REVIEW — Paper Moon (1973)

FilmJuice have my review of Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon, a film I did not expect to like but wound up absolutely adoring.

The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? left me with what I consider to be a healthy scepticism of American films set during the great depression. Though many a director has set out with a head full of social realism and the urgent need to capture what things can be like for capitalism’s victims, most of them wind up getting distracted by the slang, the hats, the music and the endlessly photogenic poverty. Add a few fast-talking grifters to the mix and what you have is a recipe for self-mythologising nostalgia: Sure the excesses of capitalism can destroy communities and drive people from their homes but these are also moments of opportunity for the kind of lovable rogues who not only benefit from other people’s misery but actively legitimise the capitalist system by proving that America is still a land of opportunity for those who are smart, lucky and charming! I approached Paper Moon expecting another lesson in America’s capacity for economic re-invention but what I found was a beautiful and genuinely funny character study of one fucked up little girl:

Aside from the film’s gritty look, what keeps the film on the right side of sentimentality is its willingness to share Addie’s profound distrust of human relations. Only child of a woman who made her living as a bar room honey, Addie’s skinny frame, ugly clothes and fondness for cigarettes display all the signs of historic neglect. Before Addie even opens her mouth, we are shown the ‘warm-hearted’ Christian neighbours who are so desperate to get rid of her that they literally dump her on the first stranger who passes through town. Addie is desperate for family but rightly wary of people who would proclaim their righteousness only to reveal their hypocrisy in secret, she warms to Moses precisely because his displays of piety are understood to be nothing but an act.

And when I say ‘beautiful’, I mean genuinely jaw-dropping. This Masters of Cinema release is dual-format but the screener I received was DVD-only, which genuinely surprised me as I can’t remember the last time I saw a DVD look this perfect.

 

Consider, for example, this shot of a factory from early in the film, it’s not just that the buildings themselves look amazing, it’s also the composition and the attention to detail as Ryan O’Neal gestu8res to his daughter while workers toil in the background:

 

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Despite producing three back-to-back hits that made a shit-ton of money and won people armfuls of awards, Bogdanovitch’s place in the canon of American filmmaking is far from guaranteed. It’s not just that the quality of his films seemed to decline as his career progressed, it’s that his ability to produce great films seemed to evaporate the second he parted company with his wife and production designer Polly Platt. Both Peter Biskind and David Thomson float the possibility that Platt was the real talent behind Bogdanovitch’s directorial throne and the complexity of Paper Moon‘s art direction certainly supports this theory. For example, look at how much detail is crammed into this image from a short scene in a diner… It’s not just the composition and how the straw in the bottle of Nehi seems to split the screen, it’s also the positioning of extras so that the men are clustered on one side of the screen while women are mostly clustered on the other:

 

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The Masters of Cinema release comes with some interesting discussions of the film and one of the point that people make is that Paper Moon is a film in which everything is always in focus and how the positioning of background details not only aid the composition but also help to create the impression of a real world. The extras point to this exquisite combination of shots from when Moses tries to get rid of Addie by sticking her on a train:

 

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Note Addie looking sad in the background and compare it to the shot that immediately follows it:

 

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Look over the ticket-seller’s shoulder and you’ll see kids playing with a ball.  This not only echoes the shot of Addie looking sad, it also foreshadows the questions posed in the final act about whether Addie is actually in a position to make her own decisions and whether she is right to stick with Moses. In the context of these two shots you have a sad-looking Addie standing next to Moses and a pair of kids playing happily on the other side of the rail road buildings.

 

Another thing the extras reveal is that Platt not only convinced Bogdanovitch to work on Paper Moon and dressed the sets, she also served as a location scout meaning that all of the film’s evocative scenery was chosen by Platt rather than Bogdanovitch. Bogdanovitch started his career as an actor before falling into film criticism and many people seem to associate him with the rise of auteur theory in American film-writing. The auteur theory would certainly struggle to account for a production designer with the capacity to pick up on locations that are literally idiot-proof:

 

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REVIEW – Rollerball (1975)

