Saturday, 23 May 2015

Mirror, signal, mayhem: a brief history of the cinematic car chase

The origins of the movie car chase began in the 1890s. That was the decade when mass automobile production began, and when Frederick Lanchester built the UK’s first four-wheeled, petrol-driven car in Birmingham in 1895. Across the channel in France’s second metropolis of Lyon, the Lumière brothers completed the very first motion picture that same year. Since then, cars and movies have evolved at breakneck speed, coalescing in that classic staple of action cinema, the chase.

After decades of back projection, where speed was artificially created from the safety of the studio, the spectacle of vehicular pursuit hit top gear in the late sixties. 1968 was the year of Frank Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s laconic tough-guy cop who pursues two hitmen for ten high-octane minutes through San Francisco’s undulating streets, the same terrain in which a transfixed James Stewart followed Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo ten years earlier.

The iceman cometh: Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968)

Yet whereas Stewart’s hypnotised pursuit marked a gradual unravelling of his mind, McQueen forever remains the master of his domain, deftly manoeuvring his Ford Mustang with consummate cool, staying so resolutely phlegmatic you’d think he was heading to Sainsbury’s for the weekly shop. The uncompromising realism of Bullitt’s chase scene is the movie’s perfect metaphor. McQueen is the principled underdog throughout, steering tenaciously across a sleazy metropolitan underbelly of dimly-lit hospitals and grimy hotels. But just like in the chase he keeps coming back, snaring the bad guy and leaving slimeball politician Robert Vaughn floundering in his moral afterburn. 

A year later across the Atlantic, the car chase transformed into a riotous explosion of comedy and colour. The Italian Job is quintessential British sixties cinema, a laddish tale of cockney criminals who leave Swinging London in a roar of Carnaby Street fashion and flag-waving patriotism, revved up to pull the birds and put one over Johnny Foreigner in his own back yard.

Union jacked: The heist car chase in The Italian Job (1969)

In the movie’s climactic chase, the bullion thieves run riot across Italy’s automotive capital Turin, their red, white and blue Minis embarrassing the olive-coloured Carabinieri cars in the home of Fiat, before fleeing to the Alps with the loot. It’s a classic away-win powered by bulldog spirit, with upper class gent Noël Coward, working class upstart Michael Caine and randy IT nerd Benny Hill displaying British ingenuity at its best.

The gang’s future may be left hanging in the balance at the end, but there’s never a real sense of danger in The Italian Job. The same could not be said two years later in The French Connection, where headstrong cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) commandeers a Pontiac LeMans and dementedly pursues a crook who’s taken refuge on a speeding New York train.

Whereas The Italian Job is spectacularly calibrated fun, The French Connection is full-throttle chaos, with director William Friedkin shooting the scene at 90 miles per hour withoutpermission amid real, unsuspecting Brooklyn traffic. Ragged and relentless, Doyle’s Pontiac is an extension of its driver’s personality, taking reckless chances in the belief that the end justifies the means. Friedkin became the youngest recipient of a Best Director Oscar for his efforts, but would later regret taking such lunatic gambles in the name of entertainment.

Road to hell: Gene Hackman between takes in The French Connection (1971)

Destruction would be wreaked on an even greater scale in 1980, thanks to the epic police car pile-up and surrealmall scene which light up cult comedy The Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood are two siblings far too cool for driving school, donning Ray Bans, kicking back to the movie’s sensational soundtrack and letting their Bluesmobile leave a trail of soul-inspired havoc nonchalantly in their wake.

Two fugitives of a different kind used a Ford Thunderbird convertible to break free of society’s shackles in 1991. Thelma and Louise is female emancipation as extended car chase, a brilliant piece of populist cinema and a neat rebuke to mainstream cinema’s predilection for meathead machismo. Finally cornered above Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Thelma and Louise stay true to their new found sense of liberation, calling the cops’ bluff and going out in a blaze of white, reverential glory.

The pursuit of happiness: Thelma and Louise (1991)

Back in Birmingham, the birthplace of the British motor industry, another modern-day hero finds freedom at the wheel. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is the love-rat construction boss at the centre of Steven Knight’s absorbing one-man show. Locke may not break any speed limits, but it still feels like a chase movie. The eponymous protagonist races down the motorway in his BMW X5 to witness the birth of his illegitimate child, pursued by marital breakdown, a career going tits-up and the imagined spectre of his father goading him through the rear view mirror.

Going solo: Tom Hardy in Locke (2013)

Flawed, insular yet admirably unflappable, Hardy’s Locke is Frank Bullitt reinvented, sharing the same tough-sounding surname, choice knitwear and willingness to risk it all to do the right thing. And it’s this sense of a personal mission that’s the engine behind every great movie car chase.

No matter where they’re going, the characters’ principal journey is always through the landscape of their own heads, whether they’re the hunter or the hunted. And we, as audience and passengers, have no choice but to be swept away in their slipstream – sitting tight, buckling up and enjoying what it means to be truly driven. 

