Saturday, 17 September 2016

Thirty years of Blue Velvet: a love letter straight from the heart

According to its creator, the idea was born from three disparate feelings and images, which would coalesce in his subconscious over the years like a strange, protracted dream. The first was the title. The second was a bittersweet pop ballad. And the third was a severed human ear.

Two of David Lynch’s feelings appear in Blue Velvet’s opening sequence. The movie rolls its credits against a resplendent drape of the eponymous fabric, before cutting to a cloudless blue sky with white picket fences and red roses. We’re then transported dreamily through the happy, sun-washed suburbia of Lumberton, accompanied by Bobby Vinton crooning the 1963 title track.

Then a gun appears on a TV screen, a hose becomes tangled and a middle-aged man tending his lawn is gripped by seizure. Water spurts chaotically, a dog goes mental and the movie cuts inexplicably to grass. There the camera zooms in, the soundtrack morphs into an unsettling metallic grinding and the scene closes on a frightening close-up of grappling insects.

It’s a cinematic overture like no other, masterfully fusing elegance, surrealism and symbolism to establish the movie’s main themes – and portend the lessons local lad Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachan) will learn over the next two hours. For the man who collapses is Jeffrey’s dad, and Blue Velvet is the tale of how the boy will become an adult, discovering the pain riddled under the seemingly benign and everyday.

Jeffrey’s passage to manhood begins with Lynch’s third feeling, when he discovers a severed human ear in a field. His child-like curiosity inflamed by the mystery, the greenhorn soon becomes entangled in a twisted milieu of crime and sexual abuse. Along the way, he will fall in love with sweetheart Sandy (Laura Dern), experience a sadomasochistic sexual awakening courtesy of the traumatised Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and come face-to-face with evil in the shape of the psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Lost innocence is one of Blue Velvet’s main leitmotifs. Wide-eyed and naive, Jeffrey and Sandy soon discover the perversity of the grown-up world, with Frank as its deranged high priest. Violent, unpredictable and babyish in his sadism, he’s a maelstrom of psychological turmoil: the ultimate lost-child unable to bear the pain of the past. And his malevolence feeds off another ruined youth too, as he holds Dorothy’s little boy hostage so he can perform gas-induced mock-rapes on her.

Jeffrey witnesses one of Frank’s sick attacks through the slats of Dorothy’s closet. Like children earwigging on a confusing parental row, both Jeffrey and the audience only ever have a partial view of events, glimpsing fragments of plot and never fully understanding the dark motors driving the action.

This is where Lynch’s disconnected narrative style comes into its own, coaxing us along like a dream in a way that’s unsettling, perplexing yet still emotionally coherent. The weirdness is epitomised by the enigmatic, über-camp Ben (Dean Stockwell), who lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in a meandering, unforgettable cameo that muddles exposition but feels tonally crucial to the entire film. 

It’s a sign of Blue Velvet’s sophistication that it can feel offbeat, elusive and so tightly structured all at once. Cutting edge in its postmodernity and reassuringly old-fashioned in its bildungsroman formula, Lynch’s movie is a fairy tale for Generation X and, like all the best fairy tales, one built on counterpoints.

Whether it’s the use of the natural world to symbolise good and evil (the robins and the insects), the Oedipal framework about the usurping of the father and the bedding of the mother, or the Freudian clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the story simmers with subtext. Then there’s the juxtaposition between light and dark, innocence and experience, surface and reality, and ultimately the tension between the art-house and the mainstream.

Lynch bestrides both these cultural spheres like a colossus, crafting a movie admired by cineastes and lapped up by Joe Public when it was released in September 1986. Blue Velvet is a masterclass in how you can woo the masses and win over the critics though a blend of wit, weirdness, irony and violence that would define so much of America cinema to come. It’s a combination expressed perfectly during the film’s climactic shoot-out, scored to the slushy ballad ‘Love Letters’ in an inspired moment of pop surrealism.

