it and you hadn’t; now it’s just a statement of status, the least secret secret-handshake imaginable.
I’m particularly exercised here because one dvd on Cosmatos’s shelf is clearly Hellraiser, my favourite Barker of all, summoned explicitly when one of Mandy’s bad guys whistles up some demonic biker types, leather-clad wheezing rubes who are Cenobites by way of Psychomania. Meanwhile Black Rainbow has a flashback of the villain’s transmogrification via a pit of black ooze shot in high-contrast colour-coded negative, which sent me to Barker’s old short The Forbidden, shot in authentic negative and which ends with Pete Atkins covered in Vesalius anatomical etchings and adopting a very similar pose to camera. But Barker was falling back on instinct and symbolism and a budget of ten pounds fifty, and Cosmatos is apparently just falling back on Barker.
31 October 2018
The trick for a good pastiche is to just keep going when you get to the end of the runway. Goldtiger arrives as a mock Swinging Sixties newspaper strip about Lily Gold and Jack Tiger, an oversexed dynamic duo not a million miles from Modesty Blaise banging Jason King, who wander into a spy plot rescued from Ian Fleming’s wastepaper bin while most of their clothes fall off. Then the second half takes a turn for the meta, when the strip’s artist gets the hump with his editors and starts playing God in the story—which of course he already was anyway. He intervenes in the strip personally, unplugging the supervillain’s death machine and eventually pressed against the open side of the final panels like a mime in a glass box. The strip’s opening three words are “Nice and smooth,” a signal flare to fans of Grant Morrison about what’s up before the first panel is over, after which Guy Adams and the artist known as Jimmy Broxton garnish their fandango with made-up 1970s magazines called things like Ausflippen and psychedelic albums by one Zack Frappa. Their final pretence is that the swinging duo nearly wound up in 2000AD, a joke you would guess was added after Rebellion picked up Goldtiger from its original self-publishing path.
Now 2000AD has published Adams and Broxton’s new strip Hope, which also plays games with history, and again on a path which is fairly well-worn, the one where magic and sorcery are part of the post-war Hollywood norm. Occult noir is an evergreen genre, especially in cinema—everyone’s come around to Angel Heart but Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions still awaits its due—and although Hope is less ambitious than those, and less ambitious than Goldtiger really, the strip’s shadowy style and wan ink washes and runes snaking over the page like smog makes for an effectively pungent atmosphere. I read the collected first story arc, the one called Hope…For The Future, and reviewed it for Tripwire.
28 October 2018
Paul Schrader’s last couple of films involved Nicolas Cage shouting and as it happens I preferred the one that Schrader vehemently disowned, but in theory First Reformed is lower key in every way—except that a fixed camera and square frame and no music and long philosophical dialogues are just as blunt a manipulation as any other. Schrader has been tending this turf of male loss-of-faith for decades, although as he himself said all of 15 years ago:
The hypothesis is that if you reduce your sensual awareness rigorously and for long enough, the inner need will explode and it will be pure because it will not have been siphoned off by easy or exploitative identification; it will have been refined and compressed to its true identity, the divine sense.
Which makes First Reformed seem like something of a culmination. As a film of ideas about doubt and aguish in a doomed world it seems hard to dismiss, partly because the ideas arrive in a ceaseless stream, agonies everywhere. A very blunt sequence in which Ethan Hawke’s tormented priest and Amanda Seyfried’s grieving widow levitate into an airborne dreamscape during a fully-clothed erotic encounter with dissonant atonal music on the soundtrack will be the make-or-break point for most people. But the helpless wails and animal growling Hawke makes when he sees Seyfried in the church at the end are dire enough to make anyone who might have some point in life have found themselves making similar noises dig their nails into the armrest in empathy and recognition, one of art’s highest goals since forever.