This article originally appeared in the May-June 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Boys, toys and adolescent joys

What makes a cinematic guilty pleasure? Guilt obviously, the feeling that you shouldn’t be enjoying the movie as much as you do, and that you’ve somehow failed to comply with some abstract code of celluloid decency. This makes secrecy another prerequisite as well. Behind closed doors you’re getting your rocks off, but it’s a personal self-indulgence you’d rather not broadcast to the world.

Eddie Hawkins knows all about the stealth needed for guilty pleasures. As the star criminal in the naff but always watchable Hudson Hawk, he’s the world’s greatest cat burglar, a waist-coated wise-cracker stealing priceless Leonardo artefacts with boyish glee, crooning musical numbers along the way and forever sporting his trademark smirk.

Boys and their toys: Crime caper flop Hudson Hawk (1991)

The public weren’t amused. Hudson Hawk bombed at the box office and was savaged by the critics for its incoherent jumble of surreal farce, childlike heroics, searing violence and laddish humour. Yet I’ll be forever fond of the Hawk, not least for some truly inspired set-pieces and its playful sense of comic abandon. No one seems to know what they’re doing, but they seem to have a great time doing it, and the whole escapade reminds me of immature schoolboys getting carried away by the silliness of their own pranks.

Another group of ne’er do wells with a flair for improvisation are the rapists, murderers and thieves of Fiorina 161, the prison setting for the much-pilloried Alien 3. Deprived of weaponry, this foul-mouthed fraternity of convicts are forced to make do and mend, resorting to a high-stakes game of chase to trap their fellow bald-headed inmate, a predatory alien which explodes from their pet rottweiler’s stomach.

To many, Alien 3 is a dog of a movie, the moment when the franchise crash-lands like the Sulaco’s escape pod, leaving its cast and crew to fumble around in the dark, slowly getting picked off by the weight of expectation and the story’s ill-conceived premise. Like Ripley impregnated with the Queen, Alien 3 feels doomed from the start. But it’s this self-destructive quality (both film and heroine literally go out in a blaze of glory) that I love most about David Fincher’s debut.

Growing pains: David Fincher on the set of Alien 3 (1992)

However much he may have loathed making it, I can’t help but admire the twenty-something director’s balls for taking it on. Fincher rose from the purgatory of Alien 3 like a phoenix from the flames, and the experience became a rite de passage that’s helped make him one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors.

As one filmmaker bloomed in the nineties, another one slipped into decline. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, a movie I love for all the wrong reasons. Intended as a provocative black comedy about our overstimulated society, Stone’s satire is guilty of the very thing it condemns, descending into an orgiastic paean to the adrenaline rush of killing people with firearms.

It is an epic misfire, but a sensational watch. Turbocharged by manic, over-the-top performances, pungent dialogue, staggeringly good editing and audacious cinematography , Natural Born Killers is one of the most visually inventive films of the nineties, so true to the MTV-style pyrotechnics that defined much of that decade’s media output. Yet it’s a style which feels so empty now: showy, without finesse and lacking any genuine feeling.

Deal with the devil: Robert Downey Jr in Natural Born Killers (1994)

Equally shallow is Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, the finest guilty pleasure movie of them all, where cold-blooded murder fuses with the white heat of orgasm in a ludicrously lurid way. I love this film because its San Francisco setting, blond-brunette dichotomy, overhead staircase shots and theme of sexual obsession remind me so much of Vertigo, my favourite all-time movie, but with sex, violence and pointless car chases tacked on for good measure.

Basic Instinct takes itself very seriously, but in the end it’s as silly and enjoyable as Hudson Hawk. Michael Douglas is brilliant as that classic movie cliché, the-burnt-out-cop-on-the-edge-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-gets-in-over-his-head-and-goes-out-of-control, while Sharon Stone is sublime as the neo-noir femme fatale, the movie’s real alpha male, wielding her sexual charisma and phallic ice pick with cool, masturbatory élan.

Ice Queen: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)

All these movies were released between 1991 and 1994, a time when I went from being 13 to 16. It’s a period when you enjoy many things that aren’t good for you, and relish guilty pleasures of the, ahem… private kind. I still remember the thrill of watching the films illicitly as pirate copies too, a susceptible boy looking in on an adult world that I didn’t have the facial hair to access legitimately.

Back then, these films seemed so very grown-up. Now, they feel like the exact opposite. For all their adult themes, they’re jubilantly adolescent in spirit, sacrificing depth for cheap thrills, favouring style over substance and remaining deeply unsure about what they’re trying to be. 

That’s the essence of cinematic guilty pleasures, I suppose: nostalgic treats transporting you back to a confused but carefree time when it felt adventurous and exciting to follow your basic instincts. In public of course, grown-ups will describe adolescents as selfish, stupid and lacking in self-awareness. Secretly though, you can bet they wouldn’t mind relishing that period of their lives all over again. 

