Avatar (2009 – James Cameron) [Extended Collector’s Edition]

‘Upon the foundation of an entirely invented biosystem, Avatar is a brilliant synthesis of mythic tropes, with debts to Lévi-Strauss and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. It soars because, simply, it stones and transports you.’

  • Michael Mann in his entry for the 2012 Sight & Sound greatest films of all time poll.

 

And that should be enough for most people.  But the intervening years has seen Avatar’s reputation trampled and dismissed.   There’s no appetite or enthusiasm for the inevitable upcoming sequels.  We’ve forgotten the thrill that we all experienced back in December 2009, when for one of few times in our lives, we went to the cinema and saw something we had never seen before.  I think that denial is on us; perhaps we’re suffering from some collective shame at the realisation that we didn’t learn the lessons of Avatar.  We were presented with a vision of cinema where its vast resources and capabilities were given to an artist in order to create a movie of enormous creativity and imagination.  And we rejected this, and its place we got a cinematic landscape dominated by Benedict Cumberbatch playing Doctor Strange.  We can’t deal with this, we’re ashamed by it, and thus we turn on Avatar and write it off as some simplistic, moralising Pocahontas paradigm.

Because, aside from the unique visual pleasures of the movie (and these are plentiful – Cameron’s distinct use of colour is extraordinary in and of itself) Avatar is vital because it presents one of the most profound pieces of progressive art in mainstream cinema.  It is a contemplation on the need for ecological responsibility.  An unsubtle polemic for veganism.  And a profound riposte to the violence and horror of the action movie genre.

The final point is of course essential, given Cameron’s stature within this field.  But it is hard to read Avatar as anything other than a response to the wanton collateral damage that dominates the genre.  Aliens (1986) is a masterpiece; but the destruction issued within it is specific and not universal.  The film was no advertisement for the necessity of utterly annihilating a hostile force.  It is no coincidence that at the film’s conclusion Colonel Quaritch – a space marine, no less – is placed within a mecha-suit similar to the one used at the conclusion of Aliens.  His subsequent destruction repurposes that act.  For in that film, Ripley was facing a specific horror – the desperate, unfeeling black mass of the xenomorph.  It is a horror that is utterly inhuman.  It has no pity or remorse or compassion, and Ripley’s turn to violence (she is largely pacifistic in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)) is a necessity to protect an innocent.

But Hollywood did not recognise this, and made their heroes irresponsible mass-murderers.  Avatar seeks to bring responsibility to the genre, by repurposing the lessons of Ripley.  It is essential to note that Sigourney Weaver repudiates any use of a mecha-suit in this film (in itself, a crude mechanical ‘avatar’) and instead transposes herself onto an alien lifeform – a superior ‘alternative’ body to the one used by the military.

In as much as this film is a response to violence of the action genre, Avatar also positions itself as a counter-point to the repressive masculinity that dominates the form.  Cameron has an essential history of positioning the central characters of his movies as strong women with agency and capability, and Avatar is no exception, despite its rather bland male lead (though Worthington is affecting in his portrayal of a man unable to atone for the waste of his life).  Zoe Saldana is the only actor to truly shine through her motion capture performance, such is her hulking physicality and prowling movement, and Michelle Rodriguez positions herself as the de-facto star, spitting out quips and making the audience love her.  But more profoundly, Cameron presents the idealised society of the Na’vi as one that does not suffer from gender imbalance (though it is still gendered – would it be possible for an individual to enter the avatar of an opposite sex?) and the film is profoundly female friendly, particularly in its representation of sex.  Cameron choose to make the demonstrated physical act as one of intimacy and foreplay and emotional connection – a move that stands in direct contrast to the sweaty presentation that is found in most action films where it is shown to be solely about the male gratification of penetration.

For an already long film, Avatar actually benefits from being even longer.  The majority of the extended edition’s additional runtime comes from a prequel set on Earth.  It underlines the necessity of Pandora; how it is a world quite unlike the overpopulated, mundane environment that Jake inhabits.  It is a world where nature is manipulated and controlled; endangered animals are brought back to life via cloning.  It underlines the great compromises we make as a species – we protect and preserve creatures, but in zoological centres and wildlife reserves.  We contain and constrain it, and continue to assert our dominance over the rest of the planet.  Pandora, with its interconnected biological wildlife, provides a necessary counterpoint to this – you can bulldoze as many trees as you like, and the ecological system will prevail.  It’s a fantasy of living which is profoundly appealing, and one that helps us understand why Jake would willingly give up his identity and physicality for it.

