New short film – watch here What’s Behind The Door?
New short film – ABBLE/CABBLE/BABBLE/WABBLE
Hello everyone, here is a new short film called ABBLE/CABBLE/BABBLE/WABBLE.
You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gy00TDmWNpY
Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins (2021) review.
Rise of the Footsoldier (2007) is, to my judgement, one of the best of the numerous twentieth century British crime films. Not least, because it goes through a number of narrative shifts, starting as a biopic of former football hooligan Carlton Leach (played by the excellent Ricci Harnett), and ending up as a re-enactment of the infamous Rettendon Murders, where three drug dealers were found shot to death in a Land Rover in Essex in 1995. This incident, and the criminal activities of the murdered men, Pat Tate, Tony Tucker, and Craig Rolfe, have formed the basis for an astonishing number of low budget British gangster films. No fewer than eleven movies have been inspired by the murders and what led to them (outside of war, has there been a single historical incident that has spawned so many individual films?). Furthermore, these eleven titles can be divided into three separate franchises; Rise of the Footsoldier and its four sequels; Bonded by Blood 1 (2010) and 2 (2017); and The Fall of the Essex Boys and its sequels, Essex Boys: Retribution (2013) and Law of Survival (2015). Alongside these is a standalone version of the events, Essex Boys from 2000. These films also feature cross pollination of cast and crew, with actors migrating between each series and playing alternate characters (most notably Billy Murray, Larry Lamb, Neil Maskell, Terry Stone, and Kierston Wareing).
Despite three of the main characters being dead by the end of the first film, the Rise of the Footsoldier series has managed to find creative ways to broaden out the story (into almost entirely fictional areas with scant links to actuality). The first sequel, Part II: Reign of the General (2015) continues Leach’s story after the death of his associates, is directed by Harnett himself and contains some genuine visual flair including an impressive Steadicam shot from the backstairs of a nightclub, into the dancefloor, and out to the front door in an uninterrupted take. Part three (2017), The Pat Tate story, is a prequel centring the character played by Craig Fairbrass, Marbella (2019) takes the cast to Spain for a heist story, and now Origins (2021) functions as the Tony Tucker story, and shows how the gang first became embroiled in running nightclub doors and dealing ecstasy.
Origins begins with a montage of newsreel from the Falklands War, and then segues into a short scene of a young Tucker returning from seeing active service in the conflict and smuggling home a pistol. The film fails to build upon this segment, but it works to establish Tucker as both troubled and sympathetic, and is quickly followed by a scene that shows him fully matured (played for the fifth time by Terry Stone, who also produces) and helping a man who has been assaulted outside a club. Since we know what the overall arc of the story will be, and that even if Origins will not show us his final demise we know it ultimately ends badly if we have seen the preceding movies, then this section positions it as a downfall story of a man who once had promise (a military career and an aversion to bullying) into a spiral of violence and addiction.
Indeed, it certainly helps if you have seen the films leading up to this, because the early scenes pass by in fragmentary fashion, and characters get established and dropped very quickly. For example, the audience is not told of the significance of the appearance of British boxer Nigel Benn, played here by his real-life son Conor, and it may seem needless if you are unaware that Tucker once ran the former world champion’s security (which was dealt with in Marbella, where Conor Benn also performs as his father).
This review isn’t going to be a full rundown of the plot and the making of the film, and instead I want to focus on two of its standout elements. Firstly, Origins has a far grimier aesthetic than previous entries in the series, particularly in comparison to its Spanish set predecessor, with much of it being dimly lit. The scenes of bustling Essex nightlife are kept brief and the action feels smaller scale (though there are a couple of explosions, plus a short Sierra versus Peugeot car chase). One feature of this lack of colour and scale is the predominance of close ups that make up the majority of shots. I cannot think of a British gangster movie of this type (low budget, post-2000) that features such a reliance on the close up, something that really stood out whilst watching on the cinema screen. I believe Origins was crowd funded, and so the close ups could be a symptom of a limited budget (pure speculation on my part), or possibly director Nick Nevern is a fan of Carl Theodore Dryer, or he just took advantage of the fact that his cast have an array of quite sensational faces.
The use of close ups has the effect of emphasising the performances of the actors over the spectacle of Southend club life or the violence. The cast, particularly the main trio of Stone, Fairbrass, and Roland Manookian as Rolfe, are now in early to late middle age, and while they are playing much younger men, age gives their faces a viscerally masculine look, with lots of lines, scars, and bags under eyes, all again emphasised by the director’s use of close ups. Vinnie Jones, who here plays the real-life former bouncer Bernard O’Mahoney, who knew the deceased and has written books on the murders, now has a face that looks like the side of a mountain and it is used to great effect. This gives him a genuine gravitas missing from some of his more recent roles.
