Auto Focus (2002) – Made Free, Yet Everywhere in Chains

Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.

 

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Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Calm With Horses”

At 74-pages in length “Calm with Horses” is not only the longest work in the collection by some considerable margin. It is also the only work that might be described as a novella rather than a conventional short story and this format change may account for why the stylistic fireworks that characterise both “The Clancy Kid” and “The Moon” feel less present.

So what does a Colin Barrett story look like when it isn’t waxing rhapsodic about fierce women and drink-cudgelled men? It looks exactly what I hoped it would look like: An intense and character-focused story that takes place in those few precious millimetres where the wheel of crime fiction hits the road of literature. Ragged, patchy and perhaps overly reliant upon the literary ellipsis, “Calm with Horses” is by no means a finished product but it bodes well for what Barrett might be able to accomplish once he starts producing novels.

 

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REVIEW — The Fallen Idol (1948)

This week, circumstances have allowed me to offer you something of a cultural dyad. For years now, British film critics have fetishised British film to the point where the term has become almost meaningless. For some, it means simply British accents and British names on the credits of Hollywood Blockbusters. For others, it means a truly national cinema that speaks to the concerns of the British people in terms that are uniquely theirs. As someone who has grown increasingly pessimistic about the Hollywood machine’s capacity to generate decent films, I favour the latter solution but even I wonder what a mature and deep-rooted British cinema might look like. Would it be Hollywood-lite in the same way as BBC dramas have come to feel like childish and over-eager attempts to appeal to American audiences? Or would it be something much darker and unpleasant? An expression of the fascistic desires and xenophobic tendencies that coarse through the British political bloodstream?

French cinema might be a good form to emulate but French cinema has very noticeably struggled with the urge to be Hollywood-lite and the urge to continue producing respectable grown-up films about middle-class people experiencing some sort of crisis. Don’t get me wrong… I love French populist cinema almost as much as I love films about middle-class French people experiencing crises but I also realise that neither of these models represents the realities of modern France. Another alternative would be to look back to a time when Britain actually had a film industry that was both mature and authentic, which is where this week’s offerings come in.

This week’s first review demonstrates quite how sophisticated post-War British cinema could be. As my review for FilmJuice argues, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is an attempt to engage with how children see the world and how their vision of the world is liable to be distorted by grown-ups with vested interests in particular truths. Set amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film is about a diplomat’s son who has been left alone with his father’s butler and house-keeper:

At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.

As the narrative unfolds, Philippe’s attempts to protect the interests of his surrogate father are undermined by his own failure to understand either the adult world or what it is that he is actually seeing. The tension between what Philippe believes, what he wants others to believe and what is actually true blossoms into full-grown horror when Philippe mistakenly comes to believe that Mr. Baines has murdered his wife. Interrogated by the police and still desperate to defend his hero, the little boy spins lie after lie and winds up making things a lot worse than they ever needed to be.

 

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The Fallen Idol took me completely be surprise as it seems to be engaged in a very similar exercise to that pursued by Charles Laughton in his classic The Night of The Hunter. However, while Laughton re-constructed the children’s vision of ‘reality’ as filtered through fairy tales, Reed allows the various interpretations of reality to co-exist and sit atop a ‘reality’ that is accessible to the audience but not the characters. This idea of conflicting ‘realities’ battling for dominance is also picked up in the form of characters speaking either figuratively or literally in different languages meaning that even relatively coherent conversations can be engines of disagreement and confusion. The Fallen Idol is a film in which people are forever talking despite being unable to understand each other.

 

 

Catch Me Daddy (2014) — #NotYourChumChum

I have long suspected that there is a great book to be written about the spread of existentialism throughout European film and literature. Born of middle-class alienation from 19th Century spirituality, existentialism was a requiem for lost faith and a roar of disgust at the less-than-flattering lighting conditions left by the departure of the divine light. God is Dead, O God… This Sucks.

As time passed, the post-religiosity of existentialism was shuffled into the background as the movement came to focus upon the psychological hardships of a life without meaning. Existentialism’s obsession with the grim futility of everyday life caught the imagination of people returning from war and so Raskolnikov trying to make sense of his own actions in Crime and Punishment and Meursault refusing to defend himself at trial in The Stranger came to seem like beautiful expressions of what it meant to be human.

Having long enjoyed a close relationship with mainstream literature, existentialism spread to film and when critics from the Cahiers du Cinema transitioned from seeing existential themes in the work of others to replicating those themes in their own work, they went straight to feelings of anger and despair at a world that refused to abide by human expectations.

Cruelty and nihilism are everywhere in the films of the French New Wave and when art house cinema began to become its own thing, the canon was formed of films like Au Hazard Balthazar, Mouchette and Le Beau Serge… films in which women suffer while men brood.

