Andrew Haigh’s debut film Greek Pete is neither particularly novel nor particular striking. Set in the world of London’s gay escort scene, the film is a scripted drama inspired by the lives of its non-professional actors and shot in a pseudo-documentary style. In other words, it’s a hybrid piece similar to Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex albeit with somewhat less theatricality and spray-on tan.
Having watched Greek Pete, I almost decided not to write about it but it occurs to me that while the film’s themes and characters are never quite as interesting as they needed to be, the film actually reveals quite a lot about Haigh’s interests, methods, and the quintessentially British way in which he approaches drama. This makes Greek Pete almost a textbook example of an immature work that is only of historical interest given the quality of the work that would follow it.
Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is about as good a film as Britain has managed to produce fifteen years into the twenty-first century. Set in a London of run-down flats and bleak nights out, it follows a pair of men as they talk their way from a one night stand to the brink of something more meaningful. A powerful response to the growing factionalism of the online world, Weekend’s characters have radically different attitudes towards society and sexuality and yet they still manage to sense something of value in each other. Despite being a very talky film, Weekend is all about those moments of silence in which emotional energies shift and life is made anew. Haigh’s ability to capture what happens in the intimate spaces surrounding conversation is what made Weekend great and what has made 45 Years one of the great unexpected cinematic successes of the summer (despite being released on VOD at the same time and being largely ignored by multiplexes).
Interzone #260 is a thing in the world, complete with a wonderfully weird cover by Martin Hanford. Despite spending the bulk of my time reviewing films, I’m not generally that sensitive to cover art but Hanford’s work on IZ this year really has been top notch. This month’s cover imagines the cast of the Mad Hatter’s tea party as drug-addled astronauts but Hanford’s run as cover artist has featured all kinds of surreal and fantastical images rendered in the dull blues and greys of the contemporary space programme. I love how the dulled colour palate lends the image a melancholy feel that is only amplified by Alice’s dead-eyed stare down the ‘camera’. Alien landscapes and intelligent hares should be vibrant and exciting and yet Hanford somehow manages to make them feel deliciously tarnished. One could almost read his run on the cover as an evolving critique of science fiction as an idiom: Take a weird and wonderful image, dress it in the trappings of SF and voila, a source of sadness and disquiet! You can pick up the rest of the Hanford-illustrated issues (or indeed subscribe) via the TTA Press website while digital subscriptions are available from Smashwords. You can also pick up individual issues for your kindle through Amazon should you so desire.
The stories included in this month’s issue are:
- “Weedkiller” by John Shirley
- “Blonde” by Priya Sharma
- “No Rez” by Jeff Noon
- “Murder on the Laplacian Express” by C.A. Hawksmoore
- “The Spin of Stars” by Christien Gholson
Even if it weren’t written by Jeff Noon, the Jeff Noon would still stand-out as it’s one of those stories that does all kinds of interesting things with formatting, type-setting and syntax. I won’t claim to understand all of it but it seems to be set in a world where augmented reality is normal and held in place by an economic system that echoes our own whilst muttering darkly about things that are inevitably to come. In this world, un-augmented reality seems like a potent hallucinogenic drug. The story keeps repeating the idea that ‘You are What You See’ and I take that to be a commentary upon the way in which we appear to have completely surrendered to constructed visions of reality that don’t so much pander to our existing prejudices as provide us with pigeon-holes in which to sit and world views that we pull over our heads like cowls. Interesting stuff and it actually looks like a story about the future too!
The non-fiction is typically excellent as well. Nina Allan looks at the post-Ballardian fiction of Tom McCarthy, Nick Lowe muses on the cracks forming in Marvel studios’ production process and Tony Lee writes about a number of things including the final Quatermass series, which has recently been released on Blu-ray. Tony Lee is a writer I very much admire and his DVD columns in both Interzone and Black Static are these densely-written treasure troves of critical insight. With a lot to say and little space in which to say it, Lee’s approach is to boil reviews down to the thick black paste of raw insight… no frills, no fuss, just beautifully formed and expressed opinions about the films and TV series of the day.