Whilst the ecological issues raised by Avatar can seem heavy handed, they remain essential.  The biodiversity of Earth has become almost negligible, such is the dominance of the few species that humankind deign to eat.  The world is dominated by millions of pigs, and cows and chickens… and not much else, certainly not when placed in comparison with other epochs of our history.  Avatar is an interesting exploration of evolution; as a species we had grown to the point where we shape our environment to suit our needs, and any possible progress (that does not consider the more likely outcome of mutually assured destruction) indicates an evolution where flesh and blood are fused with technology, computational hive minds and artificially engineered body parts.  The Na’vi experience no such future.  Whilst they may be technologically primitive, they gained a greater understanding of the need for responsible living at a far earlier point in their development.  The Na’vi seem to miss the capacity for gluttony that resides in our species; where our hunting of animals goes from necessity to survive, into the luxury of sport.  This would understandably lead to a far smaller population of the supposed dominant species as seen within the film

It is this attention to detail that demonstrates the true mastery of the form that Cameron is capable of.  He is intensely focussed on details and excruciatingly demanding of others.  This ensures that Avatar suffers a lot less from the weak physicality and incoherent rendering that is seen in most CGI-dominated films.  The move away from physical effects and into the computational realm has only diminished the capacity of cinema to amaze.  If you can make anything nowadays in a computer, your anything must have life.  The CGI bollocks that passes in most films is ill-defined and unphysical; it holds no perceived weight in the environment in which it takes place.  It requires a visionary of Cameron’s stature to ensure that CGI shots are returned to and perfected; few other films take the same care over their effects, only John Carter (2012 – Andrew Stanton) and Pacific Rim (2013 – Guillermo del Toro) spring to mind, and those films are similarly problematic in places that led to them being lazily dismissed.  Cameron often slows down the action during his CGI sequences, giving a verisimilitude to the proceedings.  Few directors are as confident in their effects shots, and will use rapid-editing to cover up their weaknesses.

Cameron’s world building is extraordinary.  Barely mentioned reference to conflicts in Venezuela and Nigeria paint pictures in the audience’s minds of an Earth riddled in war.  He creates an ecological world which is more alive than most movies set in America that reminds us of our own personal responsibility.  And he has created an action movie that stands alone against the testosterone-fuelled nonsense that dominates the genre.  Maybe these were just a few too many successes for us to admit to in one movie.

(Footnote: look I’ve tried to engage with the text as much as possible, but the great sin of Avatar exists outside its position as a work of commerce: that it almost single-handedly led to the death of film projection.  And I have my doubts about the extent to which that was a crime; outside of the rarefied, metropolitan cineaste circles, film projection meant limited choice in blockbusters, and I can remember the number of films I saw with shoddy picture, and dropped out or crackly sound.  Nowadays, we’ve recast those experiences in a nostalgic light, but they were fucking annoying at the time.  But film should be projected from the format it was shot on, and every time I travel up to London to see something in 35mm or 70mm, I’m reminded what a special experience that is, when done right.  Avatar killed it off, in its quest for murky 3D faddish projection.  There’s probably is sickening metaphor to be made comparing the Na’vi to celluloid…)

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.

Dressed to Kill (1980 – Brian De Palma)

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A woman we love is sliced apart in an enclosed space by another woman, whom we will later discover is not all she seems.  The flash cutting and peculiar angles of the camera only add to the anxiety we feel when we watch.  Ultimately, we see her, lifeless and bloody, slumped in an almost inhuman manner.  The grimness of the scene forces our sympathy to dissipate, and we now see her as a limp piece of meat.  The narrative of the film will continue beyond her death, and any life that the character had will be forgotten as we switch protagonists.  By the end of the movie, her life, her death, will be an irrelevance.

And no, we’re not watching Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).

There’s no shame in the cinematic shorthand that De Palma employs within his riff on a Hitchcockian moment.  And yet, De Palma has been so often denigrated for doing so.  Too often, he has been presented as a filmic cover band, hashing out Hitchcock’s plots and style in a sleazy, crass manner.  Ignoring the great appeal of sleaze, this tarring of a true master ignores the great weight of other directors who have made their own Hitchcockian thrillers without the belittling that De Palma has experienced.  Martin Scorsese in After Hours (1985), Paul Verhoeven in Basic Instinct (1992), Roman Polanski in Frantic (1988), Terence Young in From Russia with Love (1963), Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me (1971) and whole swathes of Curtis Hanson’s, Dario Argento’s, John Woo’s and David Lynch’s careers are heavily indebted to Hitchcock.  Even Stanley Kubrick, a cinematic visionary within his own right, made profoundly Hitchcockian movie in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  None of these figures have be ridiculed for their cover versions, so why should De Palma?  Not only that, but Jean-Luc Godard (in is early films), Nic Roeg, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jules Dassin, Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Hawks have proved to be just as substantial an influence upon De Palma, yet these are never given the same scrutiny.