I suppose this article is my love letter to Blue Velvet. Yet in keeping with a film that favours feeling and instinct over logic and exposition, I love it more than words can say. Thirty years on and it remains as fresh and vivid as a red rose in bloom, and as deep and endlessly fascinating as bright blue sky. Or to paraphrase the slogan of Jeffrey’s favourite beer, it refreshes parts other films just can’t reach.

To Lynch, the world is better experienced than explained, sensed instead of analysed. Events unfold with their own mysterious inner logic, teaching us a lesson that, in typical Lynch style, is both corny and profound, and which feels truer the older you become. If you don’t have a dream, says the story of the film, how are you going to have a dream come true?

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The art of darkness: Satanism, stardom and self-deception

“The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” says Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint, the outwardly meek, socially awkward gopher in Bryan Singer’s classic thriller The Usual Suspects. It’s a memorable line that sums up what’s so ingenious about the film’s labyrinthine plot, and why Satan (manifested in criminal mastermind Keyser Soze) is such a compelling character for storytellers.

As Kint implies and the movie demonstrates, true evil is exceptionally good at shaping complex narratives which cover its own tracks. Behind all of humanity’s diabolical acts, the theory goes, is a malevolent creative genius, coolly orchestrating all the action like the world’s most heinous movie-maker, and an artist savvy enough to let someone else take credit for the chaos.

The devil as director is a theme playfully explored in Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, a 1922 silent Danish horror movie masquerading as sober documentary. With no characters to identify with, and not much in the way of meaningful academic analysis, Haxan deploys the mock-framework of rational inquiry as an excuse to enjoy lurid historical events and weird, fantastical vignettes with the detached thrill of a voyeur.

Masterminding the spectacle is director Benjamin Christensen, who appears himself as Satan, a sexual predator who ogles women through their bedroom windows and makes off with them during the night, a rather sexist metaphor for female flightiness. Women are passive creatures easily possessed, the myth suggests, and their 'predilection' to temptation and hysteria is the reason why so many throughout history have been tried and executed as witches.

Female neurosis is the smokescreen concocted by the satanists in Rosemary’s Baby too, Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece about a young woman’s home, marriage and body being invaded by the Prince of Darkness. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple under the control of some exceptionally nosy neighbours, who ingratiate themselves with busybody kindness, isolate the lonely Rosemary from her support network and then serve as masters of ceremony during her middle-of-the-night rape by the Devil.
A gripping, darkly comic tale about the nature of possession, Rosemary’s Baby shows how people unwittingly become docile vessels for nurturing evil. Paranoia and conspiracy hang heavy in the apartment block, as Polanski masterfully combines the mundane, the macabre and the natural anxiety of pregnancy. Chief culprit isn’t the Satanists though, or their sinister, patronising advice that all will be well if Rosemary just takes some pills and rests, but the wimpy and easily-seduced Guy, whose narcissistic ambition to make it big as an actor is the Faustian bargain which invites Lucifer into his wife’s bosom.

Another entertainer with dreams of showbiz is crooner Jonny Favourite, the missing person at the centre of Alan Parker’s 1987 neo-noir horror film Angel Heart. On his trail is the mysterious, impeccably manicured Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro), who hires clammy private investigator Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) to track Favourite down. Gruesome murders, steamy sex, saxophone solos and animal sacrifice all ensue, as Angel chases his own shadow from Harlem to New Orleans, oblivious to his participation in a vengeful, satanic killing spree.
A moody, Chandleresque take on the Faustian legend, Angel Heart is let down by a plodding narrative, but is still worth seeing for DeNiro’s brilliant cameo. Quietly terrifying and with an air of chilling stillness, Louis Cyphre (get it?) is gravitas incarnate. It may be a two-dimensional role, but it’s one of DeNiro’s nastiest turns – and a reminder of what a sensational screen presence he was before he sacrificed his reputation for dialled-in roles and fat paychecks, a somewhat ironic postscript to a movie all about selling your soul.

