In this episode of my podcast, Dr Johnny Walker joins me to talk about the book he is writing about the video rental boom of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. We talk about how home video impacted the film industry in terms of new market opportunities, influencing future filmmakers, and also its effect on Britain’s working class and South Asian communities.
In this microcast I talk about Jim Van Bebber’s no budget, underground street gang action movie, Deadbeat at Dawn (1988).
In this podcast, television historian Amanda Reyes joins me to talk about the American TV movie of the 1960s up until the 1990s. We discuss its relationship to cinematic genres, and in particular how they often mimicked the subjects of exploitation films, resulting in TV movie versions of rape-revenge, horror, women in prison, among others. Like much of exploitation cinema their narratives also frequently dealt with topical subjects, and they were made on often meagre shooting schedules and with low budgets.
Amanda’s book on the subject, Are You in the House Alone, is published by Headpress, and her Made for TV Mayhem podcast is available here: https://tvmayhempodcast.wordpress.com
In 1962 Alan Lovell wrote that the ‘anarchist cinema’ was ‘immediately relevant to our world of power states, mass murder, torture, protests and revolts’, an observation that is as true today as it was then.
The difficulty comes in defining this ‘anarchist cinema’. This is a problem that people like Lovell, and most notably Richard Porton, and a small handful of others, have attempted to resolve. My own study into the subject resulted in me writing the imaginatively titled The Anarchist Cinema (Intellect, 2019). In this book, I argue that cinema is an inherently capitalist artform, and so finding unambiguously ‘anarchist’ films made within the institution of commercial cinema was, if not impossible, bound up with contradictions around need to generate profit, as well as a film’s conflicting and varying ‘message’. Interpretation of any film differs according to the point of view of the person watching, the time it was made, the ideological stance of the filmmaker, or any other factor that could affect how we understand a film. Therefore, hardly any film can categorically be said to be this ‘ism, or that ‘ism. It is most often just a matter of how any individual decides to interpret what they see in any given moment. (There are exceptions of course. Not many would content that The Eternal Jew, for example, is anything other than virulently anti-Semitic. That was the point of it, after all.)
In The Anarchist Cinema, I argue that while commercial cinema contains these paradoxes, those interested in anarchism could still engage with mainstream films by looking at moments within them, rather than as a whole, and noticing moments that exemplify anarchist theory, or even by enjoying inspiring depictions of on screen ‘anarchy’. Ultimately, any anarchist notion of cinema would take into consideration the distinction between film as individual object, and the institution of cinema as a broader cultural enterprise that combines capital, industry, artistry, and a multitude of different fan responses. I argue that something can become part of an ‘anarchist cinema’ if it is used to help conceive of or conceptualise anarchism. This might be a commercial film that contains anarchist imagery, art films that propagate an anarchist message (even if for only part of its running time), and individual moments that can be co-opted for an anarchist cause. Any of these can even include material that is contrary to anarchist theory, but which can be used in support of a particular point or argument.
Jean Luc Godard once said that making political films was not the issue. What was the issue was to make films politically, meaning that the process of production and the experience of viewing has to deconstruct and create possibilities beyond depicting political events or making an argument in narrative form. With this difference in mind, one wonders what counts as ‘political’ film today. How will cinema respond to the sort of political upheaval witnessed over the past week in the USA, where citizens have protested, demonstrated, and rioted against continuing police brutality and the murder of George Floyd by uniformed police – captured, as is increasing the case, on camera by onlookers? Mainstream films inspired by this awful crime and its aftermath will undoubtedly contain positive messages. These imaginary future movies may even stir up anger and be used to dictate future social policy (though this would be unusual). But I make the claim that if films based around these events and those like it are to have genuine political relevance, they cannot just attempt to replicate what has happened so as to affect an emotional response in the viewer. Nor can they do so by merely recreating the methods by which these events have been conveyed to the world, namely by mimicking the thousands of hours of mobile phone footage capturing what is happening first hand.
