The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn and NWR by Laurent Duroche

Long-time visitors to the site will know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.The relationship began in 2008 when I went to see his singular and yet problematic biopic Bronson. Soon after that, I was completely blown away by the viciously gritty realism of Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy. A few years later, I was going through something of a ‘viking’ phase during which I read several books about the period. Upon hearing that Winding Refn’s next film Valhalla Rising was a Conradian take on vikings, I immediately dragged my partner to a film festival where it was screening. The result was something of a disappointment. Winding Refn had won my devotion by crushing the bones of modern life and sucking the marrow from them without using the increasingly hide-bound techniques of european art house film. Indeed, you are more likely to see someone get shot to death in a Winding Refn film than you are to see them staring meaningfully into the distance. When the time came for me to review the film, I voiced my extreme ambivalence and disappointment in a post over at Videovista:

This is art with the creative impulse kept in chains and passed back and forth between worn-out chieftains. This is the kind of film that makes you strain to remember the last time you were genuinely shocked or surprised at the cinema. This is art that leaves you yearning for a gust of fresh air that will blow away the cobwebs. This is the revolutionary corrupted into the familiar. The transgressive repackaged as the formulaic. This is what creative stagnation looks like and I find that almost unbearably depressing. As someone who is not only a huge fan of Conrad but also of Malick, existentialism and Vikings, Valhalla Rising should have been my ideal film but instead it left me feeling that I had seen it all before just one too many times.

This is basically the art house intellectual equivalent of nerd rage. My annoyance at the film was such that I even felt obliged to unpack my feelings even further in a piece inspired by James Woods’ extended critical essay How Fiction Works and Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy. Valhalla Rising left a deep wound in my appreciation of film, it marked the point where I stopped celebrating art house film and began questioning its methods and its metrics of success.  Valhalla Rising is not the work of a free spirit, it is the work of someone who is reaching out to the art house establishment in search of recognition and legitimacy. Valhalla Rising is the work of an outsider who wants to come in from the cold and the exact same thing can be said of Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Steve McQueen’s Shame. All of these films bend the knee to the European art house establishment and so come off looking like genre pieces. The problem is that the techniques that once revolutionised European filmmaking in the 1960s have become ossified and so European art house film is now little more than a genre that talented directors attempt to move beyond.  As Woods puts it:

When a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques

Winding Refn’s willingness to bend the knee was amply rewarded when his next film Drive became one of the most widely celebrated films of 2011.  Full of violence and exploitation film tropes, Drive seemed built for the US market and yet it managed to convince art house fans as well as critics. Had Winding Refn not made a film as conventionally arty as Valhalla Rising, I suspect that Drive would never have won over art house critics.  It is too American… too violent… too exciting… too plot driven. The Imp of the Perverse that sits on my shoulder decided that I should hate Drive on general principle and yet I did not. In fact, as I said when I reviewed the film, I consider it to be one of the greatest films of all time… if only for this scene:

I could watch it all day: The dimming of the light, the way he starts to pull away before she does and the way he steps back before exploding into action in a way that pleads ‘just give me one more second of this feeling… one more second before I have to do something horrible’. There is genius in that scene and there is genius in Drive as a work of cinematic art. It is a thousand miles from the sterile art house nonsense of Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht.

Given that I adore the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, I was delighted to discover a documentary about his work. Filmed as Winding Refn scouts out locations in Bancock, Laurent Duroche’s NWR is a wonderfully candid piece that reveals a lot about how Winding Refn works and how he thinks his way through particular projects. Particularly interesting is the fact that Winding Refn actually turned down the chance to go to a prominent Danish film school and chose instead to use the money to make Pusher. The film, and many other fantastic films like it, are made available for free online and are collected at the absolutely awesome Cinephilia&Beyond Archive.

I am particularly enamored with the film as it opens with some fantastic comments in French by the great surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. This opening section, sadly devoid of English subtitles, translates as:

You have to understand one thing. Cinema has arrived at a disappointing stage: Complete industial degeneration. With this pulp… this cancer that is American cinema has infected the entire planet. It has political power… it has economic power… it is a pile of spiritual excrement. Then, when we had lost absolutely all hope, when we saw that all films were lit in exactly the same way… with that degenerate Spielberg… When we find ONE artist who can survive (despite having to earn a living) and who BREATHES… it is a moment of supreme joy. The boy Nicolas saved me from my cinematic depression

Why Does It Matter That Game Designers Are Evil?