What is also ignored is how De Palma develops and extends the theme and style of his progenitor.  The heist in Mission: Impossible (1996) is more engaging than the similarly staged version it rips off in Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) because it includes the stronger possibility of a human discovering the crime.  Significantly, he vastly improves the plot of Psycho by making the protagonist of the second half of the movie a witness to the murder of the first protagonist.  This removes the narrative lag that Psycho experiences once Marion Crane has been murdered.  In both Dressed to Kill and Sisters (1973), the film has an energy and drive that ensures we sympathise fully with our new protagonists, in direct opposition to the way that we struggle to relate to the blankness of Lila Crane.  By being a Hitchcock acolyte, he was able to develop the master’s films and clear up the weaknesses he found.

So not only has De Palma’s obsession with Hitchcock allowed him to narratively develop his plots, he also has extended the thematic constructs used.  De Palma is one of the great mainstream queer filmmakers, largely (and perhaps counter-intuitively) because he has denied us the blank sexuality of Hitchcock’s texts.  There is a strangeness to Hitchcock’s films; how they are utterly obsessed with sex, and frigid in any exploration of it.  Norman Bates sees Marion Crane through a peephole… and does not touch himself.  Now, that is interesting in and of itself, but the continuing awkwardness (and abusiveness) around sex – think of Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964) – allows for audiences to make excuses for his male protagonist’s obsession and sexual violence.  The Birds (1963) is entirely about how one woman’s sexual agency disrupts the very balance of nature.  A quick glance at Tippi Hedren’s autobiography will reveal how the distasteful, obsessive, and yet somehow undemonstrative sexual harassment found in the films was reflected by his behaviour in real life.

De Palma does not allow the audience the ability to deny the realities of sexual obsession.  His explicitness – think of Body Double (1984) here – ensures that we see voyeurism and stalking and exposure to be as unpleasant for women as they really are.  He ensures that heteronormative couples are presented with messy ends (the murder of Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill is not an attack on women, but an attack on normative sex), and the heroes of all his movies shy away from conventional representations of sexuality – the ambivalence of Jennifer Salt in Sisters, the incestuous love of Obsession (1976).

His explicitness of these sexual matters, particularly in his portrayal of women, has led many to accuse him of misogyny.  It’s not an unfair accusation, and one that De Palma makes a gleefully idiosyncratic defence of in De Palma (2016 – Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow) by claiming that he loves shooting ‘beautiful things’. But, and this may be the most measly defence ever (made by a man no less), De Palma is not misogynist, just sexist.  Certainly, the explicit misogyny of Scorsese’s work (women are nearly always objects of violence in his films, and it is hard to escape the memory of his terrifyingly abusive performance in Taxi Driver (1976) here) has not been confronted in the same way.  Women are lead characters, with agency and independence, in a large number of his movies, not least in Dressed to Kill.  So whilst he will often photograph them in states of undress, and make their occupations those of individuals working in the sex industry, he will give them a life and vitality that few women experience in most movies.

Which is a roundabout way of coming to the conclusion that De Palma is not just a Hitchcock acolyte and his portrayal of sex and women is more complex than any easy, reductive reading.  For sure, the opprobrium made against him is not shared fairly with his contemporaries.

The opening overture of Dressed to Kill is the deliberate fantasies of someone with little exposure to sex… perhaps Angie Dickinson is a feminised version of Hitchcock himself.  Certainly, she shares some of the same obsessions – art galleries and the sound of her own voice.   The parts of sex she is preoccupied with (grabbing arses) are so pedestrian.  The ruffled sheets (an unseen penetration) of her sexual encounter, and the pathetic hand-written notes show someone ill-at-ease with navigating the sexual waters of the world.  Hitchcock, similarly was a man obsessed with sex, and yet unable to do anything about it, except dance around the issues in his art.

The film plays as an expansion of the nonsensical explanation given by the psychologist in the final moments of Psycho – the insanity of Michael Caine’s character here is a deliberate explication of Hitchcock’s poor understanding of transgender issues, suggesting that is somehow leads to unreal (though highly cinematic) concept of multiple personalities.  Dressing him as the villain of Family Plot (1976) – a failed Psycho – shows how this is designed to be a confrontational statement made against the master of suspense.  What if De Palma was not worshiping Hitchcock all these years?  What if he was seeking to undermine Hitchcock’s limited thinking, unhealthy attitude to sex and unpleasant personal relationships.

De Palma’s greatest skill in this movie is not the split-diopter shots, nor the extended chase sequences, but his careful use of showing characters looking carefully out of the frame and into the audience.  We are free to ascribe whatever emotions we imagine to these moments – something we share in everyday life, the way we perceive lust in small glances, entire lives in static, lifeless paintings.  This romanticism, obsession and perversion all lie with us, the audience.  De Palma is confrontational in his presentation towards us – there is no such thing as a passive audience in a De Palma film.

