The Last Days Appendix II: Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)

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So if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the penultimate movie star… then who is the last movie star?   Whilst there are still bankable, charismatic actors working today (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington spring to mind) there are none who are able to get funding for their films on their name alone.  Even our subject has had to rely on building a handful of franchises (of which this film can retrospectively be seen as the first entry in one) in order to maintain the level of funding to which he is accustomed.  Tom Cruise is our last movie star.  In itself this is a curious statement; why are we assuming that there won’t be any more after him?  Star actors are so necessary to the success of movies.  Why is it that we have devalued them so?  I’m as big an auteurist as the next person, but that central, charismatic performance is what drives cinema.  You can choose your angles and edit your footage as much as you want, but we go to the movies to see the close-ups of these impossibly beautiful, deeply captivating actors.

It’s strange to think that as Cruise has got older, he has become a more physical performer.  Nowadays, the vast bulk of his career is consumed with action pictures, each one containing an extremely dangerous set-piece that Cruise performed himself.  He is one of the most reliable performers in the business, and even when the film as a whole does not add up to that much, there is a certainty that Cruise will be giving it his all, and watching him will be a pleasure.  But in the early days of his career, Cruise actively distanced himself from the action genre.  Instead, he chose to serve a form of apprenticeship, choosing to take parts in the films of notable, established directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack.  It was a bold decision, especially when we consider that the ideal of stardom (that of Schwarzenegger) was utterly concerned with stunts, explosions and running very fast.

Indeed, once Cruise finally took the plunge into the action genre he chose an established, New Hollywood director to helm it.  Even today, he prefers to work with stolid, workman-like directors (your Christopher McQuarries and Ed Zwicks), rather than anyone too flashy – Cruise has always been a classicist at heart.  Mission: Impossible was our first sight of Cruise pushing himself physically, and from this point, there would be no going back to understated supporting roles.  Cruise has a total commitment to verisimilitude; if there is a stunt or action he can do himself, he will.  This allows the directors he works with to have a greater freedom of shots – they can place the camera close to him during his performances, and in doing so, draw us closer in to him.  We are drawn to Cruise because on the big screen we can glimpse what he is capable of, and understand the genuine danger he is in during these moments.

Whilst the action sequences in Mission: Impossible may feature fewer explosions and car chases than the other films of the nineties, they annihilate them when it comes to inducing tension in the audience.  The meticulous planning and choreography of De Palma ensured that a simple act of Cruise abseiling down into a room became almost iconographic in its execution.  Using the heist sequence of Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) as a launching pad (in itself a quiet rebuke to those who dismiss De Palma as a mere Hitchcock rip-off), De Palma ensured that a simple bead of sweat could cause us to grasp the armrests of our chairs.

And that is the great beauty of this film.  It does not fully reveal to us what Tom Cruise would ultimately become capable of in his career, but it does show us how pace, close-ups and the simple cut from shot to shot can cause us to be enthralled.  The first thirty minutes of this film are about as perfect a sequence in the history of cinema.  From the very start, a complex web of screens, masks and lies indicate that there will be a level of unreality to the film.  As the IMF team handle their heist upon the elite party, we realised as an audience that there are things going on in the background of shots that are as important as what is happening in the foreground.  De Palma cemented his use of the split-diopter lense into the very narrative of the film.  In doing so, he reminded us of the great pleasure of his films; that his tricks, his use of the camera, is the vehicle for telling the story.

Many of these tricks, particularly his use of first-person shots, lent themselves well to the spy genre.  And like all of De Palma’s method, it’s invisible until you start to look for it.  Mission: Impossible is one of many entries in this genre that occurred in the nineties; films such as Patriot Games (1992 – Philip Noyce), The Peacemaker (1997 – Mimi Leder) and The Saint (1997 – Noyce again) followed the form, or used the narrative tropes of multiple identities, double-crossing and isolated agents to tell their stories.  They also feature a retrospectively charming understanding of the still infant internet within their plots; Mission: Impossible has a sequence where Cruise posts on usenet bulletin boards.  But the constantly escalating narrative of ‘missions gone wrong’ became highly influential in itself.

(Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of this movie was the fact that the masks worn by Cruise within the film ensured that the studio prevented Val Kilmer from using too many false identities in The Saint, thus denying us all of too much of a good thing…)

The emphasis on carefully constructed set-pieces in action movies was broadly rejected by the industry – one only has to watch Mission: Impossible 2 (2000 – John Woo) to see how little impact it made – but it did seem to open the door for Tom Cruise to explore how pure physical performance was essential to being a star.  In that sense, Cruise recalls the great performers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  For that we can be truly grateful.  But for a survey of the action genre in the nineties, Cruise simply did not have any great impact.  It would only be in the decades to come (perversely as he got much older) that we began to see Cruise emerge as one of the greatest physical performers of all time.

Top Five – Clint Eastwood Films

Eastwood is something of a cinematic oddity.  An iconic performer who remains the only individual in Hollywood who can actively remember working within the studio system.  He is liberal (to a degree) in his social views, and will often cast non-‘conventional’ performers alongside him, but personally, often portrays highly authoritarian individuals.  He is an accomplished melodic composer, often providing the main themes to his movies.  He unfussily produces movies (not always a benefit – J. Edgar (2011) in particular would have benefitted from a few extra takes), and over nearly fifty years, directed a body of meticulously enjoyable films.  He also remains one those actors who I love as much as my dad, and that bond is something quite special.

So here we go, my top five Clint Eastwood films that he either directed or starred in.

 

  1. Play Misty for Me (1971 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Eastwood’s directorial debut prefigures every unsettling friend request, every unwanted text we have ever received in our lives.  It’s a profoundly disturbing film as it explores the unintended consequences of a single rash decision.  It’s a warning note to impulsiveness.  I have a huge amount of affection for Eastwood’s hair in this film, but even that is second to the magnificently disturbing portrayal of irrationality and obsessiveness by Jessica Walter.  Always seek out the more unhinged U.S. cut if possible.

 

  1. Pale Rider (1985 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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The only decent Western of the eighties, Pale Rider is Eastwood’s second attempt at playing an avatar of death after his sophomoric directorial effort High Plains Drifter (1972).  Eastwood’s symbolic portrayal within the genre in Leone’s Dollars trilogy is venerated, but in his own directorial efforts, he sought to show how hollow many of the assumptions of the genre were.  The landscape was decayed and individuals were without honour.  By playing Death, Eastwood was underlining how the genre only really operated on the casual cruelties individual selfishness wrought upon burgeoning societies.  There is a bittersweetness to this film, one that transcends Unforgiven (1992), in the decision to have a young girl (Sydney Penny) fall in love with Death, a piercing demonstration of the hopelessness of our attractions.

 

 

  1. The Beguiled (1970 – Don Siegel)

 

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I’ve written about this film before (https://asidesteps.com/2016/04/01/the-beguiled-1971-don-seigel/) but feel I fouled up in my condemnation of the sexual politics of the film (and placed far too much anticipatory faith in Sofia Coppola to redeem it in her own version).  Whilst it can be distasteful at times in its portrayal of women, they are all presented with agency and intelligence, two characteristics that cannot substantially be attributed to Eastwood’s creepy Union soldier.  His initial flattering of Mae Mercer’s Hallie turns quickly to sexual intimidation and bigotry once he loses his position of power.  It reveals the shaky foundations (and lack of real conviction) that fuel many ‘progressive’ campaigns.  In itself, this a relationship of real complexity and interest, however superficially frustrating it may appear, and the film deserved better than my ‘woke’ original condemnation.

 

  1. The Eiger Sanction (1975 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Eastwood’s seventies spy thriller rises above the grungy aesthetics and dodgy sexual politics of its decade on the strength of its final third.  There is something about rock climbing that is utterly terrifying on the big screen – think of the opening to M:I-2 (2000 – John Woo) or the closing sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen).  Perhaps it is the knowledge that genuine risk is involved in the production.  Perhaps it is that cinema has always had a powerful depth-of-field and that this is only enhanced with heights.  Nail-bitingly terrifying, Eastwood’s ascent is a sequence you cannot tear yourself away from.

