Sunday, 20 October 2019

Possible Worlds

At look at the science-fiction films of Luc Besson

To look at the three science-fiction films of the writer and director Luc Besson is to witness the journey of a life in three-acts. Each film is emblematic of a particular stage in the filmmaker's career and helps to chart what might be called a rise and fall narrative: showing the beginning, middle and end of Besson's tenure as a respected (or even respectable) figure in contemporary European cinema. The three films illustrate the best and worst of Besson's work and abilities, and are worth looking at as a parallel to his wider career.

At the age of twenty-three, Luc Besson began production on what would eventually become his first feature-length film, The Last Battle (1983). Unlike his contemporaries, Jean-Jacques Beineix - whose first film, Diva (1981), had brought pop-stylisation and a focus on youth culture to the heart of the French cinema with a story combining self-reflexive elements of film noir, action movie and alienated romanticism - and Leos Carax - who a year later would centre his own cinema on an exploration of twenty-something existentialism in the suburban black and white wanderings of Boy Meets Girl (1984) - Besson wasn't drawn to filmmaking because of any great passion for the medium. Growing up with an interest in comic books and deep sea diving, Besson fell into movies when a diving accident left him unable to continue his chosen profession. He turned to writing and subsequently to odd jobs on film sets, before graduating to the role of director on various TV commercials and music videos.

Perhaps due in part to his back-story and the fact that his aesthetic and thematic preoccupations had yet to be coloured by filmic conventions or mainstream expectations, The Last Battle remains an anomaly in Besson's career: a near wordless, black and white, post-apocalyptic fantasy about two desperate warriors fighting for possession of the last surviving woman. Brief scenes of action and humour, predicative of the path Besson would later take, are certainly evident, but ultimately it's a film more concerned with atmosphere, symbolism and ideas.

For those familiar with Besson's later efforts, such as his recent action movies, the mononymic double-bill of Lucy (2014) and Anna (2019) respectively, The Last Battle might seem like a challenge. Finding its aesthetic identity halfway between an esoteric art-house picture, like Claude Faraldo's similarly wordless satire Themroc (1973), and a low-budget semi-exploitation movie, like George Miller's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), it remains a far cry from the slick, unpretentious, mainstream movies that now dominate Besson's oeuvre.

The Last Battle [Luc Besson, 1983]:

While one could take Besson's choice of shooting in black and white as an artistic statement, I think it's something more practical. Besson wants to show a stylised world: a world without colour. Black and white expresses this in the literal sense. While one could look at these images and see something of Tarkovsky, I think Besson's real influence and inspiration comes directly from the black and white printing of certain comic books.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec [Jacques Tardi, 1976]:

For example.

Themroc [Claude Faraldo, 1973]:

The Last Battle takes place in a world without language. While set in a potential future ravaged by war or disaster, it's an image of the future informed by the distant past. The regression of characters and conditions to an almost medieval of even pre-historic level, seems to owe something to Themroc, another absurdist film in which language has become inexpressive as a symptom of societal collapse.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior [George Miller, 1981]:

The Road Warrior is another film that views the future through a reflection of the past, finding in its ravaged wastelands something redolent of the American west. As one of the most influential films of the 1980s, it's hard not to see the image of Mel Gibson as the battle warn scavenger in the conception of the central characters of Besson's first feature.

Like Miller's film, the world of The Last Battle is one of rubble and ruin. The protagonist, another brooding survivor scavenging the wastelands for scrap metal and car parts to construct a primitive glider, takes shelter in a high rise office building marooned in the middle of an arid desert. Into this world, a gang of feral criminals seek retribution from the scavenger, who has previously invaded the inner-sanctum of their scrapheap compound; another reminder of the autogeddon nightmares of Miller's aforementioned film.

In the image of this graveyard of wrecked cars Besson latches onto something previously touched upon by both Jean-Luc Godard in his proto-apocalyptic masterpiece Week End (1967) and the English author J.G. Ballard in his unsettling psychological novel "Crash" (published 1973): in short, the image of the automobile as a symbol for the twentieth century, with wider connotations of escape, freedom, consumer consumption, death and civilisation. For both Godard and Ballard, the car crash is a shorthand for the collapse of civilisation: a sign the things have stopped moving; that the world and life have collided with some unmovable object and reached a standstill. The same seems true for Besson.

