FilmJuice have my review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film Blood Simple. Or rather, the slightly shorter director’s cut that was released about fifteen years after the original film.
I found this review quite difficult to write as while I have seen and enjoyed most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’m also acutely aware that their work invariably seems less substantial the more you think about it. Though some of their films are easily dismissed as more-or-less enjoyable tosh, some of their films feel like substantial dramas. Indeed, both A Simple Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There seemed intellectually robust when I first saw them but I am now hard pressed to remember anything about them aside from a couple of throwaway gags. Blood Simple felt very similar in that it is a film that does a great job of looking smart even though it is really little more than a pastiche:
Clearly inspired by such hardboiled crime novels as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Blood Simple takes a collection of film noir clichés, drives them out of the city and deposits them in a crummy bar at the tail end of Texas. Stripped of their tilted fedoras and artfully crumpled raincoats, the clichés valiantly attempt to start new lives but eventually find themselves sliding back into old familiar habits.
Watching Blood Simple, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fact that the dividing line between a ‘smart’ film and a ‘dumb’ film is often a question of viewer charity as a charitable viewer is more likely to detect meaning and symbolism than someone who is bored out of their tiny mind. Indeed, skilled directors know that it is possible to make a film seem smarter by using some of the visual and stylistic cues that people associate with smartness. For example, even though Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises do not actually say anything substantial about either the War against Terror or the Occupy movement, visual references to both of those real world events goaded critics into assuming both films had elaborate political messages. Similarly, art house films such as Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light are so good at looking like serious intellectual films (long takes, lots of silence, beautiful photography, impressions of interiority) that many critics simply assume that they were in fact serious art house films filled with deep and meaningful truths.
Blood Simple is very much like a Batman comic in so far as it looks really dark, twisted and psychological but that look is ultimately all it has to offer. Watching Blood Simple I began to think about whether No Country For Old Men is a smart film or merely a film that looks smart… is there any difference? Does ‘smartness’ actually exist outside of the audience’s heads?
Once upon a time, the term ‘American independent cinema’ designated an approach to filmmaking that was personal in outlook, regional in sensibility and European in aspiration. The goal of the movement was to learn from the European Art House movement of the 1960s and apply those lessons to films that looked beyond shoot-em-ups and courtroom dramas to what it really meant to be an American in the 20th Century. While the movement produced a wide array of different films, it is best known for its most successful work: Stephen Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).
As Peter Biskind notes in Down and Dirty Pictures (2004), the astronomical amounts of money generated by Sex, Lies, and Videotape kicked off a boom period for American independent film. Suddenly, American indies were big business but in order for them to stay big business it was necessary to replicate that success over and over again. The film industry has always reacted to unexpected success by repetition and the success of American independent films were no exception to this and so a template began to emerge allowing studios to keep making the same films for the same audience over and over again.
Here is my guide to creating an American independent film:
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FilmJuice have my review of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.
Written by the crime novelist James Ellrot and set against a backdrop of police corruption and political wrangling, Rampart tells the story of a cop on the wrong side of history. Played by Woody Harrelson, Dave “Date Rape” Brown knows all the angles and all the dirty secrets meaning that even when he fucks up and gets caught, the brass can’t touch him. All Brown needs to do is claim to have received a job offer from Fox News and his problems simply melt away. However, as the film progresses and the political climate shifts further and further from yesterday’s old pals and backroom deals, Brown finds himself struggling to keep his head above water:
The idea that there is no place for a person like Dave in a civilised society provides Rampart with much of its thematic power. Dave, we are told, is the son of an old school cop and his status as the son of an old school cop gives him access to a network of contacts embodied by the nameless retired detective played by Ned Beattie. At the beginning of the film, Dave has a place in the LAPD because the department is still in thrall to the old and brutal ways of doing business. Most of Dave’s problems stem from the fact that he simply cannot adapt to the new LAPD being built by ambitious politicians like those played by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi. Thus Dave’s fall from grace is not just about his own stupidity but also about power leaching away from the brutal white men who police the city.