Speaking of anguished cries. At this point in time I salute any British film that doesn’t succumb to the dire siren song of realism, since the results of that only ever seem to be council estate aggro propping up the programme of domestic film festivals. Surrealism instead of realism, fine; romanticism instead of realism, double-plus fine. Pin Cushion is terrifically photographed and edited, with its creator Deborah Haywood pouring enough of her own heart towards the performers that a lot of it bounces straight back from them intact, and the framework of young girls emerging from childhood in scenarios that are at least adjacent to fairytales is eternally solid. But the methods employed are ones that a viewer will have to make their own peace with, and after due consideration I’ve decided not to give them house room.
Bullying, whether childhood or adult, is the third rail, so visceral is most people’s reaction to the sight of personal tyranny and intimidation reenacted for narrative fiction purposes, even in the fairytale bight blue Neverland of Pin Cushion. Apart from the 0.8 percent of people who had a blissful adolescence, bullying is sandpaper on the nerves of everyone. Young people have reasons to be uncomfortable watching, parents really have reasons to be uncomfortable watching, and a sane viewer is forced to vacillate between appalled recognition and the bottomless abyss of human nature. For sure these particular agonies should not be ruled out—nothing should be ruled out—as a tool for art or for artists to process their own memories and traumas and present the results, but the discomfort and crushing regrets that it conjures have to be processed and accounted for by the art, not just served up on a plate.
And in Pin Cushion that’s just the half of it, since I also reject the mother character, where Haywood strays onto the exploitation minefield. No praise too high for Joanna Scanlan, but to see her character limp on as a hunchback is to know immediately what Haywood has gone for and to question the enterprise. I get that in this oddball fairytale landscape a hunchback fits the symbolic bill, but it becomes clear not only that the character is going to have to check out so that her daughter can be reborn in a better home elsewhere, but also that Haywood is not going to allow any context for the tortures and torments of the character. The narrative manipulation by which both parent and child are lying to each other simultaneously while adrift in seas of loss and regret and torment is already close to intolerable, even before the mother reacts to her daughter’s wish to cut the cord by taking a hacksaw to her own hump. At her lowest point she sucks what is without doubt the dummy her daughter used as a baby, by which point Haywood has ventured into the territory of mental health without due deference or balance. Either way, the character’s anguished wails and sublimated horrors of life as a misfit and the (unreliable, I suppose) information that she once wandered the streets looking to be raped like some circus freak was the point where at least one viewer lost his temper. All kudos to Haywood for making something so personal and, by BFI-funded standards, a transmission from the far ultra-violet end of the spectrum. But problematic art has to earn its authority like any other.
23 October 2018
The December-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine focuses on war comics and includes me praising Jacques Tardi’s It Was The War of the Trenches and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, books which peer into the abyss of World War I from different angles while both as fascinated and horrified by the nature of war as Francisco Goya ever was. The ending of the original Adèle sequence, when characters from a completely different Tardi series suddenly barge in and start killing people, is such a strange and unpleasant conclusion that it takes a while to see why he did it—and when you do, the story seems even darker. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.
14 October 2018
Jack Ryan rides again on Amazon Prime, busted back down to early-career espionage somewhere near the CIA’s mail room—the curse of workable IP circling back around like a comet. I joined some of the dots in Ryan’s shift from tackling 20th Century Soviet extremism to the 21st Century Islamist version for Sight & Sound, a change that among other things requires a CIA of good-guy team players on the right side of useless. It involves a delve into the mindset of difficult men too, something VOD series still wear as a badge of entry to the club, even though it’s been clear for a while now that only David Lynch really knows the score there.