Looking back at the post-War years, I cannot help but wonder whether existentialism’s appeal might not have had something to do with either its flight from responsibility or its lack of psychological precision. Think about it… existentialism is a philosophy that takes in the cruelty, pointlessness and arbitrariness of life and proscribes only directionless and unresolvable angst. Do not examine your role in making the world a worse place or consider why you feel the way you do, just shrug your shoulders and light up another cigarette as your actions count for nothing in a world that was born plain bad. Existentialism is a philosophy designed by emotionally stunted men and its popular success owes a lot to the fact that an entire generation of men came home from World War II and pointedly refused to deal with the trauma of what they had seen and done. Existentialism legitimises the refusal to deal with your own shit and that dead-eyed passivity was decanted into countless noir thrillers and stories in which lovely young women are destroyed by the world while men stand around looking glum.

Very much a part of the European art house tradition, Daniel Wolfe’s debut film Catch Me Daddy is a beautifully shot and relentlessly nihilistic film in which yet another young woman is destroyed by the cruelty of the world. Filled with dead-eyed tough guys muttering into mobile phones whilst staring into the middle-distance, it trots through every post-existential cliché in the European art house canon before arriving at a climax that shows just enough self-awareness to highlight the thoughtlessness of the preceding 90 minutes.

 

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REVIEW — The Connection (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (a.k.a. La French), a stylish crime thriller that could be described as the French side of The French Connection.

Setting aside the fact that this is a really well-made cat-and-mouse thriller set in an impeccably realised and beautifully shot vision of 1970s Marseilles, there are two really interesting things going on in this film that elevate it above your standard crime drama and into the intellectual stratosphere occupied by the likes of David Simon’s The Wire and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.

 

First, the film is grounded in the character study of a local magistrate who is lured into an ineffectual War on Drugs by a combination of excitement and fame. Cleverly, the film portrays the magistrate’s early ‘successes’ as fantastic nights out in which everyone drinks champagne and gets laid. This is then related back to the fact that the magistrate in question (Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel) has a gambling problem, thereby raising the possibility that his commitment to the job might have less to do with results and more to do with addiction:

The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.

What I really liked about this film is that while it may start off as yet another right-wing law-enforcement fantasy about a rogue magistrate trying to take down a gang by cracking balls and bending laws, the film gradually segues into a brutal critique of the assumptions underpinning this very myth. Do car-chases and fist-fights actually keep the streets clean or do they merely serve as a distraction from the intractability of major social problems and the combination of corruption and neglect that feeds them?

Second, while the film is a fictionalised account of the real-world French Connection that supplied the American drugs trade with most of its illegal heroin throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the writer and director use these fictional elements as a springboard for naming names and pointing fingers at a French establishment that allowed organised crime to flourish in the hope that it would keep French ports free from communist elements:

Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.

When British films critique British governments, it’s usually as part of a broader social realist tradition that shows the consequences of government action rather than the combination of incompetence and indifference that informed those decisions in the first place. I also wonder whether British film’s reluctance to go after the British establishment might not be a function of the fact that many British films are made with American audiences in mind using money handed out by British institutions.

I also wonder whether British directors might not see these types of stories as more televisual than cinematic based upon the fact that Britain used to have a tradition of producing one-off dramas and plays that criticised both British society and its government.The problem is that while British TV used to have a tradition of producing politicised plays and one-off dramas, the amount of drama on British TV has now declined to the point where there’s really not much room for unpopular opinions. Of course, the excellent Red Riding trilogy was produced for TV but that came out in 2009 and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it that has appeared since.

REVIEW — Colors (1988)

FilmJuice have my review of Dennis Hopper’s decidedly uneven crime drama Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Colors is one of those films that I never got round to seeing, despite remembering its release and the fact that it was a really big deal at the time. You can sort of see why the film was such a big deal back in the 1980s… Dennis Hopper had left his compound, sobered up and returned to the director’s chair a new man. His first film back in charge was a hard-hitting crime drama starring a Hollywood veteran in the form of Duvall and an up-and-comer in the form of Penn. Colors was taken seriously at the time of its release as it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to engage with gang-culture in a somewhat nuanced fashion. Since then, the film has dipped from view because a) it’s not actually very good and b) the early 1990s saw a number of African American directors (including John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles) rising to prominence and making much better and more ‘authentic’ films about the exact same themes and subject matter.