Though Rampart‘s wonderful cinematography, engaging characterisation and some hugely entertaining and recognisably Ellrovian dialogue are more than enough to make for an entertaining film, one cannot help but feel that there is something increasingly generic about the existential art house crime film. Back in 1967, John Boorman’s Point Blank used the tools of the art house to delve into the police house and since then a steady stream of art house directors including Abel Ferrara, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Winding Refn have happily used brilliant cinematography to tell and re-tell the same stories of crime, madness and existential alienation. Indeed, Rampart‘s real problem is that it is ultimately nothing more than a well realised genre film. Great cinematography? Check! Enigmatic protagonist? Check! Long drawn out pauses? Check? Descent into madness? Check! Ambiguous ending? Check! Though entertaining, the art house crime film really has lost its power to shock or provoke… in its own way it is just as predictable and safe as the country house mysteries of yesteryear.
What can I say? I understand Lars von Trier. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there at the Cannes film festival… I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit.
When von Trier announced that he felt sympathy for Hitler, the grandees of the Cannes film festival responded by declaring him persona non grata. While much can be said of von Trier’s history of provocation, I believe that von Trier’s real mistake lay in expressing sympathy for Hitler rather than empathy. Indeed, while empathy involves understanding why someone does what they do and ‘feeling their pain’, sympathy means also seeing that person in a positive light. The slipperiness of these two concepts and their tendency to bleed into one another poses something of a challenge for writers because empathy and sympathy are quite different concepts. We should be able to understand why someone did something without seeing those actions as in any way acceptable.
Humans can be a surprisingly forgiving bunch and the more we understand another person, the more likely we are to see their actions as justified even if we do not necessarily agree with them. Because of this quirk in human nature, there is a tendency for unlikeable characters to wither beneath the glare of sustained psychological scrutiny, meaning that the more you explore a character’s back story and explain their motivations, the more likely it is that an unsympathetic bastard will turn into a big misunderstood puppy. One could even argue that our tendency to automatically feel sympathy for the characters with whom we empathise accounts for the rise of psychopaths as anti-heroes. Indeed, by labelling a character as a psychopath, writers are making it clear that we ought not to feel much sympathy for them. Consider, for example the difference between character such as Dexter Morgan from Dexter and Vic Mackey from the Shield: Both are stone-cold killers who do not flinch from using horrific violence when it suits them. However, because Dexter has the label ‘psychopath’ attached to him, the character can never be completely sympathetic and so maintains his edge. Conversely, Vic Mackey is just a corrupt cop and, over the series, his actions take on a logic of their own that shifts the character from morally dysfunctional anti-hero to Dirty Harry-style crusader with a private sense of morality. Tellingly, when The Shield ended, Mackey’s future as an office drone was played for its pathos… we were supposed to feel sorry for a man denied access to the streets.
Based upon John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980), Erick Zonca’s Julia can be seen as an attempt to solve this unintentional drift from empathy to sympathy. Telling the story of a selfish, unpleasant and manipulative alcoholic who kidnaps a child, the film works very hard at humanising its protagonist whilst retaining the opinion that she is a wretched human who is undeserving of either our sympathy or forgiveness. While the experiment is not entirely successful and the film does eventually collapse into something approaching sympathy for its protagonist, the move towards a more sympathetic portrayal is marked by a parallel drift away from character-based drama and towards a more genre-friendly approach to storytelling, thus begging the question as to whether we are more forgiving of genre characters than we are of real people.
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THE ZONE has my review of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale: Director’s Cut, which has recently been re-released on DVD.
My review attempts to localise Battle Royale within a dystopian tradition which, it seems to me, is peculiarly Japanese. What distinguishes Battle Royale from many dystopian fictions starring plucky teenagers is that the film uses every possible opportunity to mock and ridicule the suffering of its teenaged scapegoats. Indeed, while writers in this tradition are quick to point the finger at governments that blame the young for social problems, works in this tradition also pour scorn on the youth that allow themselves to be victimised:
Again and again, Japanese genre writers depict modern Japan as a hellish place where the old lash out against the youth in ignorance, fear and hatred but the youth refuse to organise and refuse to do anything about their treatment thereby suggesting that no matter how immoral these old people might be, they are not entirely wrong about Japan’s passive, consumerist youth.
The ways in which Fukasaku mocks and trivialises his teenaged characters feeds directly into my one serious complaint about this re-edition: Was a Director’s Cut really necessary?