FilmJuice have my review of Norman Jewison’s iconic 1970s science fiction film Rollerball, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray. When my editor at FilmJuice approached me to write about Rollerball I was initially a bit reluctant… I first saw Rollerball at the age of six because I was named for the film’s protagonist and my mother couldn’t be bothered to provide me with boundaries. In fact, I actually saw Rollerball a number of years before I first saw Star Wars and I remember being puzzled by the latter’s lack of blood. Where was the scene in which Luke wrenched off a Storm-trooper’s helmet and punched him in the back of the head with a spiked glove? I watched Rollerball so frequently as a child that I wound up committing huge sections of the film to memory at least a decade before acquiring the emotional and conceptual apparatus to understand what the film was actually about. I was reluctant to take this reviewing gig as I have never before written about Rollerball and was a bit concerned that the suck fairy might have gotten to it… Thankfully, while the film turns out to be something of a thematic mess, it more than stands up to critical scrutiny:

The 1970s was a time when science fiction was enjoying a moment of rare literary respectability. The collapse of the pulp magazines had forced the genre’s writers to shift closer to the literary mainstream and the institutions comprising that mainstream had rewarded this cultural obeisance with a market for short fiction that spilled from the pages of glossy magazines and out into the Hollywood hills. Perhaps sensing that science fiction was a genre on the up, [director Norman] Jewison secured the rights to a short story that had appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine and hired the author William Harrison to provide him with a screenplay. Despite Jewison having no experience directing action and Harrison having never before written for film, the pair managed to produce one of the most bewildering and influential works of 1970s science fiction.

The reason I call the film bewildering is that while the action sequences remain viscerally potent and brilliantly conceived, the quiet stuff surrounding them turns out to be more than a little bit confused. The problem is that while the film is based on a short story, Harrison’s story is all about how the unexamined life is not worth living. In the story “Roller Ball Murder”, Jonathan E is an exquisite physical specimen who has been raised to the peak of physical fitness and celebrated for his athletic prowess. However, as time passes and the game becomes more violent, Jonathan begins to wonder whether there might not just be a little bit more to life than victory, accolades, drugs and sex. Doubting his vocation, the big lump tries to educate himself about history and philosophy only to realise that the government has destroyed all the books. Now… while the director of Fiddler on the Roof would have had his pick of new projects, it is unlikely that even 1970s Hollywood would have helped to fund a science fiction sports film about the lack of spiritual sustenance to be had from a hedonistic lifestyle. As a result, Harrison and Jewison ditched the story’s Platonic theme in favour of well… a number of different themes:

Inexperienced as a screen-writer and forced to come up with a new motivation for his character, Harrison threw everything but the kitchen sink at his script in an effort to provide Jonathan with a set of motives that were both primal enough to be relatable and high-minded enough to give the film thematic heft. This resulted in a protagonist whose act of rebellion feels so hopelessly over-determined as to be effectively meaningless: Apparently Jonathan E is angry with the people who broke up his marriage, and looking to avenge the death of his friend, and start a rebellion, and embody the kind of radical individualism that is supposed to pose an existential threat to corporate governance.

Rollerball is a hugely influential film that inspired not only Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games but also the flood of YA dystopias that followed in its wake. At first glance, this influence is rather shallow as both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are set in dystopian futures where governments use bloodsports to keep their oppressed populations in line. However, look beyond the surface tropes and you will notice that both Rollerball and The Hunger Games are in the business of presenting small acts of athletic disobedience as the birth of revolutionary subjectivities that pose an existential threat to their respective societies:

  • Jonathan E doesn’t want to retire, this forces his government to change the rules of the game and marks him as a threat.
  • Katniss Everdeen would rather not kill her fellow tribune, this forces her government to change the rules of the game and marks her as a threat.

In order to make this act of thematic inflation stick, both Rollerball and The Hunger Games blur the boundaries between the political and the personal to produce a weird thematic mess that is both a literal description of an athlete who becomes a political rebel and a weirdly metaphorical treatment of both individualism and the similarities between becoming an adult and acquiring political agency. The big difference between Rollerball and The Hunger Games is that while Rollerball ends with that moment of individualistic awakening, The Hunger Games goes on for several more books and films exploring the athlete’s political career.

Another way in which Rollerball influenced The Hunger Games is that while both films rush to adopt revolutionary postures, their critiques of despotism are both completely toothless.

Despite pre-empting the idea of corporate rule that featured so prominently in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Cayefsky’s Network, Rollerball really struggles to imagine what corporate rule might look like and how it might be undone. Consider the memorable speech from Network in which Ned Beatty proclaims that “the world is a business”:

It is easy to imagine Rollerball as a film set in the post-national future that Ned Beatty describes but rather than a vast homeostatic system in which unfettered capital flows from one side of the world to another, Rollerball has a set of neatly-ordered monopolies in which the corporations no longer even bother to compete. In fact, the film even goes so far as to suggest that money is no longer an issue as there is no poverty or talk of wages and Jonathan gets his luxuries with the help of something called a ‘privilege card’. Also deeply weird is the idea that the game of Rollerball was designed to highlight the futility of individual effort and that Jonathan E’s rugged individualism poses some sort of threat to corporate hegemony.