The frustrating thing about Colors is that it clearly contains some very interesting ideas. For example, rather than having the two cops face off against a whole gang and bring them to justice, the film does recognise that two white cops aren’t going to make much of a difference and so it has the police nibble ineffectually at what is quite obviously a much larger social problem. Indeed, while the film does follow a particular Crip set, you never get the impression that killing any member of the set or bringing the set to justice would make a blind bit of difference. The leader of the set is played by a very young Don Cheadle who rarely says a word and so gives the impression that he’s simply a vehicle for much larger social forces. Kill him and another guy would rise up to lead the set. Bring down the set and another would rise up to take its place. The problem is that while Colors does this type of stuff really well, it also wants to hit the beats of a traditional Hollywood genre film and so you need goodies, baddies, pathos and action scenes. A braver director would have seen these elements in the script and downplayed them but this was Hopper’s first mainstream directorial gig in a long time and he was clearly desperate not to deliver a sprawling art movie:

This is why we have a film with a non-linear plot structure that feeds unconvincingly into a moment of pathos that would have been better served by a traditional three act structure, a film about the horrors of gang violence that includes a number of ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, and a socially conscious message film that side-lines its own message in order to focus on the poorly developed man-pain of two White cops. The Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider might have been able to turn this sprawling mess into something coherent but the Hopper of the late 1980s was simply not up to the task and the films that followed in the wake of Colors were similarly uninspired and unimpressive.

Colors is being re-released on Blu-ray alongside State of Grace as part of an informal Sean Penn double-bill. Neither film is really that good but they do serve as a reminder of the types of films that used to be Hollywood’s mainstay before the beginning of the perpetual summer in which we all currently roast.

REVIEW — State of Grace (1990)

FilmJuice have my review of Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, which is due to be re-released as part of a weird actor-focused box set alongside Colors. The film’s wikipedia entry describes it as a “neo-noir crime film” but I find it more helpful to think of the film as a bloated rock opera set amidst the gangs of New York. I use that phrase deliberately as State of Grace is a film about the last surviving remnants of the criminal underworld described by Scorsese in the film Gangs of New York. State of Grace is about a gang of working-class Irish-Americans who are struggling to hold onto territory that is in the process of being gentrified. Trapped between the legal connections of developers and the muscle of the Italian families, the once-plentiful Irish-American criminal fraternity has shrunk down to a single gang of drunks, cowards and nostalgic fuck-ups. As a snapshot of a particular point in the history of NYC, the film is really fascinating as many of the empty buildings the gang hang-out in are now home to high-end designer boutiques and luxury apartments. Basically… if you want to know what Hell’s Kitchen looked like before a wave of gentrification turned it into ‘Midtown West’ then this is the film for you.  Just don’t watch it for the story… or the acting.

The film’s plot is sort of similar to that of Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco in that it involves a cop infiltrating a criminal gang only to wind up identifying with the gang so much that he struggles to do his job. Only, the cop’s job is a lot harder here as the gang he is ordered to infiltrate is mostly composed of his childhood friends. The names attached to this project were always first class: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. The problem is that the director seems to have provided his actors almost no direction resulting in a film that is completely overwhelmed and unbalanced by one of the worst performances of Gary Oldman’s career:

The film’s primary problem is that Gary Oldman starts off shouting and flailing only to become increasingly hysterical as the film progresses. Come the final act, he is literally stamping his feet and rolling around on the ground like an over-tired toddler. Oldman’s performance is so ludicrously over the top that it completely destabilises the rest of the film: Ed Harris’ muted and conflicted performance as the gang-leader comes across as flat while Robin Wright undermines an otherwise delicate job with one scene in which she suddenly abandons all of her character’s emotional toughness in order to rend her clothes and tear at her hair. Penn is arguably the best thing in this film as his double-dealing character gives him an excuse to ‘act crazy’ around Jackie and assume a more muted demeanour when dealing with Frankie, Kathleen or his police handler. Had Joanou decided to have a quiet word with Oldman then the film might easily have been salvaged but rather than reining his actors in, the director lavishes attention on them allowing even minor scenes to balloon into absurd melodramatic arias that rapidly overstay their welcome.

Three things occurred to me after writing this review:

Firstly, the only thing I really knew about Hell’s Kitchen before watching this film is that it’s home to the Marvel comics character Daredevil. Given that Hell’s Kitchen has now been gentrified and filled with up-scale apartments, does Daredevil still protect that neighbourhood and if so, doesn’t that change the dynamic of the comic? The masked protector of a shit-hole might have a bit of nobility but a lawyer who spends his evenings beating up door-to-door duster salesmen? Sounds even worse than Batman!

Secondly, it occurs to me that Gary Oldman’s Jackie may well have been the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Sabotka as played by James Ransone in season two of The Wire: They’re both remnants of a working-class culture that is about to disappear, they’re both temperamentally unsuited to their chosen life of crime and they’re both annoying histrionic tits who stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise realistic and well-drawn setting.

Thirdly, Hollywood doesn’t really make these sort of mid-budget dramas any more and it occurred to me to look into how much money the film actually made upon first release.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t much and Roger Ebert (who thought more of the film and Oldman’s performance than I did) explains why:

There’s another problem. This movie, intended as a gritty slice-of-life about gangsters in New York City, is being released at about the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” which deals with the same subject and is a film so strong and graceful that few others can stand comparison to it.

Yeah… tough luck that.