Week End [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967]:

The Last Battle [Luc Besson, 1983]:

It's perhaps in part due to the cult nature of The Last Battle that Besson's subsequent films were treated more like art-house variations on mainstream genres rather than as mainstream movies with pretentions to depth. While not characteristic of the Besson of recent decades, The Last Battle nonetheless establishes many of the key themes and preoccupations that have continued to develop throughout the filmmaker's subsequent work: stoic, almost childlike warriors trapped in a cycle of violence; an older mentor figure living in seclusion; an emphasis on worlds and world-building; a problematic view of women as prizes or possessions; a high-style approach that results in a lingering atmosphere and countless arresting images.

As his first feature-length science-fiction film, The Last Battle endears itself, albeit vaguely, to two of Besson's later films within the same genre: the excellent The Fifth Element (1997) and the dreadful Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). Each film shows the development (or corruption) of the Besson aesthetic as it moves further and further away from the wordless, abstract, dreamlike, black and white stylisation of the film in question to become something that appears closer to the work of any other mainstream Hollywood practitioner.

At his peak in the 1990s, Besson was one of the filmmakers who defined the cinematic zeitgeist. Taking a healthy influence from Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam (themselves heavily influenced by French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville) and then filtering their particular brand of heightened heroic bloodshed back through the iconography of comic books, fashion photos, pop videos, advertising and a particular brand of Gallic eccentricity, Besson succeeded in created influential works, such as La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon (The Professional, 1994), all leading towards the completion of his long-gestating passion project (and return to science-fiction), The Fifth Element.

The Fifth Element [Luc Besson, 1997]:

Taking a small measure of influence from the French comic book artist and writer Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, The Fifth Element is a dazzling visual achievement that never feels generic or derivative of other films. It's a great example of a filmmaker being given the biggest budget of their career but still producing something that is absolutely infused with their own personality and recognisable cinematic aesthetic.

On its release, The Fifth Element was a film that looked like nothing else. Its imagery, scale, effects and imagination were extraordinary. No other mainstream blockbuster released in 1997 could compare to its ambition and originality. Even now, over twenty years later, it remains a unique, even daring work of big budget, high-concept weirdness. A perfect synthesis of Besson's comic book influences and his own pop-cinema aesthetic, which had been developing across his previous films.

Like The Last Battle, Besson's The Fifth Element encapsulates everything that is great about the director's work - his visual imagination, his propensity for action, his post-modernism, his dopey, if not naive sense of romanticism -  but also its glaring flaws. Besson is hopeless at comedy, both visual and verbal, and yet insists on peppering his work with comedic 'beats', as if terrified that the films will seem self-serious if robbed of such moments of would-be mirth. He allows actors to over-emote to almost pantomime levels, turning characters into caricatures; less fully-formed human beings than a collection of verbal or physical tics. Worst of all, he's entirely deficient when it comes to the creation of female characters, and has a truly terrible grasp of modern sexual politics.

One of the things I'd like to look at in a later post is Besson's supposed feminism. It speaks to the dearth of strong female characters (and strong female voices) in the action genre of the 1980s and early 1990s that Besson's work was ever considered empowering, but apparently it was. Give a girl a gun and let her play as dirty as the boys and suddenly you're not just subverted genre tropes, you've created a movement: but is this empowerment or male fantasy? Besson's feminist credentials were deeply problematic even before the recent sexual assault allegations made against him in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the thread of sexism that runs throughout his work is already manifest in the characterisation of Leeloo, played here by Milla Jovovich.

The Fifth Element [Luc Besson, 1997]:

Though ostensibly a film aimed at family audiences, Besson indulges in several scenes of casual female nudity. In each instance, the nudity is presented as matter-of-fact and non-sexualised, but it's also deeply voyeuristic and often objectifies the character at her most vulnerable.

Leeloo is the archetypical Bessonian heroine. She's a lean, athletic warrior-woman capable of seducing and destroying men with her physicality. She looks like a fashion model and freely objectifies herself. She's also completely childlike, simple-minded and devoid of agency. She obeys the men who act as her guardians and seems pre-programmed to fall in love with them. While a talented fighter and led by a noble cause, she's ultimately a prop, there to be used by the hero (and director) to engender sympathy, compassion, action or titillation. The pattern of the Bessonian heroine is simple: shut up, look great and remain subservient to the male lead.