For cinema to have political relevance it should not only subsume the aesthetic influence of the vibrant and terrifying footage shot by nearby citizens and which we are consuming on social media, but find some way to successfully incorporate the actual footage as well. It should also find some way to credit those who have produced the images. Because it is no longer medium specific, film cannot just rely on replicating the world using its traditional methods, used to direct emotions and reveal information in ways that create a ‘satisfying’ viewing experience. No dramatisation can do justice to that which has happened to George Floyd or the ever increasing numbers of people like him. Nor can a film do justice to the understandably angry response of citizens that followed, if it relies on singling out (possibly fictionalised) individuals and weaving tragic or inspiring stories designed to create our empathy with the protagonists on screen. Our knowledge and understanding of this method of narrativising softens any real world relevancy of the message, because we understand it as a ‘Hollywood’ technique. Films that do this are part of the history of cinema, not part of the fabric of political and social developments, and so we contextualise them differently when watching.
This does not mean that only documentaries can respond to the sort of happenings and uprisings we are seeing. Fictional and dramatised versions can find ways to utilise the actual footage shot by protestors and bystanders as part of their narrative, but should do so by accepting that the citizens who shot the footage are also actual creative filmmakers, and not just as collectors of raw material for ‘proper’ or ordained filmmakers to do what they want with. These citizens using their cameras have, after all, contributed to our collective memory and understanding of events not only by being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, but also by selecting what to shoot and when, and by shifting angles and altering framing by which to create the maximum impact for viewers. They also sometimes provide commentary on what is happening, with full awareness of the possibilities for interpretation and misinterpretation. The importance of citizen shot footage to journalism is now fully accepted. Is there potential for a similar acceptance within cinema?
There are, of course, forerunners in these developments. Spike Lee, for example, demonstrates the importance of real world imagery within fictional narratives or dramatisations of historical events in films like Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, and BlacKkKlansman. There are almost certainly other directors I am unaware of who do similar or even go further than Lee. The question moving forward is how will citizen filmmakers be credited, financial or otherwise, for their contributions. Also, how will the rights of those captured in the footage be protected in terms of their privacy and personal safety. I do not yet know the answer to this, beyond directly compensating the creator of every clip utilised or somehow getting every face seen in the clip to sign a release form. But if commercial cinemas (including not just the often unfairly maligned ‘Hollywood’, but the often just as derivative commercial cinemas of many other nations) cannot find ways to compensate and collaborate with the very people who are creating how we view the world – those who are documenting these events often under extreme stress, and while sometimes putting themselves in danger for a greater cause – then perhaps cinema should stay away from attempting to profit off the back of them.
In this episode of my Cult Film Microcast series, I look at Perry Henzell’s 1972 Jamaican film, The Harder They Come. The poster above is from the American New World Pictures release, and makes a clear attempt to market the film as a blaxploitation crime picture. Like many films of the blaxploitation cycle, it has an anti-authoritarian ethos, and the music and soundtrack is a vital component in generating its mood.
In this recording, I focus on the stylistic techniques, the performance by reggae star Jimmy Cliff as Ivanoe Martin, and the famous scene set in the Rialto cinema in Kingston, where Martin goes to watch a performance of the spaghetti western Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966).
In this series of micro-podcasts I look at individual cult films. In this episode I focus on James Glickenhaus’ often maligned The Exterminator (1980). A sleazy and very violent exploitation movie set in New York, The Exterminator features a traumatised Vietnam veteran avenging an attack on his friend, as well as the mobsters extorting local businesses. While nowhere near as respected as superficially similar New York vigilante movies like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) or Winner’s Death Wish (1974), it has enough moments of significance that make it worthy of attention in its own right. Note, for example, how it juxtaposes the hellish jungles of Vietnam with a City in economic and moral decline, and how its lead character identifies with both victims and victimisers. Listen to more of my thoughts on the movie here;
As part of my Newton Talks podcast I have started a spin-off series of short ‘microcasts’ on cult cinema, much shorter than my regular episodes. Each episode will see me introducing a different cult film. The first of these is all about Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). I hope you enjoy it. Have a listen here;
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, 2020)
Watching Guy Ritchie’s latest film proved to be a very useful experience. While I was entertained in parts, and interested in how the convoluted plot worked itself out, I was also incredibly put off by the affected mannerisms of each character. Mainly, however, I found the film to be very ugly around its presentation of violence, most of it accompanied by verbal and physical humiliation. Normally, I respond well to movies that wallow in bad taste, and I would also consider myself to be an aficionado of on screen violence. Was I being hypocritical, then? I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino after all, who has also attracted some criticisms around his throwaway attitude to violence.
