In this micro-podcast, I talk about one of the definitive cult films of the 1980s, Alex Cox’s debut feature, Repo Man (1984). As well as being a filmmaker, Cox was also presenter of the BBC series Moviedrome, which has an important place in the perception of cult cinema. Listen to my podcast about one of the great anti-authoritarian films here;
A Commentary on Ray Carney’s “The Religion of Doing” (1994)
Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press, 1994), has recently helped me to crystallise some thoughts I have been pondering on film style, and my own positive or negative reactions to the aesthetic approaches of particular directors. It has also prompted a re-questioning of my own approach to making films. What follows is a commentary on “The Religion of Doing”, the concluding chapter of Carney’s book.
The following quotes lifted from the chapter from relate to Cassavetes’ body of work, but I think there are indicators and lessons that we can apply to a broader range of films and filmmakers whose styles are unconventional, messy, or even incoherent.
‘The American critical tradition is premised upon a conception of artistic expression entirely different from that to which he (Cassavetes) subscribed. Almost without exception, American film critics take for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of power, control, and understanding. In a word, their conception of artistic performance is virtuosic. They prize mastery, arrangement, and prowess. They assume that a work’s greatness is traceable to its ability to limit, shape and organize what the viewer sees, hears, knows, and feels in each shot’ (Carney 271).
Writing on cinema, from academics, critics, and fans, most often focuses on the ‘virtuosity’ of not only the director, but also the writer, and the cinematographer’s (and every other part of the crew) ability to ‘manipulate what the viewer knows and feels’ (272). Assessing a film and the performance of its creators is reduced to evaluating the extent of their ‘control and mastery’ (272). How does this standard method of gauging the effectiveness, or even brilliance, of a film extend to those directors who exhibit a lack of control within their own work, and whose style might be erratic, jarring, tonally inconsistent, and arrhythmic?
Some of my favourite filmmakers exhibit these latter tendencies. I am thinking of directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, or Doris Wishman or James Glickenhaus, as well as fairly middle of the road figures like John Hough, or lo-fi mumblecore filmmakers like Joe Swanberg or Kentucker Audley. Clearly, these directors are completely diverse stylistically and thematically. Why then, do they tend to resonate with me artistically far more than ‘Masters’ such as Hitchcock, Lang, Welles, Kubrick, or the Coens? Why have I placed them all together within the same sentence (which must be the first time in history they have been collected together)?
The answer for me is in the narrative, character, and visual ‘gaps’ their films contain, into which the viewer (me, in this case), can insert themselves and ponder the set of varying potential ‘meanings’. Their films are given ‘meaning’ by the viewer filling the gaps left by their looseness. This looseness is a result of both intentional creative choices taken by the director, as well as sometimes enforced by the logistical or financial constraints under which they are making their films. The cinematic Master, who maintains absolute perfect control over the creative direction of their movies, does not aim for textual gaps, in which interpretation of the image or moment can vary.
In relation to the Masters like Hitchcock, Lang, Sternberg, and Welles etc, Carney writes;
‘the virtuoso tradition is essentially a celebration of knowing. [Their] films create worlds in which everyone and everything of importance can be understood, and is understood. Characters are presented and scenes arranged in certain shorthand ways to facilitate understanding – to eliminate mysteries and uncertainties…the screenwriters, actors, crew, director, and the viewers all participate in a community of psychological, emotional, and intellectual knowing. A large part of the critical and commercial appeal of such works is precisely that they allow the viewer and reviewer to feel that they are part of this cult of complete and perfect knowledge. The central narrative project of these works involves moving from being “out’ to being “in”, from confusion to clarity, from doubt to certainty’ (272/273).
Cassavetes, Carney writes, was fundamentally opposed to this conception of both the process of creating movies, as well as their ‘function’ (273). For Cassavetes, the whole process and purpose was to ‘get lost’, and be ‘forced to break your old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency’ (273). Cassavetes cultivated this atmosphere both on set in how he made his movies, and on the screen in what ended up as the viewing experience.
