I am still not entirely clear how Nightcrawler managed to get seen, let alone made… Yes, it had a relatively slim $8.5 Million budget and yes, it appears to have received some money from a Californian tax credit scheme but how did a viciously left-wing film about a profoundly unsympathetic character manage to pick its way through the gears of a Hollywood machine that has grown disinterested in anything other than Summer money and Winter respectability? This film neither provides multinational corporations with a means of advertising to children nor aging sex symbols a chance to relaunch their careers by playing someone ugly, disabled, or mad.
I can imagine this film being made by Fritz Lang in the 1940s or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s but from a first time writer/director in the same year that the Academy nominated American Sniper for Best Picture? No. Not now. Never.
Nightcrawler is a film that is completely out of step with the cowardice, mendacity and incompetence of contemporary Hollywood. It is the cinematic equivalent of a black panther spotted diving into an English hedgerow or an enormous footprint discovered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is a cryptid, evidence of a cinematic Golden Age that exists nowhere other than our desire for something bigger, better and different to what we actually have.
Described as a “neo-noir crime thriller”, Nightcrawler is best understood as a film that critiques American cultural values in a way that echoes the visual panache of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive albeit with none of that film’s faith in the retributive powers of heteronormative masculinity.
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One of the most interesting things about working my way through a collection of literary short stories has been the obviousness of the author’s ideological assumptions. Most of the short fiction I have read between now and the end of my schooling has been science fictional and genre writers have grown quite adept at cloaking any personal beliefs in a combination of irony, abstraction and re-iteration. The majority of genre authors may be left-wing but most of the genre’s tropes are right-wing and so you often have to pay attention to the background or the words of secondary characters in order to gain a glimpse of what the author actually believes. This type of deep-reading and second-guessing is not necessary in Salter’s fiction: His assumptions about the nature of the good life are right there in the foreground of everything he writes.
Like most people, Salter is clearly no monolith. His ideas about the benefits of passion vs. the benefits of emotional control wax and wane with every story and so a story like “Comet” can unambiguously champion the idea of a life devoted to hedonistic passion while “Eyes of the Stars”, “My Lord You” and “Give” can strike notes of caution. All of the stories in this collection are about the wealthy and middle-aged and most of these people are being quietly devoured by regret and yearning for that one moment where they might have given themselves over entirely to pleasure. Though occasionally dismissive and judgemental of the people who live under a cloud of permanent regret, Salter does try to sympathise with the people who simply aren’t capable of living that type of lifestyle. In fact, “Platinum” and “Palm Court” are both quite explicitly about the quasi-Darwinian forces that exclude the weak and un-committed from Salter’s idea of the good life.
I use terms like “weak” and “un-committed” advisedly as while Salter does recognise that not everyone is going to pursue his idea of the good life, he struggles to understand why anyone would turn their back on it except as a result of trauma or timidity. In fact, I am almost tempted to say that Last Night is Salter’s failed attempt to write his way into an understanding of people who value emotional stability over passion, hence the number of stories that turn out to be about regret.
In the comments to my piece about “Palm Court”, Brendan C. Byrne says:
I think it might be better considered as a pair with the following entry, “Bangkok”, another two-hander with the same themes, though more bare and bitter. Together they ruminate on the “lost” love which animates the man’s history but which seems far more slight to the woman, and what the return of the fetishized figure of the past creates (mostly just an unsuccessful challenge to the pathological).
I mostly agree with this reading but I think that it’s the bareness and bitterness of “Bangkok” that makes it the more interesting story of the two: “Bangkok” and “Palm Court” are both about a woman trying to rekindle a relationship that she once sabotaged and a man who refusing to commit to the demands of a passionate life and hating himself for it too. The difference between the two stories is that “Bangkok” strips away the narratives that the characters tell about themselves. This story is Last Night boiled down to a thick black paste, you take your shot at a life defined by amazing sex or you sit on the side-lines resenting your decision forever.
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One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.
While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.
As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.
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Back in the 1990s, the filmmaker and architectural scholar Patrick Keiller made a pair of films about Britain. As much video essays as they were documentary films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) were concerted attempts to find the true spirit of Britain that had been buried by a decade and a half of Thatcherite rule. Sensing that the wheels were coming off the Tory juggernaut and that a fresh start would soon be required, Keiller used the eccentric academic Robinson and a wryly-comic unnamed narrator to sift the wreckage in search of gold. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Keiller’s intrepid explorers, the project was a political failure: Britain, much like its capital city, was a place devoid of any truth that could not be measured in pounds, euros, dollars or units of industrial measurement. London and Robinson in Space are films about the defeat of the romantic spirit and the absolute victory of neoliberalism.
Over a decade later, Keiller returns with Robinson in Ruins, an unexpected addendum to the Robinson duology. With the narrator dead and Robinson gone, the narration has fallen to an equally unnamed female public sector worker (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) who discovers Robinson’s footage and notes in an old caravan on a site destined for re-development. Made at the height of the credit crunch, when the towers of Capitalism tottered and nearly fell, Robinson in Ruins is far less pessimistic than either London or Robinson in Space. Eerily apocalyptic and as visually arresting as all of Keiller’s work, Robinson in Ruins suggests that humanity’s salvation may lie in communion with non-human intelligences.
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Futurismic have my thirty seventh Blasphemous Geometries column.
Entitled “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”, the column looks at two different browser-based business simulation games and shows how, despite both operating on the assumption that capitalism is a functional rules-based system, the games use their different depictions of that system to produce withering critiques of contemporary capitalism.
Sometimes it isn’t easy to love the cinema. Increasingly, the greatest popular art form of the 20th Century has become a means of oppression : Every year, the summer blockbuster season lasts that little bit longer. The season of empty months. Months during which the few decent films that do make it into cinemas are instantly forced out by over-hyped sequels and works of distorted genre. Works so disjointed and violent in their imagery that they have come to resemble twisted parodies of the world we know. Works that do not seek to elevate our collective humanity but to pervert it by filling our poor throbbing skulls with whole new vistas of psychosis and paranoia. Vistas we can only escape from with the help of consumer products, the antics of boy wizards and bellicose robots. Vistas produced by a media-industrial complex that keeps us supine and malleable lest we realise the living hell that we have made of our collective existence. A collective existence so cruel and unhinged that were we to grasp its true nature for even a second we would all run screaming into the streets, tearing at our clothes and flesh in a hideous and brutal attempt to somehow get clean and free of a system that has crushed us beneath its heel for far too long.
But then a film comes along that seems to recognise all of this.
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