There’s no greater example of this than actor Hendrik Hoefgen, the central protagonist in 1981 German-Hungarian film Mephisto, a riveting look at how performance, power and politics can be an intoxicating combination. Set in 1930s Germany during the rise of the Nazis, Istvan Szabo's movie sees Hendrik (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) earn a gilded reputation by playing Satan on stage, then feebly compromise his artistic and political values in return for wealth, social status and the chance to remain centre stage, even if it’s under the grim, controlling searchlight of the Third Reich.
Full-blooded, intensely physical and simultaneously pathetic and tragic, Brandauer delivers one of the most astonishing screen performances by any actor: a masterclass in how to portray manic, tortured energy forever on the cusp of insanity. Satan himself may only appear as a fictionalised character with a red and black costume and a painted white face, but his presence throughout the film is palpable: in the fascists’ moronic, jack-booted urge to dominate, and to a greater degree in the way Hoefgen shamefully justifies his own cowardly actions.  

As Verbal Kint suggests, Satan really does exist, flourishing if there’s a cause deluded enough to hide behind – and if ordinary people allow themselves to be possessed by their inner demons of ego, insecurity and self-deception. ‘The devil is everywhere and takes all shapes’ says the narration at one point in Haxan, and as Mephisto shows, he’s much closer to home than you realise.

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

Monday, 30 May 2016

The art of compromise: America, television and saying farewell to Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano is alone and tired when he arrives at Holsten’s ice cream parlour. With characteristic impatience, the New Jersey crime boss doesn’t wait for his family to turn up before ordering the ‘best onion rings in the state’, then kills time by indulging in his other passion: rock music. His tune of choice is Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, a power ballad as swaggering, macho and tinged with sadness as the man himself.

And what a journey it’s been. Ever since the sweaty, cigar-chomping alpha male first drove through the New Jersey turnpike on his commute home in 1999, he’s endured (and we’ve enjoyed) relentless gangland violence, assassination attempts, tumultuous familial feuds, strenuous womanising, parental attachment issues, endless self-indulgent therapy sessions and far too many bowls of ice cream and bad tracksuits.

In spite of all the upheavals, the preceding 50 minutes before Holsten’s have been surprisingly subdued, leaving a few too many loose narrative threads for any respectable TV finale. Uncertainty and compromise overshadows everything: the impending indictment triggered by Carlo’s decision to testify, the hasty peace treaty cobbled together with the New York crew, Paulie grudgingly accepting the job running the Aprile crew, the idealistic Meadow selling out to a fat corporate salary, AJ settling for a nepotistic gig as a Hollywood runner and Carmela realising her long-cherished grand designs project will have to wait (again).

So it’s no surprise there’s a jaded sense of coming-to-terms with the untidiness of life hanging over the family’s last meal. As Journey’s world-weary lyrics drown out the banal end-of-day chat, AJ tries to lift the mood by suggesting they all ‘focus on the good times’. Yet we’re so fond of the characters by now that it’s easy to forget such good times were funded by crime, and theirs is a world where betrayal, corruption and the threat of sudden, explosive violence are ever-present.

In Holsten’s, the potential threat comes in the shape of an uptight man seemingly watching Tony from the counter. As Journey move through their surging chord progressions, the mystery figure heads to the men’s room. The tension mounts, intercut and intensified by Meadow’s lame attempts at reverse parking outside. Then the restaurant doorbell rings for a final time, Tony looks up, the screen cuts to black and the song is cut short, ironically after the words ‘don’t stop’.

It’s a metaphorical bullet to the head for loyal fans expecting closure. All kinds of weird and wonderful theories have been served up to explain creator David Chase’s bizarre ending. To some, Tony was killed by the shady guy after he emerged from the toilet (a homage to the ‘best veal in the city’ scene in The Godfather), some say it’s the audience themselves who got whacked for enjoying too much of a good thing, while another even stranger theory argues it’s all a coded homage to Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Such interpretations are purely in our minds of course: the sudden cut to black means we’re effectively free to choose the ending we like. What’s perhaps clearer though is that throughout the 86th and final episode, we’re as tired and conflicted as Tony himself, longing for some grand dramatic pay off, realising there’s no easy answers, forever wanting more, but knowing that all things must end, and that it’s high time the show was put out of its misery before it loses all prestige.

