Double Bill: Quatermass and the Pit (1967 – Roy Ward Baker) + Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

There’s a powerful idea of personal mythology that runs through my appetite for pop culture.  There are some movies and television shows that are engrained into my mind.  Cut me open, and I will bleed them.  Our vicarious thrill of horror movies – the desire to experience the terror of experiences that would traumatise us in the real world within the ‘safe’ setting of the cinema – seems burned into us from an early age.  It becomes an addiction; a thrill we hunger for again and again.

Nigel Kneale seems to have been the fix John Carpenter craved.  There was a constant thread of creeping dread that ran through his work that is reminiscent of Kneale’s own occupations.  Prince of Darkness seems to be the fulfilment of this obsession, such is its thematic bonds it shares with the adventures of Kneale’s most successful creation – Professor Bernard Quatermass.  Carpenter underlined this by naming one of his characters after that eponymous hero.  For whatever reason – and it’s quite likely that Kneale was still sulking after the Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982 – Tommy Lee Wallace) fiasco (Kneale was always a petulant artist) – it was a tribute rejected by the British writer.  But the horrible repercussions for humanity for meddling with an outside force (perhaps ‘demonic’) that has interfered in human evolution, and an exploration of the intertwined spheres of science and superstition, seem integral to both auteurs.

(Kneale himself had blended scientific enquiry with phantasmagoria in his acclaimed television play The Stone Tape (1972 – Peter Sasdy).  Whilst it is a masterpiece within its own form and builds to an eerily unpleasant ending, it never quite manages to escape the boundaries of seventies British television, all three-walled sets, multi camera set-ups and primitive video special effects.  It’s haunting in its own right, and powerfully evocative of the creepy British horror of M. R. James and old Doctor Who, but inherently anti-cinematic.  Which is not an implicit criticism – I preferred television when it was a distinct art-form in itself, rather than the indifferently filmed medium we endure nowadays.)

Despite the two films attempting to reconcile the separate spheres of faith and reason, they both admit the absolute existence of evil.  Now, whilst a rational explanation for its existence is presented (even if it is a hobgoblin from Mars), little consideration of the consequences of its existence are dealt with.  Modern aggressive rationalism (often as blind as faith can be) denies a reality of evil in the world, largely because operates from a westernised, privileged perspective.  Curiously, as we move further down the path of all-encompassing individualism, we often deny our responsibility for cruelty and ignorance, choosing to attribute it to social or personal dynamics beyond our control.  The existence of a real ‘demonic’ force could be seen to be the pinnacle of that instinct – an evil beyond our control.  In the worlds presented on the screen, we would be able to neglect any culpability in a malicious act.  Does that matter?  Emotionally, would a rational explanation for an evil act affect how we would respond to such cruelty?  Or would we feel the same?  It’s tempting to suggest that both universes would see an eventual dominance of faith-based belief systems, given the confidence with which they assert that good has ultimate dominion over bad.

(Despite my best efforts at rationality I remain convinced that ‘evil’ remains a useful word to use when discussing the world.  Too many children have been exposed to a darkness that causes them to lose a little of themselves.  Equally, our wilful neglect of animals – creatures, just like us that experience distress and agony – in order to satisfy our greed and ceaseless appetites, seems a distinctly evil act.)