The Predator’s finale was fiddled with and reshot, which is pretty symptomatic of an era when even films so High Concept they’re in Earth orbit still don’t satisfy the people who paid for them when they see them—but not as symptomatic as the fact that it still makes no sense at all. Spotting why the new film is a flub compared to Predator from three decades ago would need a conversation about form rather than content, and they don’t currently happen, but a film that needs a Predator to explain what it’s up to in English through a loudspeaker may have succumbed to self-doubt. There’s some half-decent pastiche in the bunch of scuzzy disreputable males bumbling through an alien invasion, the kind of thing John Carpenter doesn’t do anymore but which was a solid B-movie staple for more reasons than just the accumulated machismo. This bunch hovers around an unconscious Oliva Munn leaving little presents, like the seven psycho dwarves. But I’m not sure I ever wanted Munn to get dragged into the action hero stream, even if those years she spent busking on cable TV stuffing six sausages in her mouth before leaping into a large flan have bred a healthy lack of on-screen pretension. Plus she served her time speaking Aaron Sorkin dialogue and keeping up with the cast of The Newsroom; useful when speaking Shane Black’s attempt at copying what he read about screwball rhythms in a textbook. Her character is a skilled scientist in a semi-transparent lab coat, knows how to unleash ballistic death from large automatic weapons, and at one point is compelled by the plot to strip naked in a crisis. The film stops short of combining the shooting and the stripping in the same scene, but we can assume it was considered.
9 October 2018
For the November Sight & Sound magazine I watched Sink, a British drama about working class men that could fit onto Wednesday night ITV without scraping the sides—so pointing out that it’s not exactly I, Daniel Blake seems unnecessary. It also fits into a department of working class dramas whose political slant is not so much leftist as just left-ish. A while ago I saw Between Two Worlds, in which mouthy young men of a post-Blair generation couldn’t wait to put Britain’s centre-left period behind them and emigrate to Hollywood; and now Sink’s beleaguered middle-aged job-seeker played by Martin Herdman is out of tune with his father’s socialism and makes peace with breaking the law in order to treat himself to a nice coffee maker. As it happens Herdman is effortlessly empathetic, while the lads in Between Two Worlds were so insufferable you would have mailed them to Los Angeles in a crate yourself, but both films are most likely invisible to anyone looking to claim working class cinema exclusively for one precise spot further left on the spectrum. Both films might well be invisible to any real audience too, but that’s a different issue.
Final Score: joining Alan Shearer tonight on Match of the Day …
There might be greater working class passion on screen in Final Score, in which West Ham United fans are so invested in a cup-tie that they don’t notice Die Hard taking place around them. Ten minutes into Final Score the camera pans around the boisterous fans in the stands at the old Boleyn Ground and picks out five terrorists about to take them all hostage sat in a line stony faced and stationary, and the music pounds and the supporters are all jumping and the heavies are all immobile and the fans are all smiling and the goons are all frowning and I missed the next few minutes as I was laughing too hard.
The conveyor belt producing easy-listening action pantos where men with foreign accents are set on fire or tipped into deep-fat fryers and American stars come to London so that they can blow half of it up may never stop—not unless people start looking askance at the violence anyway, and why would anyone start now? I like Dave Bautista, although he looks about as comfortable on London soil as John Wayne did in Brannigan, and I like Ray Stevenson, who can leverage his 0.005 percent of Thor into whatever he wants; but the cobalt sheen and close cinematography and clownish characters of the average jovially jingoistic action film are not exciting any more, and certainly not subversive; just mildly diverting. And to not at least ponder the violence amounts to not watching the thing. You would probably need to start by pondering the violence on television generally, the medium for which Final Score was made and where Spooks tipped Lisa Faulkner into a deep-fat fryer of her own on BBC One all the way back in 2002. The sixteen years since then don’t seem to have clarified what the cultural effect or affect of this stuff really is, beyond showing that ultra-violence has lost whatever disreputable seediness the exploitation sector once relished. Now it’s so reputable that a film can slip an easter egg from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in between maimings.
On the other side of the coin there’s Mile 22, an action film with a straighter face and faith that sweaty fast-cut wobbling-camera colour-desaturated cinema produces intensity and intrigue, rather than, say, a headache. I’ve had a soft spot for Peter Berg the actor ever since Linda Fiorentino made mincemeat of him in The Last Seduction, but as a director his Michael Mann-ish tendencies seem to have been scuttled once and for all by Battleship. Now he’s a trusted purveyor of Mark Wahlberg punch-ups and their conflicted unenthusiastic machismo. The plot has the CIA acting psychotic and out of control, which is a given in this neck of the woods, but even without making any sense the film has an intensity that smaller screens are not yet confident about copying. Possibly because it just might not be worth it any more.