The ‘look’ of these actors underlines the quality of their performances. The cast, even down to the minor roles, are uniformly excellent, but it is the performances of the central characters that really impress. Jones is very subtle as a character that maintains a wisdom and life experience that contrasts with the wildness of the series regulars. Manookian seems to specialise in playing the incredibly snide and unlikeable, and does so very well again here. Because of the nature of the downfall narrative, Stone has to put in a slightly goofier than normal performance, and has to evoke some initial sense of innocence, not easy when playing someone as fundamentally unsympathetic as Tucker, but which he manages to do effectively. The standout performance however, is Fairbrass as Pat Tate. His is the most unredeemable of the three, and Fairbrass somehow manages to imbue a little bit of helplessness in what is an exceedingly violent role (anyone who remembers him as Dan Sullivan in EastEnders will know of Fairbrass’ capacity for both menace and vulnerability, as well as his considerable screen presence). I have absolutely no anxiety whatsoever about declaring him to be brilliant here. The moment where he first encounters Vinnie Jones and they indulge in a brief scrap (again shot in close up), is a terrific piece of intelligent and restrained acting – mumbled dialogue from both actors followed by a sly and unexpected headbutt – that feels as dangerous and ‘live’ as anything in a Shane Meadows film, or even in any of Joe Pesci’s explosive moments from his work with Scorsese. It is a very minor and short scene in the film, but the most striking moment for me.
One feature of all of the Footsoldier films that I especially like is that the cast, despite delivering an enormous amount of onscreen violence and verbal abuse, are never afraid to include moments where they are humbled or made to look silly or ridiculous. This might come in moments where they are put down or insulted by women, or where they are shown to be terrified, or even beg for their lives. If there is one moral at the heart of the Rise of the Footsoldier series, it is that there is always a bigger fish. In Origins, there are moments where Stone, Manookian, Jones, and Fairbrass are all put in their place at one time or another, which provides us with an important counterpoint to the brutality they dish out, as well as to deflect any suggestion that they are glamorising the men’s crimes.
Indeed, the ultimate end point to all of these films is three dead men in a Land Rover, and Origins (as does its predecessors) continually reminds us of the portentous conclusion awaiting its main characters, and that no matter what we see them doing on screen, they are ultimately not going to get away with it.
It is rare for British films to generate as many sequels, and the fact Footsoldier has done so is highly encouraging for the state of low-budget genre/exploitation cinema in this country. While it is difficult to see how this particular story can be mined any further, I certainly hope that if there is not another sequel that the cast and crew can reunite and find some way to continue to demonstrate their talents.
Newton Talks #19 The Asylum in Cinema, with Dr Jennifer Wallis
In this episode, historian of medicine and psychiatry Dr Jennifer Wallis joins me to discuss the relationship between the Victorian asylum and cinema, particularly the representation of the asylum in the horror film. We discuss 70s Amicus productions, Session 9 (2001), the reality of asylum life, and how cinema was used as entertainment in the West Riding Asylum in the 1920s. Jennifer is author of Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum Doctors, Patients, and Practices (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and has also contributed chapters on film to the Headpress publications Are you in the House Alone? (ed. Amanda Reyes), and Offbeat (ed. Julian Upton).
Listen here https://audioboom.com/posts/7892825-newton-talks-19-the-asylum-in-cinema-with-dr-jennifer-wallis
Newton Talks #18 No Budget Filmmaking in the Midlands, with director Tom Lee Rutter.
In this latest episode of Newton Talks I talk to Tom Lee Rutter, director of Day of the Stranger, the folk horror Bella in the Wych Elm, and the forthcoming ‘almanac’ The Pocket Film of Superstitions. We discuss no budget and guerrilla filmmaking, what it’s like to make films in the Midlands and the Black Country, and Tom’s own approach to making creative horror features.
You can listen here; https://audioboom.com/posts/7883583-newton-talks-18-no-budget-filmmaking-in-the-midlands-with-director-tom-lee-rutter
Newton Talks Cult Film Microcast #7 Repo Man
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;
Newton Talks #14 Britain and The Video Rental Boom, with Dr Johnny Walker
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.
Listen here: https://audioboom.com/posts/7717523-newton-talks-14-britain-and-the-video-rental-boom-with-dr-johnny-walker
New film – Black Lizard Tales
Black Lizard Tales is a horror feature I have recently completed and am now in the process of sending to festivals and promoting. Below are some initial poster designs.
A Commentary on Ray Carney’s “The Religion of Doing” (1994)
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 ‘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.
Newton Talks #12: The American TV movie with Amanda Reyes
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