FilmJuice have my review of Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.
No director has enjoyed a more artfully ballistic rise and fall than Michael Cimino. A film school graduate who cut his teeth on Madison Avenue before working as a screenwriter, Cimino’s first directorial pitch meeting was for an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a bloated and self-righteous fantasia in which a ruggedly individualistic architect struggles against the ignorance of lesser humans in the pursuit of his vision. Knocked back amidst fears that the production would result in the construction of a real-life skyscraper, Cimino demurred and assumed the role of the company man… an auteur but one who could give the studios what they wanted. His first film was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an amiable Clint Eastwood caper picture that borrows extensively from the New Hollywood bag of tricks without ever really understanding why those tricks were used in the first place.
Hugely successful, the film earned Cimino just enough rope to produce a film as bloated and self-righteous as The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter is a complex film that does a number of things very well and a number of things incredibly poorly but while the film’s ability to voice then-prevalent American attitudes to the Vietnam War was enough to win it a lorry load of Oscars at the time, its connection to a now abandoned cultural moment no longer inspires forgiveness in the face of its racism, fascism and self-indulgent running time.
The money and awards garnered by The Deer Hunter convinced the suits to give Michael Cimino a free-reign on his next film and Cimino responded to this increased responsibility by producing a film so expensive and so relentlessly terrible that it destroyed a Hollywood studio that had been founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffith. This failure not only ensured that Cimino would spend the rest of his career as a third-string director, it also inspired the studios to re-assert themselves and put an end to the creating freedoms that had brought about the last Golden Age of American film.
Watching Thunderbolt and Lightfoot I was struck by how easy it is to blame Heaven’s Gate and Cimino for a problem with much deeper roots:
An approach to filmmaking that began by capturing the ambiguities of the public mind and encouraging people to think for themselves had ossified into a set of tropes and techniques that could be applied to even the slightest of traditional films. The sad truth about New Hollywood is that once the initial creative energy was spent, the movement struggled to renew itself and so grew decadent. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is what happens when decadent self-indulgence and pastiche get mistaken for art.
Out this week and as forgettable as any film produced by mid-70s Hollywood.
The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.
Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.
In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.
The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.
Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.
FilmJuice have my review of Lindsay Anderson’s story of public school rebellion If…
One of the things I most remember from my time attending press screenings is the extent to which a clever PR might ensure the good will of the critical community. At the lower end of the scale, a PR might turn up early and lay on the booze, thereby ensuring that critics went into the screening feeling appropriately jolly. Further up the scale, a PR with a bit of a budget might book a more upscale screening room and lay on proper food and drink. Once you get into the bigger budget films it is not unheard of for PRs to lay on entire meals and special events, particularly if they are trying to ensure that a film is well-reviewed by non-specialised but widely-read press such as women’s magazines. When the last James Bond film Skyfall was released to rapturous applause, I couldn’t help but imagine film critics being dosed up with vodka martinis and champagne. This type of shit shouldn’t impact on how well a film is received but it really, really does.
Another way of ensuring a warm reception by critics is to speak directly to the concerns and lived experience of the kind of people who tend to become critics. Why else would so many critically-praised novels involve middle-age intellectuals feeling a bit sad and having affairs with sexually generous young women? At its worst, this phenomenon can even lead to critics suggesting that the only books worth reading and films worth watching are the ones that speak directly to them; Isn’t it funny how inward looking films about middle-aged men tend to be seen as more serious and worthwhile than romantic comedies? Isn’t it funny that romantic comedies began to lose prestige and standing the instant they began to be marketed at women rather than men? Anderson’s If… is an undoubted beneficiary of this phenomenon as it is a film about intellectuals rebelling against their public school that was released at a time when practically every film critic in the country would have been a public school-educated intellectual.
I have a good deal of affection for If… and I can totally see why it proved so influential but, as someone who didn’t go to public school, I must say that this film simply does not speak to me. In fact, I think this is less a film about revolution than it is about the upper class finally getting fed up of pretending not to be selfish pricks:
It is easy to imagine Travis growing up to be a Richard Branson-type figure, a ruthless businessman who considers himself a rebel and an individualist because he wears his hair long and doesn’t even pretend to take an interest in the welfare of the poor. Far from being a politically progressive film, If… is a reminder that Capital has always been far more revolutionary than the left-wingers and trade unionists who sought to oppose it.