Dressed to Kill makes some broad (but utterly basic) discussion of gender reassignment surgery.  I think we are meant to find it unsatisfying.  Its presentation is not only an affront to Hitchcock, but to all the ignorance surrounding the issues.  The film shows violence of women upon women, who later are revealed to be men.  We often seek to deny the safeness and security entitled by all people (but necessary to transgendered individuals) by pointing to isolated incidents – a single account of a man pretending to be a woman in order to attack an ex-partner – as an argument to deny transgender-friendly bathrooms, and how some ‘feminists’ use these isolated incidents to deny these rights of other women women – rights that are the product of biological needs.  Dressed to Kill ensures that these arguments are unhelpful, and that safety, from violent individuals, abusive family members and hostile police officers, is essential.

Not bad for a shameless Psycho rip-off.

A New England

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An A-Z of Sightseers (2012 – Ben Wheatley), Aaaaaaaah! (2015 – Steve Oram), and Prevenge (2017 – Alice Lowe).

 

A is for the academy ratio:

Aaaaaaaah! is filmed in the academy ratio.  This gives it a grounding in historical British television, but it has also become an increasingly popular choice for contemporary filmmakers – Andrea Arnold’s employment of it in Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) is particularly affecting.  It has two major benefits: firstly, it can appear to heighten the frame, giving a sense of scale and space, and contradictorily, it can appear to entrap the actors in the image by boxing them in.

 

B is for balls:

Both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge feature moments of castration in their films; they acknowledge that for half of the audience, it will be a greater fear than death itself.  Testicles are themselves funny; colloquially referred to as ‘balls’ they take an everyday word and transpose it onto something discreet and forbidden.  The word itself becomes something powerful – particularly in the rhyme about Hitler’s reproductive organs that was taught to children.  By mocking the Fuhrer’s absence of genitalia, power was snatched from his presence.  In these comedy films, the castration emphasises the apparent weakness of the male victims.

 

C is for communication:

All three films play with the English language – easily recognised in Aaaaaaaah! in its use of guttural grunts, but Sightseers and Prevenge both choose to disembody dialogue over other images, often seen in the form of montage.  It is an affront to the traditional British worship of the writer, and a powerful underlining of the visual nature of the medium in which they are working.

 

D is for dogging:

There is a moment in Sightseers where the lead characters are observed shagging in their caravan in a wet Yorkshire lay-by.  Aren’t we all prone to dogging as we watch actors fuck on screen?  If we’re being pretentious, we’d call it ‘voyeurism’ or ‘the male gaze’, but really… it’s dogging isn’t it?  The vicarious thrill of it all…

E is for elderly:

If the death drive dominates the narrative of the three films, then the truest horror exists in old age, for this is the moment upon which we teeter on the precipice of oblivion.  The elderly are consistently presented within Sightseers and Prevenge as objects of abuse and loneliness.  They cling to meaning and purpose with a fragile tenacity, but the narrative will ultimately neglect them, and they become the detritus of cinema – glorified cameos.

F is for Frankie Goes to Hollywood:

Sightseers and Prevenge heavily draw on musical references to semi-kitsch tunes from the 1980’s – Prevenge slightly less so, perhaps due to budgetary restrictions.  By using ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in Sightseers’ climax they draw on a tradition of repurposing of the sacred for the secular.  The three films heavily dwell upon pagan and Christian locations, grounding them in the mystical sense of geography that populates the British Isles.  Frankie Goes to Hollywood were never shy from dealing with essential issues – sex, war, religion – and queering them through their chaotic eye.  Similarly, our three films draw on the psychogeography of their settings, and present them through the neglectful eye of tourism, whereby places of outstanding personal, political and spiritual significance become gift shops.

Prevenge also uses music cues heavily influenced by the scores of John Carpenter.  As such, it ties itself to the swathe of modern horror that draw upon his subtly-unfolding, widescreen sense of dread.  The Guest (2014 – Adam Wingard) and It Follows (2014 – David Robert Mitchell) are key examples.

 

G is for guilelessness:

All three films are populated by innocents.  In every case, they are exposed to cruelty, and resort to violence (of both physicality and language).  Their naivete is not enough to help them function in the world, and unnaturally, the unremarkable nature of their clothes and hobbies and demeanour is wittily countered by the extremity of their actions.

 

H is for horror:

Whilst British movie horror has been traditionally represented by the technicolour, lavish Hammer corpus, the films hold a keener relationship with the horror of rural concerns, found primarily in The Wicker Man (1973 – Robin Hardy) and the work of M. R. James, whose stories were traditionally adapted at Christmastime.  They portray innocents enraptured by the local customs and hidden secrets of the ancient English countryside.  In their explicit representations of gore, the films also draw upon a more American tradition of horror (at its best found in the work of George Romero), perhaps indicating the gradual Americanisation of British culture, as we rapidly consume their films, television and pop music.