There are typically excellent reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Duncan Lunan, John Howard, Juliet E. McKenna, Stephen Theaker, Paul Graham Raven, Ian Hunter, Ian Sales, Jack Deighton and Jim Steel as well as Shaun Green reviewing and interviewing Becky Chambers as part of an extended look at her recent novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Also interesting is Ian Sales’ editorial giving us a potted history of the recent Hugo scandals and concludes with a suitably sarcastic “They must be really proud of what they’ve achieved”. Oh… and there’s also a column by me in which I compare Alex Garland’s Ex Machina to that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they use a court case to determine whether or not Data is actually a person. Turns out that some groups are more likely to be treated as objects than others… nobody would ever think to call Captain Picard’s personhood into question. SO MUCH STUFF! WHY AREN’T YOU SUBSCRIBING?!
Anyway… enough with the present! Let us turn out attention to the past as I reprint my column about the Sex Pistols, the death of science fiction and our instinctive need for narrative closure
Having spent some time among the upper middle-class Americans of James Salter’s Last Night, I decided to go somewhere different for my next series of pieces about short fiction. Set in the fictitious Irish town of Glanbeigh, Colin Barrett’s debut collection Young Skins is less interested in plot and character than it is in the idea of place and how specific places can yield specific mind-sets that reproduce themselves through both language and relationships. Much like Salter, Barrett makes no attempt to distance himself from a male point-of-view but where Salter is wise and deliberate, Barrett is mystified and overwhelmed.
The first story in the collection sets the terms of engagement: “The Clancy Kid” introduces us not only to the town and the type of characters that Barrett has chosen to write about but also how his stories relate to the present. Yes… I know that’s a strange thing to comment but I’ll unpack what I mean a bit further on.
And so ends the trilogy of films that began the career of Celine Sciamma… Like many French directors, Sciamma began her career by considering childhood and young adulthood. Her debut feature Water Lillies tells of a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with an older girl who, despite being flattered by the attention and eager to return the flirtation, is more interested in boys. Set amidst the sun-drenched modernism of suburban France, Water Lillies captures attention both thorough its minimalist stylings and its willingness to embrace the fluidity of human sexuality. Sciamma’s second film Tomboy is no less thematically ambitious. Set against a very similar background of summertime and concrete, the film follows a young person who uses the opportunity presented by a new town and a new group of friends to establish a male identity. While this identity is inevitably shut down by a mother who forces Laure to apologise for ‘passing herself off’ as Mikael, the film ends on an upbeat note by suggesting that friendship and even love can reach across the abyss of gender binaries. Sciamma’s third film finds her returning to sunshine and concrete as well as to questions of female identity but it also shows her ambition as a filmmaker as Girlhood addresses not only gender but race and social class as well.
I usually only mention stuff like film names and DVD covers when complaining about the film industry’s pathetic attempts to jump on band-wagons and market art house films as action movies. However, the decision to release Bande de Filles (literally ‘Gang of Girls’) under the English-language title Girlhood was an absolute stroke of genius… aside from the fact that the French word ‘bande’ carries significantly less racist baggage than the English word ‘gang’, renaming Bande de Filles as Girlhood sets up a natural dialogue between this small French film and Richard Linklater’s hugely-visible and over-rated Boyhood. In fact, the dialogue between the two films is what inspired me to review them both in the same week.
Despite an effort to slipstream the marketing spend of Boyhood’s awards campaign, Girlhood is actually a very different prospect: While Linklater’s film spans over a decade, Sciamma’s covers little more than a year in the life of a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Where Linklater’s film sprawls over 160 minutes with neither character arcs nor themes to provide structure, Girlhood seems to cram all the questions of youth into a perfectly-formed 116 minutes. It would be both easy and accurate to state that Girlhood is merely a better made and more interesting film than Boyhood but doing so would do a grave injustice to Sciamma’s talent as Girlhood is an absolutely sensational film in its own right. This is what real cinema is all about.