This article originally appeared in the March-April 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Velásquez's Venus: the portrait of a lady who’s always playing hard to get

It was a hatchet job like no other. The woman was attacked from behind, the efficient jabbing of a meat cleaver hacking six deep cuts into her exposed, pearlescent flesh. When the butchery had climaxed, the wounds stretched from the nape of the neck, down the smooth elegance of the back and finished at the curvaceous ridge of the left hip.

The victim was Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. In seconds, the sexual deity was brought savagely to earth, in what must have seemed to onlookers like the senseless violence of a madman. Yet the attack wasn’t senseless, and the culprit wasn’t even a man. On the morning of March 10 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson carved her own notorious signature on the history of art by vandalising the most desirable female of all.

The lady was the Rokeby Venus, Diego Velásquez's only surviving female nude. The scene of the crime was London’s National Gallery. The previous day, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested in Glasgow while escalating her campaign to secure women the vote. In response, her loyal lieutenant marched into the grey, statuesque building overlooking Trafalgar Square and launched a calculated cultural missile against the patriarchal establishment by knifing, in her words, 'the most beautiful woman in mythological history, as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, the most beautiful woman in modern history'.

In Mary’s eyes, Velásquez's seventeenth century flesh show visualised all that was wrong with society. Women had been stripped of their innate rights, she believed, in the way Velásquez had artfully deprived Venus of her clothes. Females were subjugated to second class status, mere vessels of servitude existing solely for the gratification of men. The figure of Venus was the ultimate example of this oppression: a fictitious incarnation of masculine desire embodying all that women should be.

The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velásquez (1647-1651)

From a heterosexual male perspective, the 122cm by 177cm oil painting is pretty much perfect, as alluring and intoxicating as rich perfume drifting amorously through the air. Velásquez depicts Venus from the rear, lazily reclining amid an opulent boudoir of white, grey and crimson, absorbed in a looking-glass propped up by her son, Cupid. The visual field drinks in her entire body, from the big toe of the left foot to the right elbow supporting her lovely head. The spectacle is crowned by a bob of soft chestnut hair, just a few deft flicks away from draping seductively across her shoulders, like the pink ribbons which gracefully decorate her vanity mirror.

These details are mere supporting players to the main attraction: the exquisitely-defined backside sitting below the dead centre of the picture. A work of art in its own right, Venus’s bottom is a masterpiece of svelte shapeliness, the white, grey and blue pigments blending to create a pale, supple playground of soft, yielding flesh. It’s a visual gratification that soon gives way to mental anticipation, as your mind races ahead to imagine what delights may await when she turns over.

Such provocation is part of the picture’s problem though. Despite its aura of intimacy, the Rokeby Venus feels strangely remote and depersonalised. Venus’s face, that most expressive part of any person’s body, is obscured and muddied in the mirror, rendering her mood beyond scrutiny. She is distant from the viewer, less a real person and more a sexual object. Physicality is foregrounded, personality is traduced, and the picture feels emblematic of a sexism that makes Mary Richardson’s vandalism almost understandable given the political inequalities of her time.

Mary led away by policemen after the attack

If you were to intellectualise it further, you could say the painting predates and embodies what 20th century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called ‘gaze’: the theory that once people become conscious of themselves as objects, they begin to comprehend themselves through the viewpoint of the watcher, and consequently lose their sense of autonomy.

In feminist terms, the male gaze strips the opposite sex of its identity, exerting a pernicious power that arguably still persists in the fashion and celebrity magazines of today. Through Velásquez’s placement of the mirror, Venus is in effect watching herself being watched by the heterosexual male for whom the picture was no doubt intended, the epitome of womanhood appreciating her ‘self’ through the prism of a male-oriented aesthetic. But Velásquez is not your ordinary artist, and this isn’t your ordinary slice of upper-class erotica. The more you look at the Rokeby Venus, the more you realise the painter’s mission isn’t to insidiously crush female self-esteem, but something far more ambiguous.

Consider the unorthodox pose in which Venus lies. Many depictions of the Goddess in art – Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Giorgone’s Sleeping Venus, Titian’s Venus with a Mirror – are painted from the front. In the Rokeby version, Velásquez reverses the decision, leaving more to the imagination, yet undercutting your sense of voyeuristic authority. With her back turned dismissively and face inscrutable, the scene feels like a highly-charged game of sexual poker – a playful prick-tease in which the aloof, enigmatic Venus holds all the cards. She is a goddess after all, beyond the reach of ordinary men, and the fact we can’t read her emotions only adds to the viewer’s disempowerment.

Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510)

Moreover, Velásquez’s brushwork reinforces the feeling of our gaze being manipulated and controlled. At the centre, where those glorious buttocks sit resplendent, the technique is pin-sharp, while the face in the mirror – a messy, poorly-defined blur which x-ray tests prove was an intentional artistic effect – remains out of focus. You can only look at one thing at a time, implies Velásquez, and Venus knows exactly which part of her body your eye is being drawn to. The male gaze is essentially hypnotised and subjugated, and although the suffragettes may have disagreed, you do begin to wonder which gender is actually chained to the railings.

A closer look reveals another, more significant, optical illusion. The reflection in the mirror, tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, is a flagrant breach of perspective. In spatial terms, it would be impossible for Venus to be looking at herself in the mirror. If she was, we wouldn’t be able to see her face because her head would be in the way. This is what’s known as the ‘Venus effect’, a piece of visual trickery commonplace in depictions of the Goddess since the Renaissance. By breaking the laws of physics and transposing the face onto the vanity mirror, the picture implies Venus is in fact staring directly at us, and that we, not the Goddess, are the self-conscious objects of the Lacanian gaze.

That’s not the only sleight-of-hand, especially for the dirty-minded. Contemporary art historians have found that if you were to recreate the Rokeby Venus exactly with a real-life model, the mirror would in fact reflect not Venus’s face but her crotch. So maybe the rough, murky expression staring out from that dark mirror-world represents something else entirely, and is coded visual language for that shadowy recess which for many men is the ultimate Venus flytrap.  Is there something not to be trusted about that place, we wonder, and are we in fact being warned about the dangers of carnal pleasure? After all, the word Venus derives from ‘venenum’, the Latin word for poison, which would make men nothing more than feeble drones being drawn to their doom, like the sailors who perish before the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.

Such a reading is woefully sexist though, succumbing to the depressing binary pattern that occurs in so much male art, which sees women as angels or whores, sweet innocents or femme fatales. Another interpretation does suggest itself, one which feels more in tune with the picture’s sheer romantic sensuality. Velásquez painted his Venus in the latter half of his career during a sojourn to Italy, which in those days was a more permissive, easy-going society that the puritanical solemnity of the Spanish Royal court. Biographers argue that, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Velásquez entered into a steamy affair with an Italian courtesan, and it’s that woman and that fling – ecstatic, bewitching, life-affirming – which he glorified so spectacularly in paint.

The artist returned to Spain taking his memento with him, perhaps wondering whether he would ever see the real thing again. In that context, the fading, greyed-out face is more poignant than provocative, symbolising a transitory passion that’s slipping away, the nuances of a lost love’s beautiful face dissolving sadly into Velásquez’s rear view mirror. It’s therefore not a hunger for sexual domination, but a yearning for an untouchable romantic love, the thing of which Venus is the highest spiritual incarnation, that’s the picture’s raison d’être.

Self-portrait of Diego Velásquez, Las Meninas (1656)

Maybe, maybe not. Like Velásquez’s most famous picture Las Meninas, the Rokeby Venus will always be a perplexing enigma. Perhaps the safest conclusion to draw is that the painting is one gigantic mirror, propped up not by a compliant Cupid but by the force of our own preoccupations. Like all art, you get from the picture what you bring to it. In the end, it’s up to you whether you think it’s a chauvinistic assault on women, an ode to the eternal struggle of sexual politics, shrewd psychoanalysis before its time, an achingly sad love letter to a paramour from the past or just the finest piece of ass in Western art.

Much like a failed relationship or an imagined fantasy, great art has a habit of leaving you with more questions than answers. To me, conflicting emotions of fear and desire, longing and loss, anxiety and anticipation, are what Velásquez’s picture is really all about. There’s something both attractive and repellent about this fragrant, ineffable goddess, who draws you in with her raw sexuality and pushes you away with her inscrutability. So close you can almost touch her, so faraway as to be unknowable, she’s a quintessential vision of the pleasure and pain inherent in sexual love.

No matter how intimate you are with another person, Velásquez says, do you ever really know the person gazing back at you? And how much power can you hope to have, when you’re in the throes of an emotion that’s based on naked surrender and blind, ecstatic loss of control? Absorbing the Rokeby Venus is like taking a magisterial step into the art of the unknown, an image that beckons you seductively across its threshold to meet Love itself, the single greatest experience life has to offer, and leaves you wondering what on heaven and earth you’re letting yourself in for.

The Rokeby Venus in situ at London's National Gallery

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My blue heaven: a brief f***ing history of the F-word in cinema

Saying it may be wrong on occasion, but sometimes it feels so right. The jaw retracts, the bottom lip curls in, the teeth spring forward, and the fricative consonant gives way to a guttural vowel sound finishing with a firm, resounding ‘ck’. With it can come all manner of emotions, from joy to rage, pleasure to pain, passion to desperation, plus a lacerating blast of good old-fashioned offence.

The F-word blossomed in cinema in the early 1970s. Since then it’s been deployed with gratuity and ingenuity by filmmakers searching for shock, realism, comedy and irony. Coarse it may be, but this four-letter intensifier (and its myriad derivatives) is a wonderfully versatile linguistic tool: a noun, verb, adjective and compound that paints a rich palette of colourful meanings and, if used skilfully, never fails to deliver dramatic bite.