However, Tarantino circumvents these criticisms for two reasons. Firstly, many of his narratives take place in a ‘movie universe’, which provides a distancing context for whatever occurs. Secondly, he seems to have a greater understanding of the psychological and physical repercussions of violence that Ritchie hasn’t yet demonstrated. Tarantino’s characters are both perpetrators and victims of violence, none of them are immune from the consequences of the worlds they inhabit. Take, for example, the scene where Marvin accidentally dies in Pulp Fiction. This is on the surface a glib moment. But it then develops into an examination of the hugely traumatic physical effects of being shot by showing us the aftermath and what it takes to clean up the mess. The perpetrator, Vincent Vega, is also eventually ignominiously killed. If you watch the seemingly nasty and cheap rape flashback in The Hateful Eight, you will notice that the rapist, played by Samuel L. Jackson, may well have made up the story; we witness him picking up details relevant to his tale in the moments leading up to where he uses it to goad a man into going for his gun. Like in Pulp Fiction, he is also a victim of an ironic fate by being shot in the balls and slowly bleeding to death in the final act of the movie.
These moments of depth and nuance do not often appear in Ritchie’s crime narratives. The violence is almost entirely played for laughs in a way that made me feel a little irritated, if not quite uncomfortable, by they way we are asked to side with the strong against the victims. I had the same reaction when watching his previous gangster film, Rocknrolla. Yet Snatch, which I love, succeeds because Turkish and Tommy show fear, are reluctant to get involved in physical confrontations, and spend most of the film trying to avoid significantly stronger, more aggressive, and more violent men. When the violence happens, it is often surreal, and the comedy comes from its absurdity and sense of shock.
I haven’t fully worked through how I feel about all of this, and I am certainly not convinced about any of my assessments or analysis. So, despite its flaws (or at least, what I saw as flaws) I am grateful to The Gentlemen for forcing me to confront my own reactions and possible hypocrisy around violence on screen.
In this episode I welcome media lecturer Will Hill back to the Newton Talks studio to discuss Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019). We analyse the latest film, the sequel trilogy more generally, and the franchise as a whole.
The latest (final?) sequel to First Blood arrived earlier this month to, at best, lukewarm reviews and mostly very strong criticism. Much of this criticism was because of its violence and what was interpreted as a reactionary world view on account of its depiction of Mexico as a hell hole under the control of drug cartels. The film is undoubtedly the cheapest looking, and to mind the worst and least enjoyable entry in the series. But it also has much charm in places, and I had a good time watching and am confident in saying I liked it (though this clearly tells you something about my tastes).
Rambo: Last Blood reminded me a lot of Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (J.Lee Thompson, 1987) and its follow up, Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (Allan A. Goldstein, 1994). In these sequels, Charles Bronson plays an ageing and untouchable hard man destroyer, far removed from the morally torn character of Paul Kersey from the original Death Wish. Likewise, Last Blood has moved way beyond the more complex study of American attitudes towards Vietnam and 1980s geo-politics of First Blood and its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part Two.
Last Blood is held back by a seeming lack of confidence in pushing its ideas through to their ultimate conclusions. The slow and still moments of calm before the storm aren’t really very slow or still, but instead very fleeting. The baroque violence, and the particularly inventive use of coloured lighting in the brothel scene, is also over before it gets a chance to have much of an impact. More time and space was needed to give some of the action more meaning and gravitas.
Also, Rambo shouldn’t speak so much. His character up to now has been quiet, reserved, and monosyllabic. But here he gives moral advice and emotional support to various characters, when he is far more effective as a character when struggling to communicate his feelings.
The film’s strengths are in its violent excesses, particularly the climax. This sequence set in the tunnels under Rambo’s ranch is brutal and fun, and builds beautifully into a crescendo when he blasts out Five to One by The Doors to distract the cartel members coming to attack. The use of The Doors is particularly apposite because of their association to 60s counter culture – often defined by its opposition to the Vietnam War, where, of course, Rambo’s skills, body, and damaged psyche were formed. (Their association to that war was also reinforced through their inclusion on the soundtrack to the opening of Apocalypse Now). For these reasons it is an inspired and confident choice of song, in a film generally lacking in such verve.
Overall, the main selling point of Rambo: Last Blood is in its old fashioned and unapologetic depiction of such a warlike and uncomplicated man. Unlike many modern action heroes, he is not a zen-like sage, who resorts to aggressive action only when all other options have been exhausted. Instead, violence, extremely bloody violence in this case, is John Rambo’s first response. And this stands out by how rare it is in contemporary mainstream action cinema.