I is for ‘in England’ (a field):

The closest film in Ben Wheatley’s canon to the work of Lowe and Oram is A Field in England (2013), a similarly psychotic rural movie.  It delves into man’s descent into violence and speaks to the unique leylines of mysticism that cobweb our landscape.  It is however, a less successful film than Sightseers, feeling too forced, too deliberately ‘midnight-movie’ than the obsessive eccentricity that defines that genre of filmmaking.

J is for Jerusalem:

The first consensual murder in Sightseers is soundtracked by a recitation of ‘Jerusalem’ by the late John Hurt.  ‘Jerusalem’ a patriotic fantasy of England; a revision of history where Christ (a living fiction) walks with sandaled feet through the faded greens and fallen leaves of England rather than the dust and heat of Palestine.  In doing so, it firmly recasts the son-of-god away from a Jewish personage and into the white-skinned, great-abs vision of Christ perpetrated by middle England.  England has always had an issue with Jewishness, from the medieval pogroms, expulsion of 1290, and anti-Semitic work of Chaucer and his contemporaneous Mystery Plays.  By employing Blake’s mystical, visionary poem, Wheatley speaks to England’s greater sense of itself, one which would seek to eradicate the prominence of an entire race in order to better define its own ambivalent identify.  Patriotism only exists in the minds of fascists and football fans.

John Hurt provides a premonition of pregnancy.  He is responsible for performing the other great cinematic moment of foetal horror – that of the Giger-phallus erupting from his stomach in Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott).  By spoofing this profound performance in Spaceballs (1987 – Mel Brooks) he underlined the vital links in creating tension between body horror and comedy.

K is for kookiness:

In 2016 Alice Lowe played a supporting role in Adult Life Skills (Rachel Tunnard) – an instantly forgettable, deeply twee film.  Cinema has often sought to simplify and inoculate poor mental health by present it as ‘kookiness’.  Trauma causes characters to have little quirks and habits (like burger-phones) rather than genuine peculiarities and troubles.  The three films seek to recast this cinematic trope by ensuring that their lead characters are specifically unsettling and utterly strange.  They are unsafe films as a consequence.

 

L is for Louise:

The ending of Sightseers seems to explicitly reference the great ambiguous finale of Thelma and Louise (1991 – Ridley Scott) – a film similarly about innocents who simultaneously pursue murder and companionship on a road trip.  Wheatley shares a lot with Scott; both highly visual filmmakers who have actively sought to escape the social-realist drama that dominates (and ruins) the British cinema scene.  Deciding to explicitly reference The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 – Tobe Hooper) in one murder (backlit sunsets and creeping steadicam), Wheatley further develops this link; this was, after all, the film that Ridley Scott screened repeatedly in his preparation for shooting Alien.

M is for The Mighty Boosh:

Best described as fairytales for grown-ups, this imaginatively preposterous television series represents an abandoned version of television comedy.  Both Lowe and Oram performed in guest spots on their series, and it stands out, alongside the shows directed by Steve Bendelack (The League of Gentlemen) and Edgar Wright (Spaced) as TV programmes with any sense of visual style (Bendelack directed the pilot version of Boosh and it is a substantially different beast of insane close-ups and dynamic performances loomingly made to camera).  Paul King directed the main series The Mighty Boosh with a degree of wit; action was shot at a distance and cheapness was celebrated, particularly in his use of rear-projection.  These stylish tics have continued, regardless of an increase in budget, into his feature film work Bunny and the Bull (2009) and Paddington (2014).

But The Mighty Boosh is a lost era, a stump on the tree of British television comedy.  The comedy scene became dominated by blokeish, safe stand-up comedians, and any celebration of the strange moved off our television screens and into the cinema.

 

N is for Nuts in May:

Sightseers most obvious precedent comes in the form of Nuts in May, a television play by Mike Leigh from 1975.  It similarly explores the repression of the British when placed in situations of social anxiety.  Keith and Candice Marie in Nuts in May share the same myopias as Chris and Tina in Sightseers, and their disproportional hatred for the behaviour of others manifests itself in furious, though less violent, outbursts. By so heavily drawing on the work of Mike Leigh, they become an affront to traditional British creativity.  TV and cinema in Britain has its roots in the theatre, and thus has placed far too much emphasis on the importance of a script, and by consequence, the role of the writer.  Leigh, with his heavily improvised, actor-focussed approach, defies the prevailing ‘way-of-doing-things’ and asserts the primacy of the director.  Lowe and Oram have incorporated a level of improvisation into their working method, and thus forged a distinct auteurist body of work; one that even defies established directors such as Wheatley.

