Film


IngloriousQuentin Tarantino may well be the best bad filmmaker that there has ever been. He has more talent than most directors have arrogance. His visual imagination is tremendous. His ear for sound is uncanny. His ability to produce the best from his actors is incredible – especially considering that he works with people of the, er, calibre of John Travolta, Leonardo Di Caprio and Eli Roth. His love of films, meanwhile, has ensured that he is that rarest thing: a major Hollywood director who works hard. He is, in some ways, a technical traditionalist and shows a heartening willingness to drag his ass from the studio and find and shoot on locations.

He is really something.

Yet, somehow, despite all this, he produces horrible films. This is partly due to his insistence on writing as well as directing them. Tarantino films do not tell stories as much as scenes. He has a good understanding of how to produce emotions within a three minute period but little idea of how to develop them over the course of a film; still less to build coherent plots and form compelling characters. What was intriguing ambiguity in Reservoir Dogs looked like laziness in Pulp Fiction and was revealed as incompetence in the endless emptiness of Inglourious Basterds. A Tarantino film is a cinematic sketch show, complete with homages, grotesques, in-jokes, riffs and catchphrases.

Then there is the violence. It is not that he includes bloodletting that is obnoxious but that his films are so often vehicles for his desire to relish its portrayal. I cannot judge the extent to which this has corrupted viewers but it has corrupted the filmmaking industry. He produced Hostel – the apparent nadir of the American horror genre that was promptly outdone by the Tarantino-backed Hostel II and somehow spawned a raft of sick-making imitators.

What made me hate Tarantino as a filmmaker was his supposed maturation. He is not just telling stories now – he is “tackling” them! He is, like, totally saying things about Nazis and slaves and stuff. I will grant that I have not seen Django Unchained but nothing I have heard suggests that it will contradict the view that Tarantino does not explore themes and questions because if he explored them he might come to answers that he did not always intend to reach. And the answer, of course, as there is never any doubt, is violence on a grand scale. The thematic ornamentation is an elaborate excuse for the splatstick that he adores, and one cannot have a film of moral gravity in which the questions are not “will they kill” or “why will they kill” but “where will they kill” and “with which implement”. It is the pretence that grates. At least Hideshi Hino and Lucio Fulci did not pretend to be more than cinematic sadists.

We are promised a third in his trilogy of films in which victims strive to outdo the barbarism of their bullies. Who, one wonders, could they be? The Chinese, karate-kicking Japanese infantrymen? Alan Turing’s zombie, ripping off the scrota of his judges? Martin Luther King, explaining that he had a dream in which a thousand Southern racists got their asses whupped? It’s easy to bask in the redemptive power of violence when the closest you have been to suffering is the cinema.

From our murder mysteries to our James Bonds we like our audiovisual entertainment dark and enigmatic. It’s about time, then, for a revival of film noir.

In a sense it’s still with us. The jaded humour of the modern detective owes as much to the fedora-toting, cigarette-smoking anti-heroes of noir and hardboiled fiction as to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The bleak urban environments of The Dark Knight recalls the cold streets of Lang and Dassin, and its brooding superhero would, if he pulled off his cape and donned a trench coat, seem a bit like one of Robert Mitchum’s wearily heroic creations.

Films noir must have appealed to those Americans who had been scarred by the trauma of the Great Depression and the Second World War; Americans for whom the dreams that underpinned their nation had become tinged by nightmarishness. (The returning GI struggling to adapt to civilian life, is a recurring theme, found in the bleakest offerings such as The Blue Dahlia, Act of Violence and Crossfire.) The fears of subversiveness that accompanied the Cold War ensured that there was paranoia as well as pessimism. Their heroes negotiate systems of power that grow ever more sinister and mystifying the further they’re drawn in. People they’d assumed embody certain characteristics turn out to have hidden and often darker aspects to themselves. This artful malice can, of course, be embodied by the most beautiful people.

This grim disorientation is befitting of our anxious and distrustful times. Millions of us have been impoverished by the workings of lofty and labyrinthine systems. Our communities have transmogrified. The deceit of the men charged with our protection has never been more widely acknowledged.  Even some of our bleedin’ children’s entertainers have turned out to be scoundrels. There are countless things to like about film noir regardless of the age – the mysteries, the jokes, the girls, the chance to imagine a world where smoking has no consequences – but, still, it has especial pertinence today.

The heroes themselves – often grim, irreverent and greedy – are not men you would be pleased to find your daughter coming home with. By and large, however, undoubtably heroic and in an intriguing sense. Superhero fiction has always been most popular when people are troubled by conflicts between good and evil. If you’re bothered by corruption in the world it’s nice to think of a virtuous beefcake that would kick its ass. Hard-boiled heroes could be tough bastards but they weren’t physical specimens or martial artists. Dick Powell, as a runtish Philip Marlowe, spent a lot of time being manhandled by Moose Malloy. The slim, effeminate Alan Ladd spent half of The Glass Key in a punch-drunk stupor. Such men are admirable, like the detectives of today, not for the strength and ferocity with which they confront evil but the wit and audaciousness with which they seek the truth. They might be callous, even cruel, but they’re always compelled by some form of stubborn impulse to get the bottom of things. I like that and like that other people like it. It’s heartening that scepticism can make heroes of men.