Leeloo survives as a character thanks to Jovovich. As an actor she instils the character with a real warmth and emotion that gives her a complexity perhaps lacking on the page. She also has a genuine chemistry with her co-star Bruce Willis, which makes a tired romantic wish-fulfilment sub-plot actually work. Despite the shortcomings of the character as written and the casual sexism that features in the majority of Besson's screenplays, Jovovich turns in a remarkable performance here, elevating both the film and the character to iconic levels, and finding some sense of humanity and vulnerability in the director's flight of adolescent fantasy.

If The Fifth Element was an example of Besson being ahead of the curve in his use of modern special effects, prosthetic work and computer generated imagery to create a fully immersive and engaging world, then "Valerian" is an example of a filmmaker playing catch up. On the surface of it, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like a return to the kind of filmmaking and storytelling found in The Fifth Element. However, the appalling narrative structure and fatal miscasting of the two comic book heroes, leave the film dead on arrival. Both lead actors, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, have a vacant, dead-eyed quality to them, lacking both the personality and charisma necessary for the audience to feel invested in their adventures. Furthermore, the sub-Phantom Menace (1999) world-building and horribly dated sexual politics, only work to remind the audience how redundant and archaic the film is by the standards of the day.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Luc Besson, 2017]:

Arriving after a decade of innovative special effects driven movies by filmmakers as diverse as George Lucas, James Cameron, Lana and Lily Wachowskis and Alfonso Cuarón, to say nothing of an entire decade's worth of large-scale CGI spectacle offered by Marvel Studios' unending glut of superhero content, such as The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), "Valerian" doesn't have the immediate wow factor that The Fifth Element once had. While the earlier film had pegged Besson as an innovator, "Valerian" feels like imitation.

To compare Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to The Last Battle shows how far Besson has travelled as a filmmaker. While narratively inert, vaguely sketched and not always engaging, The Last Battle is nonetheless the work of a filmmaker following a set of instincts that aren't dictated by commerce or marketability. It builds on familiar influences, like The Road Warrior and its second-hand allusions to Italian Westerns, comic books and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and creates from it something that feels different and new.

The Last Battle remains a great showcase for the early Besson aesthetic: his keen eye for framing and use of the landscape and architectural spaces to define his characters and their worlds is already evident. It's also a film that connects to politics, albeit vaguely, illustrating the lack of prospects that young people were facing in the France of the early 1980s, and the idea of subcultures and surrogate families, which would be further explored in the director's subsequent film Subway (1985). By comparison "Valerian" looks like any other big budget fantasy film released in the 2010s. Real-world politics are largely absent, which is fine: The Fifth Element wasn't political either. But The Fifth Element does succeed on a  a level of pop-artistry and post-modern invention, which can't be said about "Valerian."

To look at these three films is to see an illustration of the rise and fall of Luc Besson. From his beginnings as a maker of modest cult cinema that was visually distinctive and thematically interesting, to the maker of influential pop-cinema - where his imagery captured the opulence, scale and colour of classic comic books long before Hollywood had caught up to their potential - and finally beyond, to the lazy, generic filmmaker comfortable enough to recycle other people's innovations while struggling to evoke past glories.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Luc Besson

An introduction?

It might seem preposterous to consider today, but there was once a time when Luc Besson was regarded by some factions of the cineaste mainstream as one of the coolest and most exciting filmmakers of his generation. For kids like me discovering movies at the end of the 1990s, Besson's name was a shorthand for a particular type of haute couture action cinema, which became a brand unto itself. A younger, more energetic cinema: lionised at the time by the generation of critics that came before us, who responded to what they perceived as Besson's subversion of the kind of mannered, bourgeois, domestic movies that typified the supposedly staid French cinema of the period.

The narrative surrounding Besson during this stage of his career was that his work cut through what many English-speaking critics saw as the pretentious or elitist nature of his native cinema, and opened it up to a new audience looking for style, action and emotional intensity. Besson's biggest hits from this period, Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990) and his supposed pinnacle, Léon (or The Professional, 1994), delivered mainstream excess, action and violence, but with a creative eye for the kind of fashionable stylisation often found on the margins of the European art-house.