If the last meal has a flavour it’s not one of finality but compromise, a mood that’s fitting for a show in which everyone (including the viewer) is in some way morally compromised. The Sopranos is a deliciously sinful experience: we’ve spent so many hours on the couch revelling in the spectacle of a depressed murderer and his flawed family battling their inner demons, cheering them on as they make their way through life in a country predicated on the pursuit of happiness, even though it’s a land where crime does pay and it’s far too easy to wake up in the morning and get yourself a gun.

The title of the last episode, Made in America, is the clue to appreciating The Sopranos’ artistry, a show that’s spent six seasons satirically dissecting so many areas of US life, from amoral entrepreneurship to the war on terror and elitist college education. Made in America is The Sopranos’ final statement of provenance, an acknowledgment of its true subject matter, and the registered trademark of a product that’s set new standards of quality for a medium that’s surely one of America’s finest exports.

Like a family meal, or the habitual ducks which Tony obsesses over in the show’s first season, television is one of life’s seemingly small rituals that, for good or ill, can make a big difference to our happiness. Stoically optimistic and beautifully open-ended, Made in America is one hour of make-believe that stays with you long after the final bell tolls. Serving up endless interpretations and with the just the right blend of drudgery and drama, it’s a reminder there’s always something to look forward to with your loved ones after a hard day’s work. Don’t stop believin’.

This article originally appeared in the May-June 2016 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Great Unsaid: Life, death, family and Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story

It’s called the tatami shot. The camera is fixed on a short tripod, the lens positioned at waist height and the actors sit on the floor, level with the viewer’s eye line, to give the impression we’re sitting among them. The depth of field is increased, the camera doesn’t move and our perspective stays fixed and unwavering as the drama unfolds slowly before us.

Named after the traditional mat found in Japanese living rooms, the tatami shot is a stylistic hallmark of film-maker Yazujiro Ozu. Voted by movie directors in 2012 as the greatest film of all time, his 1953 work Tokyo Story is the tatami film par excellence, an immersive, penetrating study of an elderly Japanese couple who visit their grown-up yet ever-busy children in the capital. Treated as an inconvenience and ushered coldly from house to house, the parents eventually return home before the movie’s sad final act plays out.

It’s a simple story but a complex drama. Thanks to Ozu’s stationary, static style, our appreciation of the domestic events in each home is somewhat restricted. We never get a total sense of where we are and what’s happening, receiving only partial glimpses into the characters’ interior lives and regularly having to make sense of the action based on what’s not said or done.

Action is the wrong word, for precious little happens in Tokyo Story. The threadbare plot unravels sedately, major events are omitted, the performances are understated and dialogue is often confined to awkward social pleasantries. Together, they cloak an undertone of disappointment and indifference that aches throughout every scene, resulting in a beautifully-crafted vision of dysfunctional family life. Unspoken pain is part of the furniture, all of it captured in a sober cinematic style that feels both curiously immersive and detached, a stillness exacerbated by the fact that only one tracking shot is deployed in the entire film.

Despite that, there’s movement everywhere, and in the most profound sense of the word. From the opening shot of the pupils walking to school to the closing shot of the boat cruising through the harbour, Ozu’s film is one about transition – a couple’s train journey to a city, the transformation of children to adults, the relentless modernisation of society, the increasing demands of professional life, the inexorable dissolve of familial bonds, the regression of adults back to childlike dependency and the final, inevitable move from life to death. 

Through it all, Ozu forces us to confront those difficult, eternal questions. Can families survive the passage of time? What obligation do children owe their parents? How do we best prepare ourselves for the end? And what’s the best way to remember and dignify those who are gone? For a film so overtly calm and austere, Tokyo Story is replete with instability and uncertainty, a mood revealing itself in subtle ways – the disappointed glances, the growing spatial distances between characters, the feeble social rituals that fail to articulate what’s really going on, and, most of all, the long, thick silences, which Ozu creates by lingering his camera on a scene long after the talking has stopped.