The dialogue of films noir – a riot of sardonic puns, allusions and similes – might irritate some viewers with its staginess but I love it. I love its humour; its bite; its celebration of wit. Not just wit in the sense of being humorous but of being mentally agile and inventive. After years of grunting gangsters, silent superheroes and languid leading men it’s good to see people enjoying and employing their cleverness. In a strange, dishonest world they know it’s a powerful weapon.

For all the motifs I’ve referenced here, noir wasn’t a “genre” in the sense of being formulaic; the films had a distinctive style but the plots and themes could be unpredictable. The everpresent fags, fedoras and femmes might give us the impression that we’re in familiar territory but plot twists and moral questions have a habit of creeping up and sideswiping us. In The Big Heat, for example, Dave Bannion seems to be a good, straight-laced cop before you realise that women keep dying around him and he doesn’t look too bothered. It’s a point I could be charged with repeating too often but when special effects did not allow for grand spectacles and social inhibitions prohibited gore and rutting the thematic content was often more effective: as filmmakers had to use their imaginations to suggest rather than showcase happenings and as the eyes aren’t consumed with sensational and often implausible things that one’s brain is forced to disengage itself.

Anyway, I’m off to sit with my back against a shuttered window and drink scotch. If you aren’t acquainted with the style, there’s a fantastic boxset here. It costs less than a dame and it will keep you company for longer.

I sometimes wonder if I’m going reach Peak Film – a point at which my demand for great movies can’t be satisfied by the films I’ve yet to see. Oh, sure, there’s the odd Tokyo Story or La Notte that’s yet to pass before my eyes but I still worry that in a few years I’ll have run through the good ‘uns and been left with only sequels, remakes and “early works”. It was thus a special pleasure to watch Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry – a film I’d never seen or, indeed, heard of but that was compelling enough to not just pull but yank my heart strings. It’s the story of a South Korean grandmother, Yang Mija, who’s trying acquire the inspiration to write verse as she falls victim to a one-two punch of unpleasant news: that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and that her grandson, who she cares for, has been implicated in a dreadful crime.

Yang Mija is a bumbling woman quite regardless of her dementia: saying the wrong things at the wrong times and often to the wrong people. She’s the kind of simple, self-absorbed individual who, if one were forced to interact with her in real life, might seem exasperating. We’re impatient with awkward people, which is strange, perhaps, because they are at least not lying to our faces. As the film goes on, the callousness of the socially adept people around her becomes evident and her openness; aversion to the squalid features of the world and optimistic need to find its beauty seems more heroic. She isn’t a mere embodiment of goodness, though: her reluctant education in the shades of human ugliness, from discourteousness to depravity, is a subtle but effective theme.

Do Asians spend more time being quiet than us? In most British and American productions the films have to progress through rapid dialogue and frantic movement lest their audiences fall asleep where they perch. There have been exceptions - Paris, Texas is a fine example – but it generally seems to be filmmakers from Korea and Japan who appreciate the value of silence and calm; who grasp that things are not realised in moments of action but as we observe and contemplate. From his camera’s increasingly mournful examination of Korea’s rivers to the most emotionally charged badminton game you’ll ever witness Lee Chang-dong epitomized this.

Clair Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum also contained a lot of silence – in fact, most of it was silent. An exploration of a daughter’s growing independence from her single father, and their relationships with the people of their building, it was moving in its focus on the everyday comforts and conflicts of our interaction. While the characters do little one grows to care for them so that the importance of the little they do can be recognised. I was never bored by its minimalism but it sometimes felt contrived: human beings are not always so calm, reserved and measured and sometimes reveal themselves through a haze of snorting, sneezing, rambling, joking and gesticulating. It’s important not to aim for such sparsity that one limits one’s characters’ potential for life.

Rocky Balboa kicking the behind of Ivan Drago. Hulk Hogan dropping a leg across the Iron Sheikh. Arnie brutalising anything that stepped across his path. The America of Reagan was America on steroids – in the sense of the metaphorical clichè and also, to some extent, as a literal truth. Arnie, Sly, the Hulkster and innumerable other objects of the nation’s pride had been on as many drugs as the most debased of pop stars.

One of many interesting points in Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster is that the outraged, faintly hysterical reactions to the exposure of steroid use in professional wrestling, baseball and elsewhere probably had a lot to do with its despoiling a national myth. Americans, like other peoples, are often preoccupied with their greatness but they’re also fond of the belief that this has been achieved through the purest of ideals and honest labour. Hulk Hogan, the “real American”, told kids that if they wanted biceps to rival the basket balls atop his upper arms they’d have to say their prayers and take their vitamins. While Ivan Drago was the product of a team of scientists and the dubious offerings of their cabinets Rocky Balboa chopped logs, ran through the snow and probably enjoyed a steak once he’d returned to his humble dwelling. The knowledge that their heroes were, in fact, reliant on unnatural assistance – obtained through weird, dishonest means at that – was something akin to a personal affront.