The films were fast-moving, erupting onto the screen with a burst of kinetic action and physicality - shoot-outs and car-chases taken shot-for-shot from either Hollywood or Hong Kong genre cinema: here supplanted into the suburbs of surrounding Paris, an alien's view of New York city, or some far off intergalactic setting - but they also contained an emphasis on oddball characters, moments of comedic eccentricity, and a romantic tone at odds with the scenes of violence and brutality. In short: Besson's films apparently made audiences feel as if they were watching something with a highbrow or artistic sensibility, while at the same time satiating them with a surface level sensationalism, simple plotting and characters devoid of agency or depth.

Reading Susan Hayward's eponymous 1998 study on Besson and his films (published as part of the series 'French Film Directors', which includes similar volumes on everyone from Jean Epstein and Georges Melies, to Catherine Breillat and Leos Carax), is currently doing for me what great criticism should: making me think about the work from a different perspective; opening it up to broader, more critical readings; placing the films into wider, political, social and aesthetic frameworks; providing context and justification.

Luc Besson [Susan Hayward/Manchester University Press, 1998]:

Hayward's book was published at the exact moment when Besson was at the pinnacle of his early career. The time at which infant millennials with a burgeoning interest in all things film, like myself, were being told by the still young critics of Generation X that this Besson guy was the real deal. A year later Besson would release his first outright critical and commercial failure, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and from here would descend further along a path that has led to terrible films like Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), Lucy (2014) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), among others.

Given this late career shift, which has seen Besson progress from being someone known primarily as a writer and director of acclaimed cult cinema to a writer and producer of successful B-movies, such as Taxi (1998), The Transporter (2002), Taken (2008) and their resulting franchises, all of which were box-office hits despite often terrible reviews, it would be interesting to see a revised and updated version of Hayward's book that includes the filmmaker's subsequent efforts, as well as an examination of some of the more contentious elements of his work - specifically his depiction of women - against the sexual assault allegations that have since been levelled against him.

Today, Besson isn't considered very "cool" by the mainstream film community, and with good reason. Of his work over the past twenty-two years I've only found merit in two of his features: Angel-A (2005) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010). Even some of his earlier films that impressed me as an adolescent have since been re-evaluated and have fallen significantly in my estimation. However, a combination of nostalgia and the persuasive writing of Hayward is nonetheless making me curious to go back and look at these films in an attempt to discuss how they tie into the narrative of Besson's career, and his often problematic and contradictory worldview.

In the spirit of this, I've written some thoughts on Besson's films, beginning with his first, the wordless post-apocalyptic fantasy The Last Battle (1983) and its links to the director's later science-fiction efforts, specifically The Fifth Element (1997) and the aforementioned "Valerian." However, I'm still struggling to find a point to this that might be worth making: a reason for committing to the article, as both a project and a theme, given my absence of any genuine passion for the subject matter. In a world where so many films that are great and meaningful to me are ignored and denigrated by the popular culture, is it really worth my time to be analysing Besson's work from a perspective of cynicism? I don't know. Hopefully as I delve deeper into Hayward's discourse, which is so-far fascinating, some points and counter points will become clear.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Last Man to Leave

Thoughts on the album "Merrie Land" by The Good The Bad and The Queen
Originally written in December 2018

Although unlikely to garner much attention during next year's award season, one of my absolute favourite on-screen performances this year is Damon Albarn's beguiling turn as the ventriloquist dummy that appears in all ten promotional videos released in support of Merrie Land (2018): the second and very much long-awaited new album from Albarn's non-Blur, non-Gorrilaz side-project, The Good The Bad and The Queen.

As a more-than-worthy follow-up to the band's brilliant, self-titled 2007 debut, this second release continues the same approach of exploring the vague notions of "British identity" against a diverse musical soundscape, while at the same time presenting a wry but evocative commentary on the modern cultural landscape, its politics and the general mood of the day.

If the first album took as its focus the growing surveillance state of New Labour's "broken" Britain - still caught within the grip of post-7/7 terrorism, the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the climate of economic excess that would inevitably lead to the financial collapse of the following year - then Merrie Land finds its obvious target in the disastrous Brexit situation.

By focusing specifically on the fallout from Brexit - with every element of the album, from its music and lyrics, to its song-titles and packaging managing to evoke the current zeitgeist of confusion, fear and cultural disagreement - Albarn and company have succeeded in producing not just a 'complete work', in the artistic sense, but a genuine statement.