Art of the obscene: The demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist was one of the first films to make hay from the F-word. Four decades on, William Friedkin’s horror show feels like a shallow, preposterous construction as soulless as the evil spirit lurking within Regan. But it’s also one of the great sound films: the taut musical score, grinding sound effects and increasing profanities building a cold, excruciating atmosphere of nastiness.

The devil certainly has the best tunes in The Exorcist, which delights in dropping F-bombs on its audience through the cherubic lips of a sweet and innocent 12-year-old. Because although it’s ostensibly about demonic possession, much of the film’s power derives from the way it taps into parental anxiety about losing children to the fog of adolescence, where they’ll soon discover the pleasures of the F-word in all its forms.

Fast forward ten years to 1983 and by then, the F-word was rattling across the movie landscape like machine-gun fire, short-hand for strutting machismo in an era when action cinema was blooming. That was the year of Scarface, in which swaggering Cuban upstart Tony Montana (Al Pacino) swills the word around his mouth with the boundless confidence of a Reaganite capitalist, before spitting it out so you almost feel the hot saliva spraying your face.

Movies became ever more creative in their use of the expletive as the decade continued. The Terminator systematically selects it from his programmed drop-down menu to threaten a nosey janitor, mild-mannered executive Steve Martin unleashes it with great comic gusto on an incompetent car hire clerk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Die Hard’s Bruce Willis bastardises the famous lyric of singing cowboy Roy Rogers to taunt his adversaries.

What do you mean I'm funny? Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990)
The F-word reached blistering new heights in 1990, when Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas broke the record for the number of times it was used in one movie (300 in total). Here, it didn’t so much add spice to the sauce, but become a base ingredient for the meal. For Goodfellas is a feast of a film: the incessant use of the F-word – delivered most memorably and with lip-smacking relish by pint-sized potty mouth Joe Pesci – serving up a sumptuous combo of naturalism and menace.

The gangster genre turned postmodern four years later in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where scripture-reciting assassin Jules Winfield (Samuel L Jackson) strolls through the LA underworld wielding the F-word as poetically as his 9mm handgun. Preferring to use the prefix ‘mother’ wherever possible (he even has it branded on his wallet), Jackson and partner-in-crime John Travolta curse with an easy gravitas that made the F-word seem profound and effortlessly cool. You’d cross the street to avoid Joe Pesci’s character, whereas you’d probably ask Jackson to join you for a beer.

That's my bad motherfucker: Pulp Fiction (1994)
More recently (and on the smaller screen), the equally-lovable double act of Bunk and McNulty in HBO’s The Wire decipher a complex crime scene by only ever saying the F-word. It’s a brilliant setpiece, every profanity bringing a fresh nuance as the booze-loving cops methodically uncover the truth. And in many ways, the truth is what really lies behind the F-word’s enduring appeal.
Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which sees cult leader and awe-inspiring bullshitter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) crack under the tenacious grilling of a journalist, exploding the F-word (sublimely prefaced with the word ‘pig’) into the laps of his quaint middle-class companions. The word comes out of nowhere, yet feels like a flash of authenticity in a film where the truth feels forever guarded and elusive.

Master of words: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Like a coiled spring, The Master creaks with inner tension as its pent-up protagonists struggle to cope with trauma, emptiness and, above all, carnal desire. In a way, the F-word is omnipresent throughout the story, so much so that when sex-obsessed World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) enjoys a playful tumble with a young lady in the final scenes, it feels like sorely-needed catharsis.

Much like the act it so bluntly describes, the F-word is hugely pleasurable when done well: delivering an explosion of energy, a satisfying emotional release and a mutually beneficial way for human beings to communicate with each other and say what’s in their hearts. Like a good friend (with benefits), the F-word is frank, freeing, and fabulously to the point. So thanks very much F-word – and fuck you too.
Bosom buddy: Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (2012)
This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham’s Electric Cinema

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void

That was the year that was. Apple launched the iPod, scientists published their map of the complete human genome and, in the defining moment of our generation, religious extremists slammed commercial airliners into New York and Washington DC. The world felt smaller, more inward-looking and more interdependent than ever before in 2001, and the playful thrill of space exploration and astral harmony conjured up by the film of the same name seemed light years away.

Sci-fi buffs will tell you the best examples of the genre are not those films which accurately predict the future, but those which reveal most about the times in which they were made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, at the height of the space race. The first moon landing was a year away, monolithic computers were arriving in corporate America, cult phenomenon Star Trek was entering its third season on NBC and futurology, which in 2001’s case envisioned a world of sexy space hostesses and suit-and-tie stratospheric travel, was definitely in fashion. 