O is for online:

Most of Lowe’s filmmaking is found online.  Simultaneously, this has both allowed it to have a wider audience than any silent 8mm film could traditionally have had, but also ensure that it gets lost in the mix.  The appetite for online video seems primarily to be vlogs – this is not to denigrate them, anyone under the age of 20 loves them and considers them vital, but they are essentially lightweight and ephemeral.  This allows the feature film (Prevenge) to gain significance; its cinema release, supported by a publicly-funded body, ensures that her ‘voice’ can be heard further and louder.

P is for Partridge (Alan):

The history of British comedy films largely exists in adaptations of TV sitcoms.  The relatively small size of the TV and film industry ensures that crossover between the two mediums is easily achieved.  It is not always backed up with a creativity or imagination, with the majority of films feeling little more than episodes of a television series with a slightly larger budget.  For every The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005 – Steve Bendelack), there are a dozen The Inbetweeners Movie (2011 – Ben Palmer).  Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013 – Declan Lowney) firmly falls into the latter camp.  Steve Coogan’s Partridge, whom Lowe and Oram supported (with some filler sketches that were met with little more than nervous laughter at the Hammersmith Odeon) on the ‘Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and other less successful characters’ 2008 tour, is a carefully composed study of little-England concerns in a socially-oblivious middle-aged man.  Oram and Lowe’s characters often mine the same vein.

Their filmic work therefore moves distinctly away from a traditional British comedy skein, and into a more universal cinematic presentation.  The closest precedent, though far more populist, is Shaun of the Dead (2004 – Edgar Wright).  Wright was an executive producer of Sightseers, and his movie blended the curiously British mix of comedy, horror and social anxiety that our trilogy pursue.  Though we’ve all forgotten now that our initial reaction to Shaun of the Dead was disappointment – it didn’t seem to be as good as Spaced.  Oram and Lowe, with their background in more supporting roles, didn’t have the same high expectations, and thus their cinematic work can be met with less prejudice.

Q is for Q:

Most of British surrealist comedy stretches back to Spike Milligan.  His absurdist blend of ridiculousness and death seems particularly relevant to our survey.  He also aggressively believed in over-population, meaning he may have found some affection for the actions of our protagonists.

R is for Richard Ayoade:

The filmmakers’ closest contemporary is Richard Ayoade, who directed Lowe in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.  His debut film, Submarine (2010), is a genuinely sweet coming-of-age tale that delicately navigates the self-aggrandisement and naivety of a teenage boy.  Ayoade is a more explicitly European filmmaker, and his aesthetic, alongside his apparent inability to work with lower budgets, means his directorial career seems to be stalling.  He currently languishes as a panel show contestant and host, and his statements on cinema, found within his deeply ironic Ayoade on Ayoade book, would serve him better if they seemed more sincere.

S is Stiffy:

Lowe was able to make Prevenge for a tiny budget over a protracted 11-day shoot because her cinematic training came via making a series of ultra-low budget short films for over ten years.  Often directed by Jacqueline Wright, they demonstrate a variety of performance and form that speak to the creativity of their cast and crew.  Shot in 2005, Stiffy (Jacqueline Wright) is the story of a man falling in love with a corpse.  The roles are played by Oram and Lowe.  The film is shot on 8mm, and provides a portent for the cruel mix of death and empty emotion that will dominate their feature work.

The films efficiency, experimentation and narrative imagination stem from the freedom provided by a negligible budget.

 

T is for Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey:

The other clear cinematic moment of simian interest is the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 – Stanley Kubrick).  The apes are similarly violent and territorial and whilst the protagonists in Aaaaaaaah! are more technologically advanced (and indeed much of the humour comes from their primitive behaviour clashing with modern life), they both represent how much of modern life is simply covering up our most base instincts.  Oram deliberately references the framing of 2001: A Space Odyssey in his film’s most brutal moment, where an arm is savagely ripped off a corpse.  It is held totemically as the bone/space station is seen in Kubrick’s film.  But where for Kubrick this totem is a symbol of advancement (albeit advancement that is instigated by outside, alien influences), Oram’s totem is one of savagery.  All three films underline the descent of ordinary citizens into violence, as if the only way to navigate society is through the physical dominance of others.

U is for underclass:

The films overtly draw on the worst tendencies of small-minded Englishness, and this is no more evident than in the overwhelming whiteness of the cast.  Whilst both Aaaaaaaah! and Prevenge are more urban in outlook (and thus should be far more representative – Kayvan Vovak is a notable exception), even the Yorkshire of Sightseers is a more ethnically diverse environment than what we see on screen.  The films have a curious attitude towards class as well; the homes of the protagonists are clearly lower middle-class, but many of the spheres in which they move (shitty pubs, caravans, pasta sauces) are associated with ‘lower’ classes.  The whiteness and preoccupations link them with the British underclass; white, working-class people, tied to local communities, seeing industry leave them and fearful of change.  None of the protagonists in the films are identified as having a career, and Chris in Sightseers is explicitly unemployed.