The truth is that while Rollerball may present itself as an anti-corporate film, the system it critiques is actually much closer to Communism with its planned economy, institutional monopolies and rule by elusive grey-faced men. Rugged individualism will always pose a threat to the vision of Communism that existed in American minds for much of the Cold War but as everything from the Premier League to the NBA will tell you; when the people love an athlete and the athlete breaks the law, corporations will always look the other way.

Revisiting Rollerball as a critic did not exactly undermine my childhood love of the film but it did suggest that I wasn’t really missing very much when I failed to connect with the quiet talky bits. Those action sequences are amazing and the film continues to look great but when it comes to political critique, the film is much closer to The Hunger Games than it is to Network or the paranoid Hollywood cinema of the 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – A Counter-Productive Relationship with Thought

Transformers: Age of Extinction is something of a paradox. Compared to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the original Transformers, the film is better acted, better written and better made. Rather than the usual barrage of ill-connecting set-pieces, Age of Extinction’s plot has a beginning, middle and end constructed around a cast of characters who not only speak in complete sentences but also behave in a manner suggesting the presence of recognisable human emotions and comprehensible motives. The comedy (though still irritatingly broad) is somewhat less offensive and better integrated into the beats of the film while the action sequences are much easier to follow thanks to digital effects technology having now reached a point where Michael Bay can finally stage and shoot a fight between two giant robots without having to keep dipping the camera behind obstacles whenever the bit-rate sinks below the photo-realistic. Transformers: Age of Extinction is a real paradox as while it is unquestionably the best made film in the series, it is also the most excruciatingly shit.

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REVIEW – The Overnighters (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Jesse Moss’s rather frustrating documentary The Overnighters.

The documentary is set against the backdrop of the North Dakota oil boom, which saw a massive expansion in the North Dakota oil industry at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs and their homes in the Great Recession. However, while North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the Union, the job market expanded so quickly and generated so much money that the state’s rental sector simply could not keep up meaning that many Americans travelled thousands of miles to get a job in the oil industry only to realise that their new job didn’t pay enough to allow them to cover rent. The film revolves around a Lutheran pastor who set up a programme that would allow the working poor to sleep on the floor of his church.

The documentary is at its absolute best when it shows the inhumanity and indifference of American institutions:

The most striking thing about this documentary is how little support Reinke gets from… well… anyone. The oil industry in North Dakota is going through a period of historic expansion and yet despite record profits rolling in to corporate coffers, none of the oil companies seems to provide food or shelter for the thousands of people they employ. The oil boom has reportedly given the under-populated state of North Dakota a billion-dollar budget surplus and yet the state would rather shut down the church and ban people from living in caravans than find a way to house and feed the thousands of people who helped to create that surplus. Even more shocking is the way that Reinke is forced to battle his own church as parishioners file into his office and trumpet their Christian values in the same breath as they complain about poor people making the place look untidy.

However, rather than expanding this critique into something more systematic, Moss takes the disastrous decision to focus upon the human element and the experiences of the men who are running and relying on the Overnighters programme. This approach is quite traditional in American documentaries as human interest stories sell better than analytical pieces but you can only make that kind of film when the humans are interested in telling their stories and the men who feature in The Overnighters keep their emotional cards very close to their chests. As I point out in my review, Herzog’s Into the Abyss is a great example of how to use human stories to build a social critique but Herzog’s interviews help his subject to develop their own thoughts whereas Moss seemed reluctant to ask any questions whatsoever. For example, one of the subjects spends his time spouting vitriol after being asked to leave the church and Moss neither challenges his vitriolic remarks or tries to determine what actually happened. Similarly, the film seems to imply that one of the subjects might well have been sexually involved with a man staying in the church who then blackmailed him but Moss never bothers to ask questions that might have allowed him to share the real story of what happens at the end of the film. The Overnighters had the potential to be a great little documentary about the plight of America’s working poor but rather than making that film, Moss tried to make a film about people’s feelings when nobody wanted to discuss them.