Progress is one of 2001’s signature themes. Shifting operatically from apes to astronauts, it’s a hugely ambitious narrative journey, powered by revolutionary special effects and the prodigious talents of a single-minded maverick director who had broken the movie-making mould, acquiring both creative independence and the financial largesse of a major Hollywood studio.

In many ways, 2001 is a film from the Sixties and for the Sixties. Marketed with the strapline ‘The Ultimate Trip’, its inspired blend of psychedelic light show and philosophical meditation entranced broad-minded hippies seeking a higher plane of consciousness, while those of a more conservative bent will have been chilled to the marrow by computer HAL 9000, a cold, red, authoritarian machine slowly taking over, at a time when Communism was engulfing south-east Asia.

An updated version of Frankenstein’s monster, HAL 9000 turns on its creator with cool, efficient menace, yet remains the film’s most sympathetic character. The panic and fear in its robotic voice during shutdown elicit far more gravitas than those two-dimensional planks of space debris, Bowman and Poole. Add to that the graceful, balletic movements of anthropomorphic spacecraft set to Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube – which provide some of the film’s most stirring moments and a disproportionate amount of screen time – and it’s easy to see why many people think 2001 is the work of someone more fascinated by technology than by the moral quandaries of man.

Cold, clinical and controlling have all been descriptions levelled at Stanley Kubrick. Responsible for helming the longest shoot in cinematic history (Eyes Wide Shut), and notorious for subjecting actors to hundreds of takes for seemingly minor inconsequential scenes, the director’s obsession with minutiae and his blissful disregard for the conventions of time finds full expression in 2001, his first and only science-fiction film.

The narrative pace is slowed to near-tedium, technology is fetishized, humans are reduced to banal ciphers and time and perspective are blown apart. The symphonic shift from prehistory to interplanetary exploration - breathlessly articulated by that jump-cut - coupled with the mirroring micro-dramas of the apes’ territorial face-off and the Bowman-HAL showdown, creates a dramatic tension that sees time both elongated and condensed, or, in the case of the film’s cheeky intermission, ceasing to exist altogether.

Spatially, Kubrick pulls us in opposite directions too. He delights in going large (the planets, the spacecraft, the grand historical sweep) and then small (the bone, the floating pen, Bowman’s bedroom), a bold combination of portentous philosophising and light satire which relishes the triviality of man within an inconceivable cosmos. Monumental significance is counterpointed by trite insignificance, and the cumulative emotional effect is one of vulnerability and wonder.

Like Bowman surging at interstellar overdrive through the Stargate, we’re passengers rather than explorers in 2001, ignorant species hurtling into the great unknown. We feel like we’ve come full circle when the film ends, having spent more than two hours orbiting something we never truly understand. In that sense, 2001 is more about revolution than evolution, a motif underscored by the recurrent circular patterns, from the spaceships and HAL’s Sauron-style eye to the interplanetary alignment and the Starchild himself, who floats serenely within a spherical womb, a not-so-subtle allusion to the continual cycle of existence.

The mystery of that existence, and of the movie itself, is visually embodied in the monolith, that eerie, implacable presence which unites the film’s disparate elements, triggers change (without changing itself) and leaves apes and astronauts equally perplexed. To some it’s the work of extra-terrestrials. To others, it represents the fingerprint of the Almighty. To this writer, this huge slab of black symbolises so much of what fascinates us about the inscrutable void of space.

In 2001’s closing moments, we’re swept along in the monolith’s trajectory for the final time and see that same void spectacularly illuminated by an image of birth. Then the screen fades to black, and we’re left with the exhilarating feeling that things have only just begun, and that we’re in the infancy of a cosmic journey that’s wonderful, baffling and pregnant with limitless possibility.

This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2014 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Once upon a time, a dad and his daughter were bewitched by a Magic Kingdom called Disney...

The fresh-faced young maiden is easily disarmed. Still, the juicy red apple does look very enticing. And the face behind it, creaking with old age, bubbles with experience and wisdom. Little wonder the angelic brunette accepts the gift. She’s been through hell, and has clearly missed the parental lecture about never trusting strangers. Naivety proves an unforgiving mistress though. For the fruit Snow White takes from the old woman is laced with poison, and she is trapped in a coma from which she’s not supposed to wake.

Did the world of children’s entertainment fall under a similarly insidious spell back in 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a box office smash? In the 77 years since Disney’s first animated feature, the brand has become an insatiable cultural phenomenon. Yet to many it is cinema’s wicked stepmother, a power-hungry, money-making ogre anaesthetising innocent children with its ersatz blend of superficial magic and questionable values.

The case for the prosecution is that Disney has limited children’s imaginations, garnered a formidable track record for stereotyping races and genders, promoted sexualised, passive and impossibly perfect images of females, portrayed marriage as the ultimate end-game in happiness, and followed through on its corrupting agenda with an aggressively sophisticated one-two of make-believe theme parks and merchandise. Truly, it is the contaminated apple which every innocent yearns to bite.