There’s a generational shift between the two films.  Quatermass and the Pit is very much based on a wartime experience, whereas Prince of Darkness populates its cast with members of the successive generation.  These are the children who rejected the sacrifices of their parents in order to indulge in a more material world.  John Carpenter was firmly in this generation, though he (and amongst his contemporaries only George Romero shared in his convictions) was a genuine progressive.  His consistent approach to colourblind casting set him apart from, well let’s be honest, most of the filmmaking community till the present day.  Whilst Kneale was less able to present a varied range of experiences on screen, his consistently showed women to be the most industrious and imaginative members of his cast; women who often achieved this, despite the difficulties they faced in the workplace.  There is an empathy to both men’s writing that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Watching Quatermass and the Pit is a more unnerving experience that watching the television serial upon which it is based.  Ultimately, the most chilling aspect of the cinema is the walk home at the end of the night.  In the shadows alongside the pavement, our minds cast fantasies that expand and enhance the myths we just saw on the screen.  It is the ability to scare ourselves through our own imaginations that demonstrates the utter effectiveness of storytelling.  Whilst John Carpenter wrote his script as a thematic exploration of Kneale’s concerns, it has always occurred to me that Prince of Darkness is in many ways a retread of his earlier work, The Fog (1980).  Both feature a large cast being threatened by a malevolent force that has been awakened in a traditional sanctuary.  However, Prince of Darkness has always been a more effective film in that it placed its plot in a single confined location, rather than the sprawling townscape of the earlier film (and it is to Carpenter’s great credit that he manages to balance narrative strands and define each member of his extensive cast within their placement in the building.)

For both films end with an act of hopelessness.  Like all discoveries, from the atom bomb to the death of god, the reality of the malicious force is something we can’t unlearn.  Its ultimate dominance of mankind is inevitable.  They speak to humankind’s enormous appetite for destruction.  Whilst Quatermass and the Pit seems initially to dwell within a more hopeful sixties, such was its vision of a successful space faring species, it seems to anticipate a more achievable reality.  That we, as species, are ultimately destined to destroy ourselves.  Either through our waste of the Earth’s natural resources, or the creation of our own redundancy through building a superior artificial intelligence, the reality appears to be that we as a species will never escape the confines of this planet.  Both films end with a defeat of the immediate threat, but accept that it is only a temporary respite.  Similarly, our destruction seems mutually assured.  Our complacency in the face of such certainty, speaks to our capacity for evil.

Double Bill: Personal Shopper (2016 – Olivier Assayas) + The Innocents (1961 – Jack Clayton)

I live with a ghost.  I mean, I don’t.  I’m fairly certain ghosts don’t exist.  But lights come on from time to time.  Cupboards open.  Blinds fall down.  A pair of scissors have gone missing.  It’s a fairly small, fairly sparse flat.  No one really comes over.  These things are true.  What possible explanation could there be for what is happening?

A few years ago, I woke up and saw a man sitting at the foot of my bed.  He was real.  And I was terrified.  But in the middle of the night, my brain kicked in.  I couldn’t move, not from fear, but because my body was naturally paralysed to prevent me from acting out my dreams (which generally consist of slightly more anxious versions of my real life – I have no real subconscious to speak of).  I saw a man because humans have a tendency to see images where there aren’t any – clouds that look like animals, lines and dots become faces.  And in the half-light, I realised that it was nothing.  And I congratulated myself, the clever little rationalist that I was and how I was able to explain away something that has fooled so many other people.

We all live with ghosts.  Ex-boyfriends, forgotten friends, dead parents haunt our every waking moment.  They are evoked in a familiar perfume worn by a passing stranger.  They are next to us when a certain song comes on the radio.  They come alive in our dreams.  I return again and again to the idea that cinema is the closest thing we have to memory – fragmented, simultaneously real and surreal, edited and highly rewritten.  It is the best thing we have to capture the experience of living with these ghosts.  That’s why at its most facile, it constantly returns to the trauma of dead wives and girlfriends; it seeks to capture the experience of attempting to get over an absence that once was filled.

Some films haunt you like those people.  They follow you around in the weeks after you’ve seen them.  They occupy your waking moments and dwell deep within your consciousness.  They become the ways in which we relate to the world.  They become part of our language of self-identification, part of our cultural mythology that imprints upon our personality.  We see them, in our minds when no one else can.