Tokyo Story forces us to sit, reflect and come to terms with what we’re watching. When the movie ends, you realise there’s so much more to it than first meets the eye - and that you’ve spent two hours under the spell of a true cinematic master. With remarkable patience and tenderness, expressed through judicious editing, delicate writing and a love of the human face in all its wonderful complexity, Ozu’s worldview is brilliantly elucidated, the sadness of his scenario bearing down on you with all the quiet force of gravity.

Tokyo Story isn’t a pessimistic film though. Rather it’s a wise film, and that wisdom seems born out of time itself. Time is everywhere – in the family heirloom of the watch, in the changing landscape, in the characters’ anxiety about the past and the future, and in their inability to find more of what is life’s most precious resource. Moving both surprisingly quickly and excruciatingly slowly, time changes people, moves them apart, brings them back together and pushes them away again. Time is a relative concept to Ozu, and relative is the operative word here, with time strengthening and weakening family ties in ways we can all identify with.

There’s nothing special about this family though. As the title implies, this is just one story among millions in the world’s most populated city. But the experience of this group of people feels so unique and vividly etched that you can’t help recall the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

Tokyo Story is equally as great a work of art, and has a similar sense of life as conflicted, tragic and, in some ways, unknowable. Yet it is majestic too, and in the face of all the pain and disappointment, Ozu teaches us to look, to imagine and to feel this quality - and to remember that this life, and this family, are the only ones we’ll ever have. 

Yasujiro Ozu (1903 - 1963)

This article originally appeared in the March-April 2016 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Felicia's Journey: the best serial killer movie ever set in Birmingham

How impeccably arranged and imprisoned those unhatched eggs seem. Incubated for show and posterity in a drawing room cabinet, these symbols of nascent growth are the first things we see in Felicia’s Journey, Atom Egoyan’s 1999 psychological thriller set in England’s second city.

As the scene unfolds, the camera pans slowly through an immaculate yet empty home to the strains of a slushy 1950s ballad eulogising the innocence of youth. It eventually rests upon Joey Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a cuddly catering manager, mother-fixated gastronome and serial killer of young girls, busy preparing his latest culinary delight in a kitchen that feels about half a century out of date.

Cooking is a cathartic experience for Hilditch, an act deeply intertwined with the traumas of his childhood. And it’s the corruption of youth and the tyranny of the past which are the staple ingredients of Felicia’s Journey. Based on the novel by Irish writer William Trevor, the movie tells the story of a provincial Gaelic girl (Elaine Cassidy), pregnant with a British squaddie’s child, who is then rejected by her embittered Republican father for ‘carrying the enemy within her’.

Romeo has done a bunk from a land scarred by the Troubles, and Felicia – pure, steadfast and naive - pursues him across the sea, in the deluded hope of starting a family. Meandering lonely through the industrialised streets of late 1990s Birmingham, she is strange fruit ripe for the taking. And Hilditch, a portly, softly-spoken Brummie equivalent of Norman Bates, decides to bite.

Outwardly charming and feigning grandfatherly benevolence, Hilditch isolates Felicia to coax her gently onto his list of victims, a collection of impressionable drifters he fondly refers to as the ‘lost girls’. The unloved son of a 1950s Nigella-style celebrity chef, Hilditch is a lost child too, his urge to kill rooted in a disturbed upbringing and his own motherlode of attachment issues.

Pain hangs heavy in his home, as conspicuous as the ladies underwear he drapes creepily around his kitchen. And his patient grooming of Felicia is the motor driving the plot, a languid narrative that ambles along like Hilditch’s antiquated Morris Minor, one of many instances of how the past is overpoweringly present.