As father to a five-year-old girl, I used to wrestle with the Disney dilemma whenever the iconic castle sparkled onto my TV screen. Was her tender mind being subtly brainwashed into believing in a non-existent world of happily ever afters? A place where heroines can only find true completeness by landing a man? Where such characters are always hourglass beautiful? And where there’s a Fairy Godmother who’ll magically dissolve your troubles when times are hard?

After much deliberation, I’ve decided such worries are misplaced, more projections of natural parental anxiety than any sinister plot by The Walt Disney Company to repress half the world’s population. Truth be told, the Magic Kingdom is simply doing what grown-ups have done for centuries, taking aeons-old fairy tales and revitalising them for the audiences and appetites of the day.

Illustration for Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales by Walter Crane (1899)

To many this over-simplified view of good and evil is part of the problem: we all know the world doesn’t really work like that. Yet what fairy tale doesn’t polarise its heroes from its villains, aware of how young minds aren’t ready to chew over too much moral ambiguity? Narratives like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are allegories more than anything else, bildungsroman alerting children to the world’s viciousness and reminding them they don’t have to succumb to vanity or temptation. Such a traditional approach doesn’t make them old-fashioned either. Indeed, you could argue such tales slyly subvert conservative values. If stable families are the source of all wellbeing, it’s truly miraculous children of broken homes like Cinderella and Tangled’s Rapunzel are so well-adjusted.

Equally, to take Disney to task for cultural imperialism is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. Like many global success stories, Disney is just shrewdly following the logic of modern capitalism which inevitably concentrates power in the hands of those who have the knack of giving consumers what they want. And to its credit, Disney has done that for decades. When I revel in the brilliance and wit of Toy Story 3, I’m reminded how and why I came to love movies in the first place. The Magic Kingdom proved a gateway that’s taken me from Spielberg to Hitchcock to Lang. And what sane film fan would deny their daughter that?

As parents our job is not to let films educate our children, but to educate our children about films. When you look past the abundant opportunities for subtext in any Disney film (and any fairy tale for that matter), their central message is usually the same. Through loyalty and friendship, you can overcome adversity, take personal responsibility and use it for the collective good.

Besides, things have come a long way since the poisoned apple. Disney’s latest snow queen is Elsa, the socially-withdrawn anti-heroine of Frozen. An independent woman in a land of ineffectual, judgmental men, she learns how to turn her curse into a blessing, taking part in the world rather than running away from it. True to herself (and happily unmarried), she ends the film with a greater sense of duty towards her citizens.

Disney has a similar duty towards its customers, just like parents have a duty towards their children. The lesson of Walt’s world is that magic powers must be managed, not misused or misunderstood. To denounce the brand is to make it a forbidden fruit, to give it more power than it actually deserves and ultimately to forget that the art of parenting is one of moderation rather than control.

So when my daughter twirls across the lounge in full-blown Elsa-mode – confident, empowered, expressing herself, happy in the moment – I remember that good cinema is good cinema no matter who made it. And that as a Dad, sometimes the wisest thing you can do is just Let It Go. 

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2014 edition Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

This painting is the rightful property of Johannes Vermeer

This story is about a man and a woman, alone together. The master’s servants had left his private quarters, leaving him to enjoy his beautiful new conquest in solitude. Night was falling across the bedroom, a crepuscular gloom which only served to intensify the rich palette of the canvas. Europe’s most powerful man closed in on his prize, running his fingers across the three-hundred year old pigment, weaving flirtatious circles around the pretty face at the picture’s centre.

She was dressed up as history, and was now in the iron possession of a man making history. Power was his life’s pursuit. He loved to subjugate things, bend them to his will. And this latest trophy was another sure-footed step on his mission to control the world’s finest culture. Together they would reside in a grandiose museum near his hometown, the artistic heartbeat of an empire that would rule the globe for a thousand years.

Adolf Hitler discusses plans for the
Fürhermuseum with architect Albert Speer

Art had always been a cherished project. In his younger days, before he’d stamped arrogantly onto the world stage, he’d yearned to be a painter. And it was in part the cruel rejection of his work by the arbiters of taste in Vienna which had triggered his new career path, one which now saw him bestride Europe like a colossus, the figurehead of a remorseless chariot turned by the wheels of rage and injustice. Painting would play a different role now. No longer a livelihood but more a glorification of his supremacy, a reminder of what he could have been before destiny forced him to seize greater glories. 

The date was November 1940. The location was the Berghof, a palatial retreat near Berchtesgarden in the Bavarian Alps. The man was Adolf Hitler. And the picture in his clutches was Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, which the Führer had purchased for 1.82 million reichmarks. Those are the facts. But it’s worth noting at this point that I’ve completely invented the scene of the dictator caressing the image. The choice is both an aesthetic and symbolic one. Because this is a painting about how audiences participate creatively in the interpretation of art. And it’s also a picture about ownership, about privacy, the role art plays in history and vice versa, and the mysteries of a seductive craft which forever eludes definition and control.