A little while ago, I took a trip to the city of Bath. Having taken the train up from London, we tooled around the city for a day or so and then decided to spend the following day visiting the nearby countryside. In order to access this countryside, we needed to rent a car and so we walked to the outskirts of Bath in order to pick up our rental. We usually rent a car when we go to visit my girlfriend’s family and so we were well acquainted by the buffer zone of form-filling and scratch-detailing that exists between us showing up to get a car and our driving off the lot with said car. However, we usually rent from quite a small rental company and this was our first experience with a major multinational rental agency and the experience could not have been more different: Potential upgrades were not just mentioned in passing, they were argued for using quite aggressive and manipulative language:

  • What if we were heading back late and needed to drive faster to make the drop-off? If we got a faster car we could save ourselves money in the long run.
  • What if someone broke into our car and stole our stuff? If we upgraded the insurance to cover everything in the car, we could stop some crook from ruining our holiday.
  • What if someone stole the petrol in our tank? If we insured that then we could save the money required to re-fill the tank and call out a tow-truck. Petrol is really expensive these days.

The list went on and on. Obviously working from a script, the woman behind the counter probed and prodded our every fear and concern in a desperate effort to extract more money from us than the price advertised on the company’s website. Sensing my growing irritation, my girlfriend suggested I put our stuff in the car while she sort out the paperwork but I find myself reliving that sense of irritation in more and more aspects of my day to day life. Under pressure from investors, companies are trying to wring more and more money from their existing business models. Customers are not just being squeezed, they are being squeezed in ways designed by people with a profound understanding of human psychology. Nowhere is this understanding of human psychology more evident than in the marketplace for popular culture.


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Podcast Round-up 2010

This time last year I undertook something of a lifestyle change.  From being largely a sedentary person, I became a rather active one walking for several hours every day in an effort to lose weight.  During the countless hours in which I pounded the streets of London, I listened to podcasts.  I wrote up my experiences as they were last September.  Since then, my exercise regimen has shifted into a form that does not permit the use of an iPod and so the list of regular podcasts I listen to has shrunk after expanding considerably.  What is left is a list of podcasts that I genuinely enjoy and admire and I thought that I would share them with you in order to raise awareness of them and maybe get people to talk about them a bit more.

I shall begin with some thoughts on the podcasts that made the list last year.

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Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) – Ozu for Beginners

There have been some interesting rumblings recently over on the Guardian Film blog.

The Guardian’s film-related output tends to be dominated by the work of Peter Bradshaw.  Reportedly one of the few British film critics whose reviews still have the power to make a film.  However, despite Bradshaw’s prominence, I have never warned to him as a writer.  His reviews generally lack either theoretical or historical foundation, they are seldom funny and they are generally pedestrian enough to be predictable.  I also think that he gets it wrong a lot of the time.  Especially when it comes to films that cause a stir.  Anyway, beneath Bradshaw’s prominence, there are a number of other film writers whose work I do have a lot more time for.  Indeed, while I tend to ignore the Guardian’s reviews, I almost always read its film-related op-eds.  Which brings us to the inspiration for this particular piece.

Since the beginning of January, it has become de rigueur for Guardian film writers to reference the works of Yasujiro Ozu.  Indeed, back on the 9th of January we had a piece about Ozu’s work itself by Ian Buruma entitled “An Artist of the Unhurried World”.  Then, on the 15th of January David Thomson produced “Ozu vs Avatar”, an impassioned piece that framed Ozu’s work as a natural antithesis to mindless effects-driven films such as District 9 and Avatar.  Then, on the 16th of January, John Patterson gave us “John Woo, Ang Lee, Jet Li, enough of the Hollywood Kung fu movies”, a piece that ends with a plaintive :

“I’m all through with this genre, thanks. I’m heading back to Ozu and Mizoguchi”

There are two good reasons for Ozu being present in the minds of these film writers.  The first is that Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953) has been re-released at the cinema.  The second is that the first great film to emerge this year at British cinemas is Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking (2008), an extended homage to and updating of the family drama genre that Ozu made his own.  While I broadly agree with the sentiments animating these pieces, I was struck by the extent to which they go out of their way to Other the works of Ozu.