Maybe if Travis had shown some self-awareness about his position and privilege… Maybe if his rejection of the system had been on moral grounds… Maybe if Travis had wanted something more out of life than the ability to get drunk, wear his hair long and seduce women. Maybe then I might have been sympathetic to his rebellion. Maybe then I might have seen him as a revolutionary rather than a spoiled brat.
FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s sports documentary The Armstrong Lie.
I went into this film with quite a good impression of Gibney as a filmmaker. I loved his award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about the use of torture in the Iraq war and his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room about the myriad ways in which elements of American government, business and media made the collapse of Enron possible. I love those films because Gibney takes a couple of big, explosive news stories and proceeds to do precisely the kind of stuff that the media reporting the stories refused to do: Explain events by embedding them in a broader cultural and sociopolitical context. When The Armstrong Lie applies this methodology to the world of professional cycling, the film is fascinating… the problem is that Gibney keeps allowing Armstrong himself to get in the way:
The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable
Lance Armstrong’s story should by now be familiar to anyone who is not living in a cave on Mars with their fingers crammed in their ears. Gibney originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s return to the sport in 2009 and his claims to be running the race ‘clean’ for the first time since his return after testicular cancer. Mercifully, this film collapsed when it became obvious that Armstrong was still cheating and planning on using Gibney to help repair his reputation. The collapse of this earlier project forced Gibney to make a more interesting film as his desire to understand Armstrong’s motivations forced him to look into the culture of a sport that had effectively been sanctioning secret doping for decades. At its best, The Armstrong Lie really connects with the idea that Armstrong succeeded simply because he was a more talented and organised cheat than anyone else in cycling at the time. The problem is that, rather than focusing upon what made Armstrong such an effective cheat, Gibney keeps getting distracted by questions about Armstrong’s motivations and mental state. This proves incredibly frustrating as the whole point of the film is that Armstrong was always a wheel in a much bigger machine who managed to protect the machine by attracting all the attention to a single cog.
The film is filled with footage of journalists and sporting officials trying to hold Armstrong to account but they never get close to him. Every time someone asks about doping, Armstrong puts on a sad face, mentions his cancer as well as the work he did for cancer charities and moves the debate away from whether or not he cheated to the more tricky question of whether or not a journalist or a sporting official have the right to persecute a cancer survivor who raises millions of dollars for other cancer survivors. Indeed, Gibney completely misses the fact that Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France saw him refusing to answer questions from anyone other than a disgrace former team-mate who had reinvented himself as a sports presenter. Even if such a man did manage to hold Armstrong to account with an awkward question, Armstrong could simply paint the journalist as a bitter hypocrite and thereby shift the discussion away from whether or not he cheated and towards the far more comfortable question of whether or not it was appropriate to even discuss that possibility.
Armstrong was a brilliant cheat because he managed to protect not only himself but his entire sport from serious scrutiny. He did this by magically transforming all questions about drugs in cycling into questions about whether or not it was appropriate to question the honesty of a cancer survivor and charity worker.
The question of how Armstrong managed this trick is actually very similar to the question of how a vicious paedophile like Jimmy Saville could not only escape prosecution but also enjoy a successful career in show-business. The trick that both Saville and Armstrong pulled is that they managed to position themselves so close to a series of institutions that it effectively became impossible to challenge the individual without also challenging the institutions they stood next to. If this wasn’t bad enough, the relationship between the criminals and the institutions was so close that the institutions wound up with a vested interest in defending the criminal who was using them as cover. How could the BBC, the Royal Family or the various charities he supported distance themselves from Jimmy Saville without admitting their close ties to a paedophile? How could the Tour de France distance itself from Lance Armstrong without admitting that it was their culture of rules-bending that allowed him to rise to prominence in the first place?
Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.
What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.
The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.
While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.
FilmJuice have my review of Elia Kazan’s impressively crunchy but politically ambivalent legal drama Boomerang!