The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (1665-8)

The first thing to say about this 17th century Dutch masterwork is that it’s classic Vermeer. All his stylistic hallmarks are there: the stillness, the domestic setting, the sense of peeking in on privacy, the milky daylight flooding in from the left. Yet it’s very unique among his work too: the only one in which he turns the lens onto his own livelihood. Complex symbolism and iconography make it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one like The Lacemaker or Officer and Laughing Girl. And even when facing destitution at the end of his life, it’s the one picture Vermeer steadfastly refused to sell.

From a distance, we see a well-dressed man sitting at his easel painting a young lady’s portrait. Dominating the left side of the canvas is a curtain, pulled back by an unseen hand. The emotional atmosphere is voyeuristic, as if we’re enjoying a privileged eavesdrop of a maestro at work. The curtain has another insinuation too, imbuing the scene with a sense of theatricality, a tone underscored by the contrived positioning of the props. The largest of these is the political map on the far wall, which shows the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands as they were thirty years before the picture was painted. The model is dressed in blue, awkwardly bearing a trumpet, laurel wreath and book, the signature accessories of Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology. On the table is a death mask. But this is a picture that pulsates with life, Vermeer’s exceptionally vivid colours making the image feel more real than real itself.

The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer (1669-70)

Despite its painstaking naturalism, we only ever get part of this picture though, and it’s this sense of omission that makes it all the more powerful. On one level, The Art of Painting can be read as a sophisticated celebration of painting itself. Vermeer positions the artist as a well-to-do man (his luxury doublet), political commentator (the map), illustrator of history (Clio) and portrayer of the human condition (death mask).

Yet its true masterstroke lies in Vermeer’s subtle articulation of the limits of making, seeing and understanding works of art. The Art of Painting is true to its title in the way it deliberately draws attention to its own artifice. All the props in the picture are representations, synthetic recreations of actual things. The map, crinkled, worn and already out of date, reminds us power is temporal. The death mask is another variation on the same theme, as is the chandelier which shows the crest of the Habsburg Empire, a political entity in decline at the time the picture was painted.

The lady is a fiction too: we feel the pretence and discomfort of her unnatural pose. Only part of her will make it on to the artist’s portrait too, a picture within a picture that tells us art is only ever an edited, subjective view of reality, a subtext reinforced by the fact that we only glimpse part of the studio. Both painter and poser are wonderfully inscrutable too. We can’t see their eyes and must guess at what the man may have said to elicit that tantalising, coquettish look from his subject.

In The Art of Painting, as in any painting for that matter, the onus is placed on the viewer to look, interpret and imagine. Absorbing the picture is a quintessential exercise in art appreciation, and a lesson in how we as audiences are coaxed into piecing symbols and images together, filling in the blanks to craft our own satisfying narrative. Maybe that’s why an empty chair is pulled up in the foreground, as Vermeer invites us to sit down and become part of the scene, an offer made all the more poignant by the fact that he kept it in his studio as his own enjoyment. For all its sense of disclosure, the ultimate meaning is remote, the domain of the artist, and we feel on the cusp of something we’ll never truly understand.

So it’s sweetly ironic The Art of Painting was eventually owned by a man who failed at art and tried to compensate by conquering. He would ultimately lose control of both picture and empire, transporting Vermeer’s work to the German salt mines of Altaussee as the net closed in on the Third Reich. There, it was recovered by the Monuments Men of the US Army and returned to the Austrian Government. Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is its home today.Yet there is still a tussle over its ownership, with members of the Czernin family (which relinquished the picture to the Nazis) issuing legal requests for its return.

US soldiers exhibit the spoils of war

A futile dispute, perhaps. To me, The Art of Painting will only ever be owned by one man. No other picture says so much about the open-endedness and dead ends of art, and no other picture quite has that sense of its creator being both present and absent, his back turned so he gives nothing away. Maybe that’s what Vermeer intended all along. His family may have been forced to sell the property after his death, but he is still the only man in possession of its secrets. And my interpretation is just another subjective and mutable reading that will be displaced by time. As great art gets bigger we get smaller: a lesson every human eventually learns, even Hitler.

In that spirit, let me start where I began, with a retreat into the realm of personal invention. The man and woman are alone together, and always will be. I imagine the artist is sharing a joke with the lady at our expense, subtly mocking all the people who queue up to gawp at their private chemistry. The model lowers her gaze to the floor and can’t look us in the eye, even though she knows we wouldn’t have heard. 

This tender exchange is immortalised on the canvas – a singular moment between two people never to be repeated or forgotten – and which serves as a gentle reminder that some secrets are best left unshared. And that we as voyeurs will forever be on the fringes, spellbound witnesses to an unspoken magic that reveals nothing except its own sublime sense of wonder.

Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675)