According to both the Romantics and the Moderns, we are all guilty children of a slain father figure. Standing over the corpse of God with blood on our hands and tears in our eyes, we look down upon slain divinity and weep for the way that his touches always made us feel special. Informed by this sense of loss but unsure of how to respond to it, 20th Century literature built upon 19th Century psychological realism by focusing its gaze inwards to the point where the external world seemed to simply fade away. Convinced that god is dead, science is boring and politics is useless, 20th Century writers wrote about themselves and their problems, coaxing thousands of novels and hundreds of films from the unbearable tragedy of being middle class and a little bit unhappy. Unhappiness framed in terms of the disappearance of God and so made to seem important and cosmic rather than irrelevant and self-indulgent. The truth is that we no more morn the death of god than we do the fall of the Roman empire, like most people who lose a parent, we have moved on and now live our lives not in the shadow of a fictional God but in the sunlight of the real world. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is a film about the ultimate irrelevance of questions of meaning and consolation to the lives of real people.
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Videovista has my review of series one of Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy.
Though nominally a ‘review’, the piece is really more of an essay about the creation of genre expectations through aesthetic framing. In particular, I argue that Mad Men apes the art house aesthetic and narrative styles in order to create an impression of intelligence whereas Sons of Anarchy looks as dumb as a bag of hammers despite being actually quite a clever and involved piece of writing. Dig:
Sons Of Anarchy is about the attempt to recreate a state of nature in the modern world. It examines families, tribes, organisations and states and looks at how distrust, individualism and selfishness have not only rotted out all of these institutions but also made it almost impossible for us to return to a state in which we do work together and trust each other as equal, free individuals. Sons Of Anarchy speaks to the very heart of human politics and it does so not by using long-takes and awkward silences to hint at the deep inner lives of middle-class professionals, it does so by having a load of hairy tattooed men shoot machine-guns at each other.
There are times when you wish that Ayn Rand had been a literary critic. Who else could ever hope to capture the sense of adolescent rebellion with which critics and authors alike invoke the word ‘genre’? In contemporary culture, genre boundaries seem to exist solely as things to be transgressed. But so many works now ‘redraw the boundaries of genre’ and ‘confound genre expectations’ that genre labels are effectively meaningless. They are empty suits, paper tigers and straw men that exist purely so that authors and critics can claim them to have been defeated by some new towering work of genius. Might it not be time to accept that genre has been so thoroughly transgressed, redefined and deconstructed that there is no longer any glory to be found in escaping its clutches? Might it not be time for a more grown-up attitude towards the idea of genre?
Genre is like a long-suffering parent. Endlessly forgiving and endlessly patient, it responds to its children’s professions of hatred with an affectionate pat on the head and a mug of hot chocolate to calm them down. You can scream, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” at genre till you are blue in the face and genre will still be there when you need your next film financing or a convention circuit for your book tour. There is nothing heroic or original in transgressing genre because that is precisely what it is there for. So perhaps we should look upon genre not as some cartoon tyrant that artists can easily defeat but rather as a part of what makes up a work of fiction no different to language or lighting or pace. Joanna Hogg’s second film Archipelago displays just this attitude towards genre.
Every inch the genre film, Archipelago sees Hogg taking the basic template of French art house drama (the Victorian novel’s obsession with psychological nuance combined with the system-under-pressure psychological mechanics of psychoanalysis and the sense of perpetual loss of identity forged in existentialism) and applies it to an upper-class English family that simply cannot say how it feels or what it wants. The result is a beautifully shot, exquisitely observed and surprisingly original work of cinema that uses genre expectations not as things to be transgressed but as a means of eliciting an emotional response from the audience.
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Videovista have my review of Thomas Clay’s second film Soi Cowboy.
I reviewed Clay’s first film The Great Ecstacy of Robert Carmichael (2005) for my old site but while I found the film incoherent at the time, I have since warmed to it significantly as my taste in films has evolved. In fact, I think it is a bold and distinctive piece of film-making (especially when you bear in mind that the director was in his mid-twenties when he made it).
Soi Cowboy is a much tamer affair. In fact, it seems to serve primarily as a vehicle for the director to ‘pay his dues’ and prove that he is a ‘good cultural citizen’ who has watched all the greats and assimilated their ideas and techniques. This strikes me as quite depressing as Robert Carmichael was not the film of a director who needed to prove himself. It is also sad that art house cinema has reached a point where it can be reduced to a set of techniques and formulae that can be reproduced on demand. As I suggested in my pieces about La Moustache (2005) and Valhalla Rising (2009), this represents the ossification of an artistic tradition into a genre.
My pieces about Soi Cowboy, Valhalla Rising and La Moustache contain quite a bit of irritation about this process of ossification but then I read something that helped me shed some new light on my own thinking…
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