Bell feels that the dangers of juicing have been overstated. He claims that more people enter hospitals with conditions related to multivitamins than steroids. (Look upon your works and despair, Hulk Hogan. Despair.) I don’t know enough to offer a reliable opinion but I suspect that there’s truth to this. While pro wrestling is infamous for its association with steroids, for example, the most dangerous factors are liable to have been the cocktails of painkillers and, often, recreational drugs that have allowed wrestlers to maintain their schedules, and the damage increasingly hazardous matches have wreaked upon their bodies. Even if they aren’t as physiologically harmful as some might have assumed, though, the psychology of the users Bell profiled was eerie. All of them were desperate to lift that little bit more or add that extra inch of muscle. For what? In case they got trapped beneath a landslide and had to shift a 600 rather than 500lb boulders? So that they could rent out room on their biceps and deltoids? When one’s goals are so arbitrary, so essentially unproductive and yet so beyond what nature has catered for one has to ask what’s behind such hubristic desire. In exploring this question Bell said a bit about the modern male but more than was immediately obvious about his country.

A Sight & Sound poll of directors and critics has revealed what they perceive to be the greatest films of all time…

1. Vertigo
2. Citizen Kane
3. Tokyo Story
4. Rules of the Game
5. Sunrise
6. 2001
7. The Searchers
8. Man with a Movie Camera
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
10. 8 1/2

I don’t wish to analyse their choices because the time one spends considering the greatest films is time one could have spent watching a great film. It surprised me, though, that while the masterworks of Coppola ensured that the 1970s are represented the highest film made after 1980 is Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which clocks in at 29. While art forms such as the novel and the theatre might have degenerated in modern times, the cinematic mediums, despite the rot that obscures one’s view of them, have offered marvellous things. Here, then, are my favourite films released after 1980…

1. Raging Bull
2. In the Mood for Love
3. Spirited Away
4. A Prophet
5. Infernal Affairs
6. Brazil
7. Mulholland Drive
8. Paris, Texas
9. Three Colours: Red
10. Dumplings

All are recommended. Except the latter if you’re eating.

Update 2014: The trouble with writing lists, especially at the age of 21, is that one’s favourite films, books, songs and so on can be changed within the month. So it is here. I still like these films, but there are many I would like to add. From now on, no more lists until I am at least 50.

The Guardian is compiling peoples’ opinions as to their favourite Hitchcock movies. The trouble is that people generally choose one of a small handful of classics: Psycho, naturally; Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo or North By Northwest. Nothing wrong with that, but a more interesting question might be which of his films have been underrated.

Rope, for example, is one of the more impressive failures in cinema. James Stewart was as miscast as his namesake Corden would be in the role of their namesake Bond, and his character’s bombastic epiphany as he grasped the implications of his teachings seems contrived. Yet the tension and morbid comedy produced by the little function it observes, aided by Hitchcock’s manufacturing of the illusion of seamlessness, which never lets the tone drop, makes for a great experience. I’d bet a young Joe Orton was looking on.

Frenzy, despite being a tale of rape and murder, is a faintly sentimental depiction of the English capital that Hitchcock had left behind but it remains a great thriller. The tension of an unexceptional story is magnified by Hitch’s directorial interventions – such as when the camera retreats along the hallway as Barry Foster leads Anna Massey’s charming “Babs” to her death. There’s also a richness to the incidental characters that’s generally absent from plot-oriented films. The scenes with Alex McCowen’s Chief Inspector and his unfortunate wife, whose ambitions for her haute cuisine are as grand as her talents are minimal, are beautifully conceived.

I’m also a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though it’s liable to leave you pointing at your sky box and screaming, “See! The DVD player can do that! Why can’t you?”

Was I the last person to see Man on Wire? Anyway, the closing sentiments of Philippe Petit – who, in case you haven’t watched the film, crossed a rope strung between the twin towers – seemed a little odd…

Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge – and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.

This seems to imply that life should be a frantic whirl of spontaneous risk-taking. But that’s absolutely not how Petit carried out his stunt. As the movie illustrated in fascinating detail, his ambition was nurtured over many years and actualised after months of planning that involved countless hours of reflection, ruthless training sessions and experimenting with means to bridge the gap, anchor the rope and so on. These mad bastards built scale models. A moral, it seems to me, is thus that one should find an ambition that’s worth risking one’s comfort to fulfil and concentrate oneself on establishing the conditions under which one’s most likely to be successful. This might well involve a lot of drudgery and repition but if something is worth risking one’s health or even life it’s worth enduring boredom for.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 193 other followers