Indeed, Felicia’s Journey feels very much like a period piece, despite fleeting appearances of the Rotunda, BT Tower and Spaghetti Junction in the grey skyline. From the 1950s furnishings and clothing in Hilditch’s home to the Irish flashbacks set dreamily amid ancient Celtic ruins, Egoyan’s movie feels trapped in a weird kind of time-warp, something accentuated by the stagnant minds of the characters, for whom life is a personal journey through hell where past deeds are too much of a burden to bear.

The city is a damaged, unforgiving place, cruelty and neglect bubbling away under the West Midlands ordinariness of gas holders, cooling towers and surburbia. Religion is ever-present too, expressed in the strict Catholicism of Felicia’s upbringing, the near-hagiographic portrayal of her suffering, the story’s powerful maternal figures and the Christian zealots with whom Felicia stays.

Like the two main characters, the pushy bible-bearers seem to be living on a different planet, preying on the emotionally vulnerable to find release from some deep-seated inner suffering. Their confrontation with Hilditch is the film’s best scene, part-tragic and part-comic, and marks the fulcrum on which the movie pivots towards its painful, inevitable climax.

As a thriller, Felicia’s Journey is only partly successful. The injections of suspense feel a little too clumsy, the threat almost too understated, and the Hitchcockian-style soundtrack somewhat at odds with the rest of the piece, all accompanied by a central performance from Hoskins that’s very enjoyable (Brummie accent included), but which comes perilously close to serving up wafers of ham.

It’s compulsive viewing though: a sober gaze at how adult selfishness destroys the lives of future generations. With its unswerving realism and rich air of psychological complexity, Egoyan’s film creeps steadily under the skin and, despite (or because of) being made by an Egyptian-born Canadian, it delivers the best use of Birmingham in modern cinema.   

There’s another reason why Felicia’s Journey is required viewing for Electrolyte readers. Mid-way through the film, Felicia traipses through the rain-swept pavements around New Street station, bolting for shelter in the entrance of a porn cinema which today houses our beloved Electric. The building only appears briefly, but it’s a telling scene nonetheless. As soon as she finds repose, a sleazy older man moves in: a perfect microcosm of a story about how the young suffer at the hands of their would-be protectors.

If Felicia’s Journey has a final destination, it’s a sense of wasted potential, a notion made more poignant (for Brummies at least) by being set in a city so often overlooked and marginalised. Just like the eggs in the cabinet that never hatch, and the unborn child in Felicia’s womb that never has a chance, there’s promise everywhere in this world, if only we summon the love and creativity to nurture it properly. The once-dilapidated porn cinema you’re now sitting in, resurrected by grown-ups who genuinely care about what they’re doing, is one wonderful example. 

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2016 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.

Friday, 11 December 2015

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas was a pretty good director...

Welcome to the future. Numbers rule the world. Individuality is supressed. Freedom is non-existent. Robotic drones herd people around an underground city on behalf of a computerised autocracy that operates society like one huge calculator. And the slaves, when not enduring benign platitudes from the powers-that-be, are judged solely on their ability to generate profit.

Art of control: The stark, authoritarian world 
of THX 1138 (Credit: Lucasfilm) 

Sound familiar? If you’re feeling especially cynical, this pessimistic scenario may come close to describing your feelings about 21st century capitalist society. And it was certainly a vision of the future envisaged by Star Wars creator George Lucas back in 1971, when he released his feature film debut THX 1138. A mix of prison break and dystopian sci-fi, the movie stars Robert Duvall as the eponymous protagonist, joining fellow dehumanised baldies LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) and SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance)  in a bid for freedom from a world obsessed with efficiency and control.

Robert Duvall and George Lucas 
on the set of THX 1138 (Credit: Lucasfilm)

You can’t blame them either. Their home is a vast subterranean cellar devoid of personality and natural light, where citizens are sedated on prescription drugs to ensure they remain docile, and sex is banned as an act of deviancy. As a piece of futuristic thinking, THX 1138 is a very derivative one though, channelling a few too many Orwellian clichés to ever be truly thought-provoking, and suffering from a flat, underdeveloped storyline.