The movement within these occupations show performers who have a degree of understanding of social mobility – Lowe’s exposure to the refined world of Cambridge may be partly responsible for this.

V is for violence:

All three films rely on violence as a source of comedy.  Fundamentally, this is because it is a proudly transgressive act, and a natural response to the tension built by such an act is to laugh.  There is a similar trick pulled with the use of extreme language.  Whilst the use of the word ‘cunt’ is more acceptable in England that in other Western countries, it still holds a power that many epithets have lost due to its denigration of the female reproductive organ.  An immediate response of swearing can almost always guarantee a laugh; as such some writers, such as Graham Linehan, see it as an easy trick, and refrains from using it frequently.

 

W is for Wheatley, Ben:

Ben Wheatley has a career that is similar to Steven Soderbergh’s; they are eclectic filmmakers, never content to sit within genre, and yet the breadth of their respective careers amounts to more the individual films.  Despite his American outlook towards content and form, he is producing a deep excavation of British storytelling.  He has delved into the repression and familial tensions of suburbia, the hostility of rural England, and the saturated Ballardian concrete horror of the growing urban landscape.  He has explored the comedy and crime genres – the cornerstones of British storytelling.  He has even directed episodes of the great living fiction of the twentieth century, television’s Doctor Who.

 

X is for experimentation:

The foundation of these films lie in their roadtesting on comedy stages.  They are not produced by beardy men sitting on laptops in Costa.  There is a strange dichotomy in comedy; that the words spoken must be the product of a unique perspective on events, but simultaneously relatable to the assembled audience.  Comedy aspires to be populist; if it is not initially so, the comedian will draw upon their strength of character to turn the audience around to agree with their perspective.  It is a failure if nobody laughs.  This is evident to anyone watching.  Therefore, experimentation in the filmmaking will work within a narrow spectrum – that of what people find amusing.  Modern American comedy films are almost entirely improvised; British films have a far narrower margin in which to operate.

Y is for the y chromosome (or lack thereof):

Prevenge seems a natural extension of Sightseers in that it moves the woman to the centre of the narrative.  Their relative traumas have escalated; the death of a dog has been superseded by the death of a boyfriend.  It is ultimately removing the male influence of the narrative, and a knowing subversion of the cinematic trope of male cinematic stars suffering from the death of a woman in their life as both motivation and personality.

This shift in ownership (it is not unimportant that Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge) is naturally not reflected in the real world.  Even an article in The Guardian conducted at the time of Lowe’s aborted BBC3 series Lifespam (the station has now been aborted itself) refers dismissively to the length of her skirt.

Z is for trailerZ:

I watched the trailer for Sightseers and loved the use of “The Power of Love”; in that moment I truly hoped that it would be used in the film itself.  It was.  In fact, not only did the trailer use the music cues from the film itself, it used nearly the entire narrative of whole movie bar the last few minutes of screen time.  Most cinema trailers rely on oblique images of the stars within it soundtracked by slowed-down acoustic covers of Johnny Cash songs, but when you have no stars you can only rely on the film itself.

Zodiac (2007 – David Fincher)

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Zodiac (2007 – David Fincher)  Not pictured: the jars of piss Downey Jr. left around the set when Fincher refused him toilet breaks.

I’ve never owned a games console.  Never.  Not a Game Boy, MegaDrive, N64, Playstation or any of those other machines I loved when I went over my friends’ houses.  I know what would happen.  I know how obsessed I would become.  I know how much time in my life I’ve wasted on the game that Windows calls Solitaire and the rest of the world calls Patience.

I don’t think that it has been the biggest waste of time I’ve spent in front of a computer.  That would be the hours I’ve spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia.  One harmless Google search leads to whole days drifting by, an almost impossible number of tabs open on screen as I click and click and click, and a dark sensation at the back of my mind.  Down the rabbit hole of psychopathy.  There are truly terrible and also fascinating things in the world.

Zodiac is that instinct taken to an extreme.  It’s about how the darkest recesses of human nature are so utterly fascinating.  The impulse to follow these recesses means we can dedicate our lives to identifying a mystery serial killer… or watch a film that’s nearly three hours long.  It’s a fairly reductive statement to note that Fincher equates the Zodiac investigation with filmmaking, such is the dedication and isolated perseverance required to make a film of individual statement within the studio system, but movie making never has to convince you.  Movies are not polemic, they’re suggestions, and very little relies on their success beyond immediate employment for a few fairly well compensated stars.

The last sentence uses about as broad a brushstroke as I am prepared to use (and I am well aware that my privilege allows me to use very broad brushstrokes).  But true crime has always used very broad brushes in the movies.  A few clicks on Wikipedia, and you realise what evidence hasn’t been presented, and what narrative jumps were made.