Another issue the film brought to light is the role of charity in perpetuating systemic inequality. According to the film, the oil industry did not pay its workers a living wage in the sense that their salaries did not allow them to make rent and feed themselves, forcing hundreds of people to sleep in their cars. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that, allowed to continue unchecked, these working practices would have resulted in hundreds of deaths and people fleeing the cold of North Dakota in order to return home. The resulting humanitarian disaster and shrinking of the labour pool would presumably have resulted in either the state stepping in or employers raising wages and building dormitories to arrest declining production. While charities like the Overnighters might prevent humanitarian disasters and save hundreds of lives, they do provide both the state and the public sector with an excuse for not changing their practices.  After all, why would an oil company build dormitories when a church down the road provides one at no cost to them? Watching The Overnighters, I was struck by the fact that the only way of addressing systemic inequality is at a systematic level: Workers can’t make rent? raise the minimum wage. Rents too high? Cap them. People forced to sleep in their cars because their wages are too low? raise corporate taxes and use the money to provide cheap social housing. There is something faintly obscene about the fact that the oil boom gave the state of North Dakota a seven-figure budget surplus and yet the only time we hear from the state in the film is when they are trying to shut down the church or ban people from sleeping in caravans.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – The Killing (1956) and Killer’s Kiss (1955)

FilmJuice have my twin review of Stanley Kubrick’s second and third films Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, which are getting an all-singing and all-dancing re-release next week at the hands of Arrow Films.

It was interesting to discover these films after reviewing the Masters of Cinema release of Kubrick’s first film Fear and Desire (apologies for nerfed formatting) as, like most people, my memories of Kubrick’s work are shaped by the classics he started churning out from the late-50s onwards. Of Kubrick’s first three films, The Killing is almost certainly the most accomplished and accessible.

However, while the heist is beautifully handled and provides the film with a strong narrative spine, the film’s real beauty lies in the character beats that provide the film’s real sources of tension. Based on a novel by Lionel White but scripted by the legendary crime novelist Jim Thompson, the film benefits from a cast of old B-movie hands who slot effortlessly into their assigned character types and go to town on the dialogue:

Marie Windsor plays Sherry as this wonderfully cynical drunk with a young lover and a hunger for money. Every inch the Femme Fatale dominatrix, she showers her husband with sarcasm and distain only to show him just enough attention to secure his continued loyalty and affection.

As I point out in my review, I felt that the film’s ending failed to live up to the promise of the film’s opening act but I have since learned that the film’s leading man Sterling Hayden was not a popular choice with the film’s studio backers and I wonder if Kubrick might not have left a few of his character beats on the cutting room floor. Either way, the film makes the mistake of driving home the idea that the character is a no-nonsense hard case only to try to elicit sympathy for him in the final scene. You can see how the film might have played out as Kubrick does soften the character in the opening scene but his failure to re-visit that softening and underline that duality results in a film that feels more bleakly nihilistic than it clearly yearns to be. Having said that, I compare the film to pictures like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and I stand by that comparison as this still a really fucking good film.

As well as some awesome extras (including an interview with a bearded, shirtless and resentful Hayden), the disc also includes Kubrick’s lesser-known second film Killer’s Kiss. Seldom revived during Kubrick’s lifetime, Killer’s Kiss is just as trippy and arty as his first film Fear and Desire but rather than deploying those tricks in the context of a war movie, Kubrick decides to deploy them in the context of an hour-long film about a second-rate boxer who falls in love with a woman in trouble. The narrative isn’t that interesting and the bloke playing the boxer is not what you would call charismatic but the film looks sensational, a bit like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend complete with blurring of boundary between real and imagined:

However, look beyond the simple narrative and the desperately uneven acting and you will see a young director experimenting with a wide array of cinematic techniques. For example, whereas most Hollywood films of the period shot dialogue scenes with fixed cameras, Kubrick has his cameras move in and around the actors while they deliver their lines resulting in an odd, queasy feeling that feels a lot more subjective than realistic. Also interesting is the way that Kubrick makes the walls of the boxer’s kitchen pitch black except for a window looking onto his neighbour’s apartment creating the impression that the window functions almost like a comic book thought bubble in which the boxer visualises sounds overheard through the walls.

It is also quite interesting to see these two films get a release from Arrow films. Arrow have always been a damn fine home-release outfit but I have always associated them with the cult and horror titles they release under the Arrow Video label. I’m not entirely sure how long Arrow Academy has been around as a label but releases like this one and last year’s amazing Walerian Borowczyk box set would certainly position them as the emerging power in Britain’s premium home-video market. Masters of Cinema had better watch themselves!

REVIEW – Thief (1981)

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!

The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.

The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!

Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.

Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.

 

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REVIEW – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

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.