Both Personal Shopper and The Innocents have an interesting relationship with ghosts.  Whilst both films deal in a degree of magical realism – ghosts are real, they move through rooms and have a level of intrusion upon the material world – they somehow simultaneously introduce a level of doubt into the existence of the poltergeists.  It is possible to read both films from a rational perspective; the ‘hauntings’ are a product of Stewart and Kerr’s respective imaginations.  For us, the audience, it causes a deep level of engagement with the movie – it is impossible to be a passive observer.  We have to ask the question, is the camera subjective or objective?  Tellingly, the most direct manifestations of the phantoms are observed through windows; there is an additional invisible barrier between them and our lead characters, in much the same way that some barrier exists between them and us, the audience.  We are removed from their presence; we see only what we are allowed to see, and that is only in conditions in which there can be no rational explanations for the paranormal behaviours in the movies.  After all, we know no cat knocked over the glass in the kitchen.

(In both films there is an explicit intrusion of the phantasmagoria upon the real world – the aforementioned glass and scratches in Personal Shopper, and the tear drops in the classroom in The Innocents.  These manifestations appear to be an explicit admission that the ghost are ‘real’ – their presence cannot be explained away as hysteria.)

Traditionally, ghosts have been depicted as manifesting during periods of sexual unrest.  Puberty was seen as an anchor for the immaterial world.  Both Kerr and Stewart are coping with a level of sexual frustration in the films.  For Kerr, her vicar’s daughter character is deeply sexually repressed and subsequently inexperienced.  Her acceptance of the governess job stems from a silly crush on the uncle (a clearly vile man) who employs her (a fact that is made more explicit in the source material of The Turn of the Screw) and she reacts to the stories of her predecessor’s relationship with Quint (a relationship which is deliberately sadomasochistic) with a prudish mix of revulsion and fascination.  (Paul Schrader has made a career out of exploring this tension, largely found within himself.)

Stewart has a more complex sexuality in her performance.  She flirts with at least the imagery of bondage, and her sexual fantasies seem to stem from the appropriation of other’s lives and belongings – largely due to the illicit nature of these acts.  A clear manifestation of a spirit comes after her act of masturbation.  Stewart is becoming one of the great queer performers of cinema.  Whilst men are present within her world, they are directly presented as distant, unfulfilling and dangerous (properly dangerous, not teasingly dangerous).  She is capable of acting with her naked body in a completely non-sexualised way – a not insignificant feat – and her sex, seems largely an act of onanism.  Both Kerr and Stewart are operating in their films within the world of women; the male intrusion into these worlds does not end in any sense of fulfilment.

Clearly Stewart (and less so Kerr) are surviving as traumatised individuals.  It is effecting both their grips on reality (of which the ghosts may be a metaphorical representation).  For Stewart, this may explain why she is so reciprocative to the clearly dangerous texts she is receiving.  For Kerr, this may prove to be an explanation for her descent into the indecent assault at the end of the film.  After all, abuse is a learnt behaviour.

In Personal Shopper, Assayas uses fairly violent fades to black to signify the passing of time.  Clayton uses montage in his scene transitions, opening the world of Sheffield Park to us – a world that is teeming with wildlife.  The soundtrack is alive with buzzing and flapping and hissing, and this, combined with the imagery of beetles clambering out of cherubs, peculiarly removes us from the natural world and into something far more horrific.  Both directors were seeking to rise above the oppressive cinematic landscapes they were operating within.  Assayas has almost made a career of employing elements of genre onto more traditional French Arthouse, and Clayton sought to imbibe the traditional (and highly restrictive) British Costume Drama with a sense of the Southern Gothic.  They were both directors producing work that is a direct act of criticism; Personal Shopper is in several places a meditation on the act of watching films, and The Innocents works as interpretation of literary criticism (though Christopher Frayling has determined that the film is a closer version of a stage adaption of The Turn of the Screw, rather than the source novel.)  They are both wilfully hard films to categorise and define.