For example, in his article, Buruma states :

“Ozu’s style would surely strike action-loving westerners as boring and slow”


“To young Japanese brought up on lurid comic books and animated science fiction, Ozu’s world looks as alien as it might to uninformed westerners”


“Surely, foreigners preferred to see more exotic creatures, rushing about with drawn swords, wearing colourful kimonos”

Meanwhile, Patterson and particularly Thomson’s pieces set up the idea that over here you have mindless action films and over there you have works such as those of Ozu.  My problem with these articles is that I do not think that this distinction exists.  There is only one meaningful spectrum along which works of art can be placed and that is one of quality.  Ozu’s films are not qualitatively different to District 9 or A Quantum of Solace, they are simply better made, better written, better thought out, better acted and better shot.  Ozu made great films, it is as simple as that.

The idea that there is some other kind of film is one that draws its strength chiefly from the dialectics of marketing.  Kevin Smith once said of Jersey Girl (2004) that it was “not for critics” and most of the people who have been defending Avatar from its high-minded detractors have taken the line that it is simply mindless fun.  But why should fun be mindless?  How can fun actually be mindless?  People in marketing are fond of the idea that we live inordinately hectic lives.  Lives lived at break-neck pace.  Lives spent wading through dense data-schoals that leave us exhausted at the end of the day.  If you buy into this vision of your life than a) I suggest you think about the people currently trying to survive in Haiti and b) maybe you’d like to spend just a little bit more on dinner?  Maybe you’d like some gourmet chocolate?  Don’t you deserve a 50” 3D TV?  You work hard, why shouldn’t you have it?  There is no such thing as mindless entertainment, but there are rubbish films that people get tricked into going to see.

So it is in this spirit that I have decided to visit one of Yasujiro Ozu’s more accessible and instantly lovable films – Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) in order to demonstrate why it is that appreciating Ozu should come naturally to everyone, even those people who cannot help but spend money on Hollywood blockbusters.

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BG19 – Fear of a Transhuman Future : Zombies and Resident Evil

Futurismic have my nineteenth Blasphemous Geometries column.

It deals partly with the Resident Evil games but mostly with the evolution of the zombie genre.  Originally, I was planning a much more expansive piece that also took in the games Dead Space and Prototype – as they also have a rather reactionary attitude towards the shifting conceptions of identity found in transhumanism  – but I decided instead to focus my analysis a bit more.

The Language of Dissent

One thing that old Ludwig Wittgenstein got profoundly right was the suggestion that the meaning of language is fixed by use.  What this means is that words have no intrinsic meaning.  They are not defined by the characteristics of the objects to which they refer, they do not even need to correspond to actual objects in the world in order to have meaning, nor do they need to have clearly fixed boundaries in order for them to be useful.  Instead, words acquire their meaning through the social context in which they are used.  As Wittgenstein put it “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.  We could not understand him because we have only the faintest idea of what the inner and social life of a lion is like.

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Podcast Round-Up

Over the past couple of months I have been making the most of the improved median ambient temperature and doing quite a bit of walking.  Where before I might have taken the bus or the tube, I now walk.  This left me with something of an entertainment shortfall as while it is easy to read a book on public transport, it is much harder to do so whilst walking.  In fact, reading a book whilst walking through London is very much like eating a roast dinner whilst sitting on a public lavatory : A combination of activities that is neither intuitive nor particularly healthy.  However, One thing that all of this walking has allowed me to do is increase the number of podcasts I listen to on a regular basis and I thought I might share some of my favourites in order to a) encourage people to listen to them and b) maybe illicit a few suggestions from the people who read this blog.

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Empty Criticism

This week has seen some quite bitter disagreement over the role of the critic in writing about genre.  As pieced together by Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison, the debate started when a new group blog launched claiming not only the name ‘ethics’ but also the primacy of enthusiastically positive genre writing.  Before long, a test case presented itself in the shape of Martin Lewis’ review of a fantasy novel.

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Town and Country (and some links)

VideoVista have my review of Daihachi Yoshida’s Funuke : Show Some Love, You Losers!.

They also have my review of Compton Bennett’s The Seventh Veil.

Funuke is by no means a perfect film but it does shed quite an interesting cultural light on one of my favourite social dichotomies.  A dichotomy I have also been discussing over at THE DRIFT.

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Some Alternate Views of Yorkshire (Red Riding)

I watched Red Riding : 1983 last night and though initially disappointed with it, I am still processing some of the ideas in it.  In the mean time, I thought I would put up a post linking to a couple of interesting pieces that touch upon Red Riding as well as a few other things I have been thinking about of late.

So yes, this is something of a links round-up.  Sue me.

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