The directors I admire are not necessarily attempting the same results as Cassavetes. Some, especially Glickenhaus or Hough, appear on the surface to be attempting to achieve some form of mastery and control over their pictures, given how they often replicated more critically successful commercial films. Their enforced financial constraints, and ensuing logistical difficulties helps to create the general atmosphere of incoherence in their finished works (I reject all accusations that they lack talent, by the way). Others, like Fulci and even Swanberg, achieve a level of control and mastery but for artistic different aims, and where narrative ‘looseness’ is the art.
Carney continues: ‘What is wrong with knowingness is that it removes us from the stimulating turmoil of experience. It separates the individual from the scrambling confusion of living because it figures a set of understandings worked out in advance of the event’ (273). Carney is probably accurate when he suggests that Masters such as Kubrick and Lynch ‘did their living and thinking, and when they reached a certain point of clarity and resolution they summarized it in their work. They used the filmmaking process to paint by numbers they had determined before they ever studied the dailies’ (276). Cassavetes, by contrast, used the process of making films as life, rather than about life.
There are a couple of things to say about this. Firstly, I am not certain it is possible to apply the same analysis to the filmmakers I have mentioned as being some of my favourites. Most of them were/are creating from a position of attempting to achieve a particular effect, even if that is something as loose and vague as improvising a character and narrative situation through an actor’s performance. Instead, I think Carney’s analysis here is useful for us as viewers of film. Rather than watching films to know, or to give over to the Master’s control of what we see, hear, and how we respond, we can watch to interact and to see viewing itself as an active participation that can have varying and unexpected results. This process, if undertaken properly, is a creative one, and involves the removal of intellectual consideration from the act of viewing in favour of instinctive feeling. (In Artists in the Audience, Greg Taylor explores some of these creative approaches to viewing far more deeply and considered than I am attempting here).
Secondly, my approach to making films aligns with that of Cassavetes (by coincidence only – I would not call myself a fan of Cassavetes, if only because I am unfamiliar with a lot of his work). Rarely do I enter into a project with well defined narrative aims. The key to making this a successful creative method is to be more open and accepting about the process and to do so with greater intention. I need to be willing to work within the uncertainty of the process, and to work to drop all anxiety about its effectiveness or to concern myself too much with the final product or results. Too often in the past I have undertaken a project with the aim of achieving a particular effect or end product, but also with a vague but active, organic, and open minded investigative and responsive approach. I am unsure how successful the results have been in these cases where I have combined methods. They have been useful as an exercise, but less so as a finished film. This last sentence itself may be evidence of too much anxiety about process.
(I realise that I am talking to myself here, and that this last paragraph might not be of use/interest to anyone else).
Carney writes that ‘the Faustian filmmaker sets out to display an intellectual and emotional mastery of experience, to follow a plan of action, to bend experiences to make a series of predetermined “points” ’ (280). For Cassavetes, however, ‘there is only exploring and moving on, with no end to the process of experiencing, and no goal to reach’ (280). The finished film was not important, and what mattered was the experience of production, with the finished film ‘examples of the experiences themselves’ (280).
This is a programme of action to bring to the viewing of films that deviate from total creative mastery, and a way of engaging with movies that do not fit traditionally recognised patterns of artistic ‘quality’. And for me if no one else, it is a method and ethos I should become more comfortable with when making films of my own.
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;
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.
Bait appears to have attracted nothing but reviews full of superlatives due to its timely themes of gentrification (about the economic threat to fishermen in a Cornish coastal village thanks to the influx of the urban middle-classes), and its form (shot on 16mm with a clockwork Bolex, hand processed, and with a soundtrack fully built during post-production).
It is certainly a striking piece of work. The cinematography, combined with the other worldly soundtrack – including the voices and sounds, as well as music – is folksy and feels timeless. It brings to mind, among other films, Kevin Brownlow’s Winstanley (1975). I also thought of Requiem for a Village (David Gladwell, 1975). Had it been released a few years ago, clips from Bait could well have formed a part of the kaleidoscopic Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright’s documentary that uses an extraordinary array of archive footage as an ode to Britain’s connection to its landscape and suppressed anarchistic history (in which clips from Winstanley and Requiem for a Village feature).