Yet what it lacks in insight and narrative flair, THX 1138 makes up for in technical excellence and cinematic chutzpah. Lucas’s bold production design, love of visual experimentation and innovative use of sound are striking examples of how you can craft a total cinematic vision from modest resources. Like his characters, you sense the director is striving to break away from conformity in THX 1138, putting his own idiosyncratic stamp on the world in the hope of greater career opportunities.

Recognise the number plate? The customised coupe driven
by Paul LeMat in American Graffiti (Credit: Lucasfilm)

Freedom casts an alluring shadow over Lucas’s next film, the critically lauded and hugely profitable American Graffiti. Lucas’s sophomore effort is set in 1962 in the small Californian town of Modesto, where four young men enjoy a last night of teenage meandering before going their separate ways. In similar fashion to THX 1138, Lucas eschews plot in favour of rich period detail and a loose, freewheeling narrative powered by a joyous soundtrack that swaps computerised trickery with infectious jukebox classics.

It was a combination that hit the bullseye. Cheap to make, coining it in at the box office and nominated for a clutch of Oscars, American Graffiti bristles with potential and beautifully captures the boredom, restlessness and anxieties of adolescence. Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard have their lives ahead of them but still feel trapped inside, caught between familiarity, stagnation and bewildering opportunity. They’re all on the cusp of something for sure, but they’re not sure what, and you can imagine this is how Lucas must have felt himself, as he began to carve out a reputation as a promising young turk at the forefront of the New Hollywood movement.

George Lucas on the set of box-office
smash American Graffiti (Credit:Lucasfilm)

Destiny arrived in 1977, when Lucas made a space adventure about a humble young farm boy searching for his place in the world. Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon, changed the movie landscape, created a merchandising empire that dwarfed the movie’s box office takings and made its creator rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As Luke Skywalker matured from novice to Jedi, Lucas came of age spectacularly too: a classic American success story which Modesto’s teens would have killed for, regardless of the fact that he suffered a nervous breakdown and vowed never to direct again.

Turns out he didn’t need to. In the wake of his triumph, George set up Lucasfilm and its special effects subsidiary Industrial Light and Magic, oversaw two megabucks Star Wars sequels, co-created another runaway franchise about a rugged archaeologist called Indiana Jones, and became one of the wealthiest, respected and most independent of all Hollywood titans.

Legend in the making: Mark Hamill, Lucas
and Harrison Ford (Credit: TCD/VP/LMKMEDIA)

Sadly, Lucas’s new found power and freedom saw his talents as a filmmaker swallowed whole. In 1999 he returned to direction with The Phantom Menace, the first of three lacklustre Star War prequels that feel as soulless and clinical as the calculated regime in THX 1138. In 2012, he cashed in by selling the whole shebang to Disney to the tune of $4 billion, completing a career arc that began with a film about the evil of numbers and ended with his transformation into, well, a numbers man.

It’s easy to be cynical though. To his detractors, Lucas is an ambitious young cineaste who sold out to the Dark Side of corporate America, and now like Anakin Skywalker, remains forever encased in a mask and identity stifling his true self. His fans would suggest otherwise of course, hailing him as a popular hero in the Luke mould, a maverick entertainer who has fulfilled his destiny by channelling his flair for storytelling, innovation and technology into a beacon of creative inspiration for millions. Thanks to Lucas, The Force will always be with us. Yet the raw, provocative energy of THX 1138 remains buried deep underground, a wealth of untapped, rebellious potential that will never again rise to the surface.

The Empire Strikes Cash: Lucas celebrating
his $4 billion deal with Disney (Credit: Disney) 

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

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Critical Condition: the best books about cinema

“Nobody knows anything” is how William Goldman memorably described the movie industry in his 1982 book Adventures in the Screen Trade. In his seminal dissection of Tinseltown, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid grapples with the search for Hollywood’s Holy Grail: what is the formula for making a blockbuster hit? His conclusion is that it’s impossible to discern, with luck, circumstance and an inscrutable public defying the expectations of the mightiest moguls.