 

 

  1. The Bridges of Madison County (1993 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Often overshadowed by the admittedly towering achievement of Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County stands testament to complete mastery Eastwood has over the form.  Where the former film relies on Eastwood’s iconicity as a movie star, Bridges brings together his plaintive simplicity of melody, his mastery of tension within drama, and his quiet everyday control of restraint performance.  The moment where he sits in his car, the rain battering the windshield, desperately deciding whether to throw away his life or live with regret is burned into my memory.  I can recall his hand clutching the door handle as vividly as I recall many of my birthdays.  It is a moment so understated that most directors would mess it up.  But Eastwood has an understanding of how tiny gestures of movement and expression are explosive on the big screen.

(A Perfect World (1992) – relies on a similar control on performance, this time from Kevin Costner, and is just as affecting.)

Films seen September

God’s Own Country (2017 – Francis Lee)

 

A beautiful film which sought to convey most of the gay experience within its running time.  There was repression, blow-jobs and coming outs, and squalid fumbles in pub toilets, and all together it was quite moving.  It’s about a seventy minute film though, and the remaining run time was taken up by the standard signifier of British Independent Cinema… random shots of bits of nature.  Need to pad your film out?  Throw in a 30 second shot of a twig or something.

 

Where I was a scab and broke my boycott and went to the Greenwich Picturehouse because it was the cheapest place to see it.  Still cost £13 or so though.  Seen on a small but decent screen. 

 

 

Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin)

 

I’ve written about Cruising in depth on here before (here) but this was the first time I had seen the untampered version that was originally in cinemas.  It’s a more oblique affair, and the misdirections that Friedkin highlighted in his remastered version.  Two things struck me:

1) There are some very silly things about the film, particularly the big cowboy-hatted dude who appears in the interrogation scenes.

2) Friedkin is a master at involving the audience in such simple scenes as Pacino following his mark.

But it’s clear that now we all agree that Sorcerer (1977) is a masterpiece, Cruising is next in line to be rediscovered as a gem on cinema.

 

Seen on 35mm on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles Cinema.  Audience was typically obnoxious and the film was introduced by a professor from some university who had never seen it, but was able to place it within some cultural context.  Ticket cost £8.

 

 

Boogie Nights (1997 – Paul Thomas Anderson)

 

It’s a long way from being my favourite of Anderson’s, but the energy and silliness of this film are quite endearing.  And I adore the way it catches a second wind once it reaches the Alfred Molina scene with half an hour to go.  But it’s a lovely film and a reminder of a time when Julianne Moore and William H. Macy and John C. Reilly were all revelations.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman.  God, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  There’s this moment in this film which I’d never seen before, and could only have seen on the big screen where he tries to just touch Mark Wahlberg after his first sex scene and it breaks my heart to see it.  I miss him so much.

(And the scene between Marky Mark and his mother just speaks to me on so many levels)

 

Projected from a 35mm print on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Was preceded by Anderson’s Haim music video ‘Valentine’ (also on 35mm) which was thrilling enough to make me go and by their album.  All in all, it was a blindingly good three hours in the cinema, and the perfect way to spend my birthday.  Ticket cost £8.

 

 

Crash (1996 – David Cronenberg)

 

I’m going to be writing about this an awful lot in the future and in many ways this was research… but suffice to say that I think Crash speaks an awful lot to the human condition.  And now I need to write a few thousand words explaining why that is the case.

 

A 35mm print (the only one around) shown at the Regent St. Cinema.  It followed a conversation between a curator and Will Self about a new edition of Ballard’s novel.  Which was great and all, but they were rather dismissive of the sterile pleasures of the film and it was followed by a Q&A in which questions were often confused with statements.  Ticket cost £20.