REVIEW – If… (1968)

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.

 

REVIEW – Creepshow (1982)

creepshowFilmJuice have my review of George A. Romero’s infamous horror/comedy Creepshow. Infamous… not because it’s particularly funny or scary, but rather because it features the film’s writer Stephen King playing a dungaree-clad redneck simpleton who slowly turns into a hedge. Creepshow is something of an odd cultural artifact as, despite having an incredibly famous writer and an incredibly famous director, the film is actually quite shit. Indeed, re-watching the film and scowling my way through its terrible gags and ineffectual scares, I was struck by the fact that this film’s fame owes less to the film itself than it does to its impeccable geek heritage. As I put it in my review:

Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand.  Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.

The nostalgia I speak of is nostalgia for a range of oddball horror comics published in the 1950s by a company called EC. As I explain in my review, before being wound down into a rump publishing little more than Mad Magazine, EC acquired a huge following by pioneering the combination of comedy and horror at a time when comics were being broken on the rack of public opinion for their supposed role in creating juvenile delinquents. Despite being something of a flash in the pan, the sensibility pioneered by EC was immensely influential on American babyboomers and traces of EC heritage can be found not only in the work of George A. Romero and Stephen King but also people like Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi and anyone from that generation who took it upon themselves to direct a horror/comedy. The problem is that, while the ‘boomers clearly loved their EC comics, they drank so deeply from the wellspring and returned to it so often that the idea explored by the EC comics themselves now seem incredibly dated and dull. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better because everyone who ever read an EC comic decided to borrow the idea and make a film about it.

At the time, Creepshow must have seemed like a great idea and given how many 1980s film critics must have read EC comics as children, I’m sure the sense of shared love and nostalgia was universal. However, while nostalgia is an incredibly potent force that excuses many great cultural ills, it doesn’t transfer between generations meaning that while EC comics might have meant a lot to ‘boomers, they don’t mean anything to people like me. In fact, I’m more like to be nostalgic for the work of Romero and King than I am for the work that inspired them. Stripped of its shield of nostalgic good will, Creepshow reveals itself as poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly made.

I got into this question when I reviewed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell back in 2009:

What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism.  The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages.  Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits.  A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers.  Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house.  I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsies except that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.

At which point, Patrick Hudson appeared in the comments and mentioned not only Creepshow, but also nostalgia for EC comics. At the time, I was unimpressed by the suggestion that nostalgia somehow made Sam Raimi’s antitziganism acceptable but since then, my position has hardened even further: Nostalgia does not travel between generations and any attempt to force the issue (as in the case of Olivier Assayas’ recent love letter to the 1960s) is likely to result in a film that makes its creator look either sentimental, simple-minded or politically reactionary.

REVIEW – Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

The good folk at FilmJuice have my review of Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World.

Corman is an interesting figure in the history of American film as he appeared at a time when the American film industry was very slow to react to the cultural needs of the post-War generation. By remaining attuned to the desires of the babyboom generation, Corman managed to bootstrap himself first into commercial success and then into a certain degree of artistic respectability:

One of the most poignant moments in Corman’s World sees Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda reminiscing about Corman’s willingness to fund films such as The Trip and The Wild Angels. Filled with psychotropic imagery and language lifted from Vietnam War demonstrations, these films not only gave younger people a voice, they also laid the foundations for such ground-breaking films as Easy Rider. As people who rose to prominence on the back of the 1960s, both Fonda and Scorsese seem perplexed as to why Corman never followed them out of the drive-in and into the academy but this is because both men seem to have mistaken Corman for an idealistic filmmaker. Despite trying his arm at politically engaged filmmaking, Corman was never an idealist… he was a democrat and a capitalist who gave his audience idealism because that is what they wanted to pay for. The unease we feel about Corman’s willingness to pander to his audience is the same unease we feel about Hollywood as a whole: are they making art or are they making money? The answer suggested by Stapleton is that they are doing both because both activities involve telling people what it is that they want and need to hear.

Stapleton’s documentary is probably best understood as a companion piece to Peter Biskind’s book about the post-War movie brat generation Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (2008). I say companion piece as Stapleton’s documentary leans quite heavily upon Biskind’s vision of a generation that stormed the barricades of Hollywood and launched successful careers before either collapsing into narcissistic self-indulgence or devoting themselves to selling toys. However, while Biskind’s book provides a deliciously unflattering portrait of that ‘golden’ generation of post-War filmmakers, Stapleton provides a far more enthusiastic picture of one of that generation’s most noted losers. Indeed, as I suggest in the above quote, Corman stood poised to become a ‘serious filmmaker’ but he somehow never made that transition and by the time he was in a position to capitalise on his success the likes of Lucas and Spielberg had pipped him to the post and convinced Hollywood that the future lay in pandering to audiences with multimillion-dollar B movies like Jaws and Star Wars.