Astute, knowledgeable and sprinkled with gossip, Goldman’s book demystifies the world of film-making, depicting a realm both magical and mercenary where prodigious talents come unstuck hacking their way through a jungle of egomania and ruthlessness in search of box-office gold. It’s a sobering read for any film fan, and set the tone for more recent warts-and-all movie books from fellow insiders like Joe Esterhas and Art Linson.

In the broadest terms, such books promise to uncover the real truth about movies, a goal also pursued by French film critic André Bazin in the 1940s and 50s. His ground-breaking tome What is Cinema? is the antithesis of Goldman’s work, a compilation of academic essays that became a signature text of the European art-house film scene. Whereas Goldman’s effort sprang from the macho negotiations of Californian power lunches, Bazin’s was born amid the introspective, pipe-and-beret huddles of smoky Parisian cafés, where intellectual rigour had far more gravitas than the murky business of money.

Bazin argues the finest movies are those which reflect a director’s personal vision and which strive to achieve ever-greater levels of realism. This paved the way for the auteur theory, a cinematic elitism that classed certain styles of film as inherently better than others. What is Cinema? is a monumental contribution to film discussion, but in its failure to take into account the collaborative nature of movie-making, and its pursuit of definitive answers about what works and what doesn’t, it ultimately falls into the same narrow trap as Goldman.

Hollywood commercialism and European auteurism collide brilliantly in Francois Truffaut’s study of Alfred Hitchcock. The French New Wave director’s record of his eight-day interview with the English maestro is part-critical discussion and part hero-worship, the quality of the conversation enhanced by the two protagonists’ differing sensibilities.

Whereas one is determined to elevate his subject from mere popular entertainer to the pantheon of great artists, the other is more prosaic and never forgets his chief responsibility is to give the audience a good time. The lesson of Hitchcock-Truffaut is that film discussion is inevitably grounded in the personality and cultural background of those participating, and that such viewpoints are exercises in subjectivity that can’t be proved or disproved.

A writer who understands this well is David Thomson, author of the misleadingly-titled Biographical Dictionary of Film. The name implies it’s a vault of factual information, but instead it’s a beautiful door-stop of movie opinion, an unrivalled smorgasbord of informed subjectivity that’s lucid, passionate, and unashamedly selective.

More than any other book, the Dictionary is the one that inspired me to write about films. But it’s also a victim of the vices which plague many film critics: dismissiveness, snootiness and frequent disappearances up the author’s own arse. For all his mesmerising perceptiveness, much of Thomson’s later writings suffer from a long-winded, meandering style that renders his arguments unfocused or obscure.

As with most writing, less is always more. That’s the attitude of French film-maker Robert Bresson, whose Notes on the Cinematographer is a masterpiece of compression. Workmanlike in tone yet profound in its insights, Bresson’s text is as short and understated as his films, a compilation of pithy, Zen-like statements written by the director during his forty-year career.

‘Empty the pond to get the fish’ is my personal favourite, not just because it perfectly encapsulates Bresson’s artistic credo, but because it serves as a welcome antidote to oceans of movie waffle - and remains one of the best descriptions about good writing I’ve ever read.

Bresson may be coolly arrogant (trying to please the public is ‘silly’, he believes) yet in its suggestion that cinema is ‘a voyage of discovery across an unknown planet’, Notes on the Cinematographer makes a nice companion piece to Adventures in the Screen Trade. The American may be defiantly practical, the Frenchmen overly pretentious, but both men share the common struggle of trying to bottle their own blend of cinematic magic and distill this elusive process into words.

And therein lies the problem. No matter how wonderful a movie buff’s prose, it will always pale in comparison to the real deal. To adapt Martin Mull’s quote, writing about films is a bit like dancing about architecture, and will therefore always be an elaborate sideshow to the main attraction.

Still, if the truth about cinema defies language, can you imagine a world where no one writes about the movies at all? Like so many of life’s passions, film writing is a personal journey offering no prize expect the pleasure of the trip itself. And because of that, it’s always going to be a ride worth taking. But then again I would say that, and that is just my opinion. 

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