It’s the way in which we all edit our own histories – rewriting the bad bits, skipping the boring parts, simplifying the motivations of everyone else.  Memory exists as an internal Avid machine.  Serial killers are this control we play over our own lives taken to an extreme degree.  The fact that the Zodiac is still unknown ensures that the snips and cuts are more demanding.  They also allow for an obsessive search for an identity, one that neglects a wife and child, to be presented as heroic.  Profoundly, his heroism is presented as non-conventional masculinity.  He is isolated, denigrated by his co-workers, demeaned by the blandly conformative police force, and he draws for a living.  In the same way that women have conducted huge amounts of manual exercise in human labour, from farming to sweatshops, and yet it still be presented as a masculine pursuit, drawing is seen as a feminine trait.

Harry Callahan, the most conventionally masculine cinema icon, got to shoot his Zodiac killer in the face.  Graysmith can’t even speak to his in a shop.  Seeing the two films (the other being Don Seigel’s 1971 Dirty Harry) you begin to feel that Callahan is an absent-minded doodle that Graysmith drew whilst fantasising about confronting the killer he was after.  In the movie’s most telling moment, Graysmith has no issue with telling someone that he has only smoked once in high school – he identifies as an outsider in the masculine world he is moving in – an outsider status that also applies to the suspects he investigate.

Fincher explicitly links suspected serial killers (and if they’re not, they’re seriously creepy individuals) to movie buffs.  Despite his prestigious status in the industry, Fincher is a true misanthrope.  His films demonstrate a singularly depressing picture of humanity, where darkness and selfishness and greed are at the fringes of every interaction.  Coming out of a decade that sought to confront darkness with irony (and has ended up losing spectacularly) Zodiac represents an indulgence of obsessive dedication as a not-very convincing alternative to murder.  Humanity’s every ideology appears to be a denial of our own enormous capability for destruction – as if progress and hope somehow represent an alternative to our mutually assured destruction.  Christianity, the obsessive religion of America – and a fairly contemptible enslavement ideology in and of itself – encounters some of this darkness in its concept of sin, but chickens out when it presents a saviour.  There is no saviour.  The horror of 2016 only seemed to shock those people who believed in any goodness in our nature.  To those who had made their peace with the fact that people are garbage, the world just seemed transparent.

Fincher has been fictionalising this world for his whole career.  Fascinatingly, he never shies away from turning his despicable eye back on himself.  By presenting movie buffs as weirdos, he hates the only people who ascribe status to his output.  It’s a bitter humanity within his films, and one that we can only hope to survive by communication.  The failure of capturing the Zodiac killer comes largely from the failure (based on invented legal technicalities) of law enforcement agencies to talk and share evidence and question suspects.  The obsessiveness of Graysmith seeks to navigate these partisan waters, but often fails.  We often have good ideas… until we express them and then the ignorance and apathy and intolerance of others shrinks us into cowardice.

Zodiac is somewhat of an apotheosis because his not only sums up Fincher’s misanthropy, but seeks to resolve it.  Unfortunately, the resolution is agnosticism.  Despite the point of view shots, there is no serious resolution or identification of the dark heart of our society.  There are explicitly no easy answers in the narrative.  No stories of killing animals for fun during childhood.  The murders are schizophrenic in approach.  They encompass taunting phone calls (‘gooood-bye’) and impenetrable codes.  Killing lovers and later a taxi driver.  Murders in different states.  The film removes itself from the easy narrative ascribed to those films where the killer is caught.  It’s a deliberately open narrative.  We could identify every impulse and motivation for murder in society, and seek to contain them, and fail utterly.  Murder would still exist.  It is undeniable.  It is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the way we truly are and not the illusion we have created for ourselves.  We are ambiguous and selfish and capable of great cruelty.  Writing letters may be our only chance of survival…

 

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)”

The Neon Demon (2016 – Nicolas Winding Refn)

The-Neon-Demon

I was quite taken with Drive (2011) when I first saw it.  I still am.  It gets some knocks because it shares some surface similarities with films by Walter Hill and Michael Mann, and Winding Refn is neither Hill nor Mann.  Thief (1981) is a film about the individual’s inability to survive when confronted with a corporation.  Drive is about a bomber jacket.

But what a bomber jacket!

Continue reading “The Neon Demon (2016 – Nicolas Winding Refn)”

The Last Days – Chapter II – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)

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For seven years the money sat waiting to be taken.  It’s unimaginable today that a successful film failed to be followed up for seven years.  In a world where sequels can follow annually, that they took the time for James Cameron to be ready is extraordinary.

James Cameron has waited seven years (and counting) to shoot a sequel to Avatar (2009).

Continue reading “The Last Days – Chapter II – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)”