Saturday, 18 July 2015

Feast of friends: Cinema, cannibalism and social responsibility

“One calls barbarism whatever he is not accustomed to,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his famous essay Of Cannibals. Eating another person may be taboo in our civilised world, but as the French philosopher suggested back in the sixteenth century, it’s also a question of context, culture and circumstance.

Cannibalism in Brazil: A 1593 engraving by Theodor de Bry (Credit: Library of Congress)

Filmmakers hungry to shock have gorged on this moral relativism, and the spicy dramatic potential inherent in seeing people eat other people. Cannibalism offers a rich diet of homicide, depravity and survival ethics, not to mention the fear that’s haunted everyone since first hearing Little Red Riding Hood as a child. Out there are wolfish predators in human clothing, the story goes, who’ll gobble you up if you’re ever lost in the deep, dark woods. 

Take the Amazon rainforest for example, the setting for unashamed gore-fest Cannibal Holocaust. With the insolence of especially cocky gap year students, four amateur filmmakers make a salacious documentary about local tribes, who respond in kind by dismembering and devouring the invasive upstarts in an act of ritualistic slaughter.

Set menu: Movie-within-a-movie Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

An anthropologist retrieves the footage, setting up a movie-within-a-movie storyline that’s part-horror, part-nature documentary and part-media satire. Unfortunately, with its comic book gore, exploitative casting of real tribes as flesh-feeding maniacs, and juvenile visions of naked ladies writhing in mud while being clubbed to death, Cannibal Holocaust comes across as hypocritical, half-baked and more than a bit rubbish. 

On the same continent, at much higher altitude and with considerably more class, Alive tells the true story of an Argentinian rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes. At first the survivors feed off each other for emotional support, then literally feed off each other in a bid to stay alive, nibbling on dead passengers to avoid starvation. 

Despite its two-dimensional characters and lacklustre emotional punch, Alive shows how cannibalism isn’t the domain of isolated tribes, but something respectable God-fearing folk are more than capable of in the right conditions. And their decision is vindicated too, with human flesh fuelling Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton to achieve a superhuman feat of survival that serves the collective good.
Buffet froid: A slice of Andean self-service in Alive (1993)

Superhuman aptly describes Robert Carlyle’s character in Ravenous. A black comedy horror set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range in the 1840s, Ravenous channels the myth of the Wendigo, the Algonquin belief that munching on your fellow man imbues you with your victim’s power, leaving you invincible, psychotic and addicted to more. 

Blending zombie, vampire and serial killer tropes into a weird Deliverance-style dish, Ravenous is spiky, good fun and, in its own way, politically acute. Carlyle and co are frontiersmen obsessed with conquest and consumption, and the movie makes a clear connection between humans devouring one another for strength, and an oppressive elite harvesting the resources of others in the name of prosperity.

Appetite for destruction: Robert Carlyle in Ravenous (1999)

Ravenous is about the appetite that builds empires, a greed which makes you stronger at the expense of the exploited, but renders you morally weaker in the long-run. There’s no better modern-day example of this than Dr Hannibal Lector: the educated, sophisticated, cannibalistic serial killer who chews up the psychologically vulnerable in modern-day Baltimore. 

Thomas Harris’s character has brought anthropophagy into the mainstream with wit, panache and amorality, serving up a range of exquisitely sadistic moments, from the closing ‘having a friend for dinner’ line in The Silence of the Lambs to Ray Liotta eating his own brains in Hannibal and Mads Mikkelsen’s sumptuously-depraved lifestyle in the TV show of the same name.

Rich man's diet: Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal (2013 -)

The latter is a vision of a world that’s sick, icy and humourless, where inhabitants seem frozen in perpetual disgust and the most virtuous teeter on the brink of insanity. Epitomising the mood is Dr Lecter himself, pure psychopathy to Will Graham’s pure empathy. An affluent narcissist obsessed with personal gratification, he’s the ultimate metropolitan predator, a smarmy member of the professional elite hiding his crimes behind a cloak of respectability and refinement. 

Such a bleak power dynamic is flipped gloriously on its head in the charming Delicatessen.  Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris crippled by hyper-austerity, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s  urban fable tells the tale of an opportunistic butcher and all-round capitalist pig who lures people into his premises at the bottom of an apartment block before slicing, dicing and selling them to hard-up tenants.

Human resources: Cannibalism and capitalism in Delicatessen (1991)

The feast is spoiled when the butcher’s trembling leaf of a daughter falls in love with an ex-clown, who together team up with a band of subterranean vegetarians to uproot the status quo. Delicatessen creates a deliciously weird tableau of oddball characters, the best one being the apartment block itself. Forever marinated in a sickly green hue, the dilapidated residence has an ecosystem all of its own, an interdependent biosphere where tenants’ lives are interconnected and subject to dietary karma.

A climactic flood washes away all moral cholesterol in the end, cleansing the place of its I’m-all-right-Jacques mentality and restoring a note of much-needed harmony. There is such a thing as society, says Delicatessen. And one in which we cannibalise it by living selfishly off each other, whether that be literally or figuratively, is something no sane person should be willing to stomach.

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