Quint is described as having ‘the devil’s own eye,’ in The Innocents.  Is that how we watch movies?  Are we taking pleasure from seeing the darkest explorations of human existence?  Are we revelling in trauma and abuse and the emotional degradation of our protagonists?  Do we enjoy the suffering of others a little too much?  Perhaps all these ghosts are there to remind us that we will carry these sufferings with us.  Perhaps they will anchor us to the material world…

Stewart

Double Bill: Solaris (2002 – Steven Soderbergh) and Haywire (2012 – Steven Soderbergh)

There’s something about large filmographies that forces filmmakers to become cover bands.  The rush to provide new material once (or twice) a year forces the director to continually make their version of a ‘type’ of film.  Writers become less and less important.  Directors like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott used to have identifiable movies; their fingerprints smothered the work they built up from the ground.  Now, whilst masters of the form, their work moves further into solid genre exercises.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but that little ‘magic’ that used to make them spectacular has gone.  No one else could have made Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); anyone could have made Bridge of Spies (2015).

Both Spielberg and Scott reached points in their careers where they deliberately and significantly increased the rate of their output (this occurred in 1981 for the former and 2000 for the latter).  It’s almost as if they realised that their body of work would be of a Kubrickian magnitude unless they increased their workload.  Nowadays, their professionalism and efficiency mark them as extraordinary blockbuster directors; a remarkable feat given their ages.

Steven Soderbergh came to a similar realisation at one point in his career, though some of his reasoning differed.  Soderbergh became enraptured with the idea of inventiveness –  that the trap of every new feature being an exercise in form, genre and storytelling becoming a deliberate strength, rather than necessity.  He also had fallen out with the idea of being a writer; his kind-of-diary book ‘Getting Away with It: Or – Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard you Ever Saw’ details his immense frustration with writing and creating.  After the palate-cleanser of Schizopolis (1996), Soderbergh never wrote a script again.

(Interestingly, he developed his exploration of editing as true authorship of a movie instead; not only in his own work – under the pseudonymous Mary Ann Bernard – but also in his cuts of other people’s movies.  See his released edit of Keane (2004 – Lodge Kerrigan) and his bootleg cut ‘Psychos’ (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock/1998 – Gus Van Sant), ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut’ (1980 – Michael Cimino) and the speechless, black and white edit of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981 – Steven Spielberg))

After this period, his work superficially moves closer to the cover versions.  For example:

  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is his classical, beautiful big-budget entertainment
  • The Good German (2006) is his post war film noir
  • Side Effects (2013) is his Adrian Lyne style erotic thriller

And Solaris is his sci-fi thriller and Haywire, his James Bond action flick.  There’s no denigration in calling these genre exercises; they are the work of an artist desperate to stimulate himself.  There’s an easy tendency to praise the body of work as a whole over the worth of individual pictures, but dig into the filmography and there’s so much pleasure to be found.

There’s a profound difference between the two movies in the use of their lead actors.  Solaris is a film clearly sold on the premise that George Clooney is more appealing to watch than any CGI space station.  The film is in love with his face.  It stares out into the audience as we project upon it our desires and hopes.  Haywire treats its star as far more disposable… in all likelihood because Gina Carano is no star.  But curiously, and given the sleaze (particularly against women) that promulgates spy films, Carano’s body is rarely objectified, instead it is crushed and splintered and smothered in greasepaint.  Whereas Clooney’s arse is repeatedly shown on screen.  For Carano’s character, sex is an unintimate act; it is professional and necessary and completely impersonal.  Contrastingly, Clooney is explicitly dripping with desire, and the narrative depends on his lust for a creature who both is and isn’t his wife.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter to him, such is his desire to taste his forgotten spouse.

 

As he extended his career, Soderbergh became more and more concerned with the representation of memory on screen.  He is obsessed with depicting how the art of editing is the closest thing we have to describing the enormous complexity of our minds.  Heavily influenced by the work of Nic Roeg, and in particular Don’t Look Now (1973), his films became more and more non-linear; at times this was playful, at other necessary and at others yet, superfluous.  He employed dislocated sounds and images that contrasted with each other, extended flashbacks and highly colour-co-ordinated scenes to demonstrate the muddle of moments that can pop up within our heads.  One of the more powerful moments in Solaris comes from the lingering looks Clooney and McElhone give each other in a lift; it underlines how we are all capable of transposing entire hopes onto the microgestures of others, and how we replay these moments again and again in our minds.