Set in what the film goes out of its way to refer to as a typical town from the American mid-west, Boomerang! begins exploring the political landscape of a small town on the move. We are introduced to the well-meaning reformers who kicked out the ‘machine politicians’ in order to make their home town a better place and how these patrician figures relate to the wider community through institutions such as the local church. There’s even a nice scene where a planning committee is shown and despite the committee having a woman for a chairperson, it’s pretty clear that the real person in charge is the local priest. Given the extent to which the various power-groups rely on each other to stay in power, it is hardly surprising that when the local priest is inexplicably gunned down, the political scene undergoes a crisis with politicians demanding results while newspapers and rival political parties sharpen their knives. The pressure is so great that the police wind up taking shortcuts, arresting everyone in sight and effectively torturing someone into signing a confession.All of this social realism is beautifully realised but unlike similar endeavours such as David Simon’s The Wire, the film does not end with a call for revolution or the liberal conclusion that everything is fucked. Instead, the film seems to conclude that the system is okay because a single corrupt politicians wound up doing the right thing whilst angling to be made governor. This makes for a denouement that is as dramatically unsatisfying as it is confounding of genre expectations:
There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform.
Having thought about it a bit more, I am struck by the suspicion that treating courtrooms as moral crucibles is a singularly American affectation. America is a country founded by lawyers as well as run by a political class mostly comprising lawyers and so it is hardly surprising that American popular culture has come to believe that court is the place where justice and truth are imposed upon the world. Even comparatively cynical legal dramas such as The Good Wife and Damages present corruption and inequality as incidental rather than systemic problems meaning that they can be defeated by a lawyer who is both talented and righteous. Compare this to a drama such as the French series Engrenages where the French legal system is presented as universally corrupt or the venerable Rumpole of the Bailey, which depicted the British legal system as little more than a playground for ambitious scions of the establishment.
Another interesting question is the extent to which these legal programmes have shaped the minds of the people who viewed them. Children subjected to endless police dramas might be likely to see justice as something meted out by the police just as children trained to see the world through the eyes of the Good Wife would doubtless come to see lawyers as being in the business of keeping the system in line and ensuring that it continues to deliver justice. One of the reasons why a flawed and frankly preposterous programme like The West Wing is well remembered is that it suggested that it was the job of the state to impose justice on the world, which is rather unfashionable in an age where most politicians see their jobs as being all about waging war, locking up prisoners and outsourcing everything to the private sector. An interesting tangent to this issue is the way that American superhero comics explain their protagonists’ capacity to do good.
It used to be that superheroes were frequently patrician figures who used their personal fortunes to fund both their crime-fighting activities and a variety of different charitable works. Thus, Bruce Wayne funded Batman as well as the Wayne Foundation just as Professor Charles Xavier funded both the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. While these characters endure, the nature of their financial backing has significantly changed. For example, there was no talk in the 1960s Batman TV series of Bruce Wayne being an industrialist but now it is impossible to think of Batman without thinking of Wayne Enterprises and the incorporation of Batman that took place during Grant Morrison’s extended run on the comic. That’s a pretty substantial message to send to kids: Not only will justice come at the hands of a masked vigilante but that vigilante will be a franchised brand that is owned by a multinational corporation. This idea that only corporations can deliver justice has also leached into the X-Men as more recent X-Men comics cast Charles Xavier as founder of the X-Corporation which funds the X-Men in much the same way as Tony Stark’s Stark Industries funds the Avengers and many of the lower-level supers that inhabit the Marvel Universe.
An interesting counter-point to this drive to incorporation is the group known as Stormwatch. Created as part of the Wildstorm universe, Stormwatch were funded and controlled by the United Nations. However, as time progressed (as Wildstorm comics were purchased by DC) these links to publicly-minded NGOs were put under dramatic pressure as writer after writer chose to depict the UN as a bureaucracy that was as incompetent as it was corrupt. One of the first things to happen in The Authority is that the heroes severed all ties with Stormwatch and took it upon themselves to impose their own ideas of justice on a series of corrupt and incompetent human governments. Somewhat tellingly, the cinematic Avengers began life under the control of the government agency known as SHIELD but Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed SHIELD to be corrupt, thereby setting the stage for Stark Enterprises to step in and provide the group with funding.