By the end of the 1950s, British cultural production had fallen out of step with the realities of British life. Still in thrall to the drawing room comedies of Noel Coward and the well-made plays of Terrence Rattigan, British theatre was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would banish romanticism and replace it with a commitment to unflinching social realism. Though usually associated with the establishment of the National Theatre, the rise of Kenneth Tynan, and the emergence of the so-called Angry Young Men, Britain’s realist turn was also evident in cinemas as producers fell over themselves to turn realist plays and novels into films that held a mirror up to the realities of life in modern Britain.
Films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey took inspiration from Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays and focused their attentions on the hardships and tragedies of working class life. Confrontational and unapologetically left-wing, they critiqued a society in which the poor were left to rot while the rich enjoyed all the benefits of economic renewal. While this vogue for social realism manifestly did very little to slow the rising tide of social inequality, the belief that drama should project us into the world rather than help us escape it endured for generations. Even once the revolutionary energy began to drain from the British film industry, a commitment to ‘kitchen sink’ realism survived in TV strands such as Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Play and Play for Today. Traces of it can even be detected in that very British tendency to produce dramas and soap operas about the lives of the working class rather than the upper-middle class families favoured by American TV dramas.
Hollywood has never shared Britain’s interest in chronicling the lives of the poor and desperate. Up until the Second World War, the studios made it their business to provide audiences with glimpses of lives more glamorous than their own. In fact, the 1930s actress Kay Francis was explicitly marketed as the best-dressed woman in the world and many of her films feel like little more than excuses for her to change into a series of expensive-looking outfits. However, while the studios may have been reluctant to shine a light on the lives of America’s dispossessed, they did regularly produce films that were critical of the status quo… you just needed to look beyond the big houses and glamorous wardrobes.
From the silent era all the way till the 1960s, Hollywood produced films with female audiences in mind. Usually built around a bankable female star, these so-called women’s films focused on the emotional realities of women’s lives including love-triangles, affairs, spousal estrangement, parenting problems and mental illness. For example films like Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool feature women who are driven insane by uncaring husbands and manipulative lovers. Many of these films are now quite difficult to find as the term ‘women’s film’ is itself somewhat problematic. Though still in use until the 1960s, many critics consider the genre to be little more than an expression of institutionalised sexism as saying that certain films are ‘for women’ seems to imply that men are the cinema’s natural audience. As a result of these problems, many women’s films are today referred to as melodramas.
Melodramas are often criticised for their political conservatism in that they introduce us to people whose lives are literally torn apart by the injustices of American society only for said people to either die or return to the roles allotted to them by virtue of their gender and social class. For example, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun features a working class Montgomery Clift who falls in love with wealthy society girl Elizabeth Taylor only to have his shot at social mobility destroyed by a combination of jealousy and unwanted pregnancy. Viewed in a certain light, the film is all about a man being brought down by his own hubris but, seen in a different light, it is also about social class and the difficulty of finding happiness in a capitalist society. Though ostensibly conservative, many melodramas and women’s films can be read as subtle critiques of an American society that would rather kill, immiserate and drive people insane than allow them to find happiness on their own terms.
While many great directors made films in the melodramatic style, the idea of the melodrama as subtle social criticism is most closely associated with the films of Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany in the late 19th Century, Sirk abandoned a successful theatrical and cinematic career in 1937 when his political convictions and Jewish wife forced him to leave Germany. Initially dismissed as a purveyor of commercially successful fluff who made films that were unimportant, dull and ludicrously over-stylised, Sirk is now understood to have been a fiercely principled intellectual who moved to America with a plan to make films that hid their social criticism beneath a veil of irony. The re-discovery of Sirk is said to have begun in the late 1950s when the fiercely leftist Cahiers du Cinema began defending his work but the use of irony in films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life continue to pose something of a critical challenge. As the late Roger Ebert once put it:
To appreciate a film likeWritten on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.
Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is a loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk. Shot in a style similar to Sirk’s using similar colour schemes, similar camera angles, similar compositions and similar sound-recording techniques that litter the soundtrack with echoing footsteps and rustling crinoline, Far from Heaven is a traditional Hollywood melodrama, right down to its brutal critique of American culture.