Both films depict intrusions into space.  In Haywire this is the violence that breaks out in nominally safe places (such as houses and hotel rooms) and explosions that end the foreplay of whispered conversations in coffee shops.  There is a sense of restlessness, where movement is necessary in order to survive.  Solaris is more static, but delves deeper into the disruption that communities experience once an outsider violates their established sanctuary.  The professionals upon the space station have built a functioning coterie, regardless of the strangeness of their experiences.  Clooney brings on board chaos; he is the smoking gun, the smashed window.  He is the trauma that the other characters will never recover from.

Despite their wildly varying settings of location and time period, both films are economical in their establishment of a sense of space.  Haywire depends upon a refined use of real-life locations, all corner-shops and decaying factories.  With its futuristic setting, the expectancy would be that Solaris has a more manufactured arena in which it operates, which is of course true for the atmospheric space station scenes, but the essential moments on Earth use the Alphaville (1965 – Jean-Luc Godard) method of depicting the future by reframing and repurposing it through the present.  Cinematic visions of the future too often feature overwhelming production design, whereby entire settings are built in a single time periodThe reality of existence, as any wander through a metropolis reveals, is that the past sits right up aside the present, and Solaris accurately and vividly represents this.  Similarly, Haywire moves from the backstreets of Barcelona and Dublin to an ultra-modernist home in New Mexico, once she can no longer evade the full force of government and institution.

There is a tension in the air in both films; the seduction of violence in Haywire is sticky and sweet.  What would ordinarily be meet/cutes become scenes wet with anticipation, end in the eruption of physical damage.  Whilst the violence in less obvious in Solaris, it is just a present.  Death is inflicted upon the simulacra, in a way that totally is at odds with the willingness to seduce it.  It is easy to both fuck and murder someone if you don’t value them in any way.  As a result, both Clooney and Carano suffer from extreme myopia, whereby they view the others around them as things, and largely obstacles in their way.  Her dominance of others is evident in her strangling of men using her crotch; the female genitalia, usually hidden and abused, becomes supreme.  It is undeniable.  As such, we see her prove herself again and again, and maintain a dignity that directly contrasts against the insufferable sliminess of the men in her film.

Both films depict the fragility of loyalty.  Soderbergh was always concerned with political expediency, but this only became pronounced after his experience of Che (2008), where his experience of art and political discipline was met with indifference.  His latter period feature individuals who have a determined moral code operating in the face of utter shallow callousness.  A lesser man would refer to these as avatars.  Haywire is particularly pronounced in its depiction of an individual who is better than everyone around her, but has nowhere to go.  It’s as if that mastery of direction, cinematography and editing led nowhere.  It’s as if pioneering the new medium of digital cinema turned out to be dismissed by many around you.  As if the working across all those genres proved futile.

Double Bill: Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin) and Interior. Leather Bar (2013 – James Franco & Travis Matthews)

Cruising

“No human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.” Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter

 

I’ve had a number of those awkward conversations with friends recently where they tell me what is going on inside my own head.  I’m going to have a few more of those conversations over the remainder of the summer.  I’ve appeased them by agreeing with them, but I think on every occasion we’ve both known we don’t really understand each other.  Sometimes we’re barely speaking the same language.  There are parts of our lives that we don’t/can’t share with others.  Dark feelings and thoughts.  Painful memories.  Regrets.  Shame.  You can be married to someone for 45 years and see your partner as a stranger.

Continue reading “Double Bill: Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin) and Interior. Leather Bar (2013 – James Franco & Travis Matthews)”

Double Bill: Marnie (1964 – Alfred Hitchcock) & The Soft Skin (1964 – François Truffaut)

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In a few weeks time, Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut will be released.  It’s based on the cineaste bible that I have dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.  So I’m pleased, because now there’s a movie and I never have to bother!  Now I can appropriate David Fincher’s opinions and pass them off as my own.

Though on reflection of Fincher’s deep hatred of humanity…

Continue reading “Double Bill: Marnie (1964 – Alfred Hitchcock) & The Soft Skin (1964 – François Truffaut)”