The black and white, 16mm footage occasionally has a flickering, strobe like effect. The cracks, crackles, grain, and the odd hair are all particularly visible when blown up onto a big screen. It is wonderful to see the form so overtly in an age where the means of production are typically hidden and anathema to modern cinema. It makes the film look as if it has aged, and makes for perennial images that contrast beautifully with the contemporary and relevant story. The film looks like an enduring artefact, mirroring the architecture of the village and its way of life. But, like the community it depicts, it has its own life which the modern cannot, or should not, interfere with.
The editing, which utilises flash forwards, and the soundtrack of rolling waves, droning sounds, and loud dubbing of spot effects and dialogue, combines with the cinematography to form a hypnotic and hallucinatory effect. Jenkin shoots the film with mainly close ups and mid shots – waves, knots, fish, and fisherman’s boots seem to dominate. This creates a rhythm to the movie, rather than just a straight retelling of a story.
The middle classes, announced via a close up sequence of them filling their fridge with champagne and brie, are portrayed as clueless, chinless, and believing in their own inherent goodness. They don’t think they are helping to destroy the village, but instead consider themselves as part of the community, whose contribution through their tourism and holiday homes is instead supporting its continued existence. The struggle of the fishermen, some of whom have had to turn to cab driving or running tourist trips, is never romanticised as part of the contrast to the middle classes we are shown. But there is a definite commentary threaded throughout that reminds us that gentrification and tourism can take as much away from a community as it brings.
Like 2017’s Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo), it is another British film that takes a very low key, small story, and makes it cinematic through the use of such a dynamic form.
As a person who is also a filmmaker, for me Bait is an excellent and humblingly confident film.
Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.
It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.
The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.
One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.
Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example). The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.
With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.
Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.
The latest version of the Robin Hood folklore story has been met by mostly poor reviews from critics. One of my film fan Twitter followers has claimed it has prompted her first ever cinema walk-out. The Telegraph reported on the 26th November that it is 2018’s largest box office bomb – the biggest flop, in fact, since Guy Ritchie’s similarly maligned King Arthur.
The comparisons to Ritchie’s movie are also relevant because Robin Hood takes a similar stylistic approach – CGI heavy, grungy, and a clear attempt to make the iconic hero ‘cool’ again. At times, the design approaches the steampunk aesthetic – as characters wear anachronistic clothing and work in what appear to be industrial revolution era factories. Nottingham itself is rendered as a sprawling, industrial metropolis, with high rise buildings, slums, and narrow streets.
It is this approach that struggles to convince, and stops the film succeeding. English medieval countryside and towns do not have to be enhanced and made modern to look fantastic on screen. In doing so, the film only sabotages its setting, one of its main potential selling points. The look is dark and artificial with little deviation in the brown and charcoal colour scheme – sometimes striking, but mostly preventing us from enjoying one of the exciting elements of the original story (stories) – its medieval locale. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with costumes that reflect the period, rather than the standard and predictable Nazi-esque clobber of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his soldiers.
Ironically, the most obvious attempt at modernisation also results in the film’s most effective scene. Robin is drafted to fight in one of the crusades, and Bathurst recreates a War on Terror style troops under fire action sequence, clearly reminiscent of news footage and documentaries following soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, for the only time in the film, the action is hard and spectacular, and effectively defines the character traits of three of the central figures in the story. It is the definite highlight. But the overall seriousness of it all undermines the other attractive element of the Robin Hood story – the tone of ‘derring do’. This tone is almost entirely missing.
The cast however, is terrific. Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, and Paul Anderson, are usually superb performers when working with the right material, and they struggle manfully with what they are given here. The film tries hard to be fun, politically relevant, and up to date – but doesn’t succeed in any of these endeavours. The best cinematic Robin Hood remains the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn, and the Robin of Sherwood 1980s TV series starring Michael Praed could possibly the strongest and most interesting version of them all.