On the one hand, this is clearly nothing more than aggressive right-wing propaganda as corporations are effectively using corporate-owned intellectual property to train children to believe that all governments are corrupt and only Capital can save them. However, on the other hand, this is an excellent example of the narrowing of the imagination associated with late capitalism: We are so wedded to the capitalist system that even escapist fluff struggles to portray a world in which only people with corporate backing can hope to make a difference.
Issue 252 of Interzone is now a thing in the world, working its way into the softest parts of your homes wearing the discarded skin of a science fiction magazine as camouflage.
The May-June 2014 issue contains a number of interesting text-based diversions including the results of the 2013 Readers’ Poll and stories by Neil Williamson, Katharine E.K. Duckett, Van Nolan, Claire Humphrey, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and Oliver Buckram. I mention Buckram last but his story “Two Truths and a Lie” is actually one of the most formally interesting stories to appear in a genre publication:
Clues That A New Boyfriend Is Not Necessarily Human
You’re anatomically correct, of that I am sure.
(1) You had no photo ID.
(2) When I kissed you, your face dissolved into a swarm of somnolent hornets, wafting languidly out to sea.
(3) Your sweat smelled like almonds.
I’m usually quite ambivalent about this type of experimental writing. Genre short fiction is currently suffering from a surplus of craftsmanship meaning that while a lot of short stories are ‘clever’ and ‘interesting’ few of them actually have anything of substance to say. One of my oldest pet theories is that the huge expansion in paying genre markets is being fueled by an expansion in the number of people who aspire to be published writers. Ban short fiction writers from subscribing to magazines or contributing to fundraisers and I suspect that two thirds of paying markets would collapse overnight. One of the side-effects of this economic shift is that a lot of the stuff getting published is stuff that shines more brightly when seen through the lens of an interest in how to write your own fiction. I struggle with a lot of genre novels as I feel that they are drawing more heavily on the writer’s experience of reading genre fiction than they are on the writer’s experiences and opinions about the world. This problem is even more pronounced in genre short fiction where the energies of many stories come neither from the world nor from the history of genre but from the writer’s experiences of being a writer.
The thing that caught my eye about the Buckram story is that while the experiment is not a complete success, it does try to construct a new relationship between reader and text. Usually, genre fiction operates on the assumption that a writer comes up with a set of ideas and then injects them directly into the reader’s head using their prose as a sort of hypodermic syringe. The difference between most genre and more demanding works of genre such as M. John Harrison’s Light or Simon Ings’ Wolves is that the authors are happy to replace the syringe with a bucket poured out of an open window. What this means in practice is that you only get wet if you happen to be walking under the window at the right time and anyone who wants to suck up all the liquid needs to get down on their hands and knees with a decent sponge. One of the reasons why I respond to art house film is that art house film directors are happy to pass their audience a sponge and to recognise that the bulk of a text’s meaning comes not from the author but from the interpretative leaps performed by the audience. “Two Truths and a Lie” is an interesting story as it uses a format that invites the audience to make their own decisions and do their own interpretative work. In a genre that all too often seeks to drown doubt and ambiguity in a sea of top-down exposition, any attempt to imbue the reader with increased agency must be welcomed with open arms.
The non-fiction is of the usual high-standard too with Andy Hedgecock interviewing Neil Williamson, Walton on VanderMeer, Kincaid on MacLeod, me on not looking at the history of science fiction in terms of a ‘politique des editeurs’ and Nick Lowe rolling up his sleeves and delving into the narrative metaphysics of the Marvel Cinematic universe. What do you mean you’re not a subscriber? See to that immeditely!
My fourth Future Interrupted column entitled “You Don’t Have To Be Your Daddy’s Batman” is about what people interested in the history of science fiction can learn from the history of American comics. The main idea behind the column is Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’ whereby contemporary writers feel obliged to build on the ideas of their precursors rather than to break new ground. Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry argues that the strongest poets are those who find ways of coping with the anxiety of influence and dare to misinterpret the greats.