The Truce of Twilight (Performance Video) [Paul Simonon, 2019]:

Beginning with the first track, a short piece of dialog sampled from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece A Canterbury Tale (1944), the album establishes a context of old English parochialism: that "martyr's dream" of an Arcadian idyll, all stiff-upper lipped determination, quaint village greens and cathedrals heralding the glories of God. From this point on, the subsequent ten songs offer a clear thread of wry observational commentary backed by engaging instrumentation, as the ensuing album traverses the outer reaches of the British landscape; from the cities and their surrounding suburbs, to the quiet villages and once-thriving coastal towns.

The ten videos produced to accompany the majority of songs taken from the album find Albarn buried beneath layers of intricate prosthetics to become the ventriloquist dummy. In each of the videos he sits in front of  an intentionally flat, two-dimensional green-screen backdrop, which changes from one song to the next in order to better present a specific mood, character or emotion.

Each persona, while uniform and unchanging, captures a different facet of the British "identity" (though the term itself is a misnomer: there is no one cultural identity definable as British, but countless different identities, all of them "British", all of them occupying the same plot of land.) However we chose to identify ourselves, personally or politically - whether we voted to 'leave' or 'remain', or didn't vote at all, whichever the case may be - the dummy here is us.

2. Merrie Land

3. Gun to Head

4. Nineteen Seventeen

5. The Great Fire

6. Lady Boston

7. Drifters and Trawlers

8. The Truce of Twilight

9. Ribbons

10. The Last Man to Leave

11. The Pioson Tree

The appearance of the dummy itself is inspired by a segment from the Ealing Studios anthology film Dead of Night (1945). The segment, titled The Ventriloquist's Dummy, sees the titular object develop a mind of its own, terrorising its master who can no longer control its amoral urges. Or does it? Is the dummy really possessed, or is the ventriloquist simply losing his grip on reality? Significantly, a still image from the film also features as part of the album's artwork.

Merrie Land [The Good The Bad and The Queen, 2018]:

In the presentation of the dummy, Albarn finds the perfect symbol for Brexit, if not Britain itself. This thing that has somehow gotten away from its own master, saying and doing appalling things without punishment, and destroying the psyche of the individual that can who can no longer control it.

Merrie Land combines the same musical influences of The Good The Bad and The Queen's first album, chiefly folk, ska and dub, but adds an element of music hall. In interviews accompanying the album's release, Albarn said he was influenced by the Northern English town of Blackpool. Fittingly, the music here has the feel of faded seaside glamour, empty funfairs and a world where the last bastions of "Englishness" (fish and chips, novelty postcards, cups of tea) struggle to remain relevant.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Red and The Blue

Thoughts on the film: Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

First scene, pre-credits: a battle upon a rooftop. The evil Rebi Ra has sided with the demon world to become all-powerful. In attempting to open a portal that will unleash the demon world into that of our own, Rebi Ra is challenged by a former associate, Genichirō Izayoi. From the first images, the presence of Rebi Ra - and by extension, the demon world itself - is linked to the colour red. The presence of Genichirō and the side of good is linked to the colour blue.

In these first frames we can already see an obvious polarity between these saturated colours: red, with its connotations of heat - equating to hell, violence and "sin" - and blue, with its connotations of cold - equating to logic, introspection and the natural world. In a sense, these are the colours of dawn and dusk, falling at either end of a chromatic spectrum. Red also suggests fire, but in a way so does blue. The blue flame burns brighter, and perhaps that's the point.

Throughout the film the colours will be at war with one another: their battle for dominance over the cinematic frame mirroring that of the battle between characters on-screen.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As a visual aesthetic, this same contrasting colour palette was used previously in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's earlier film, Wicked City (1987). As in this film, Wicked City concerns itself with the battle between a demon world and our own. Though both films are unrelated and based on individual source materials, there are parallels that go beyond simple auteurism to suggest an actual lineage. In Wicked City, a human agent and a demon agent must join forces to attempt to stop the "black world" from encroaching on reality. Their relationship again defined by this same contrast between a red and blue lighting strategy. The colours there were redolent of that of a police siren: an invocation of law and order?

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The same connotations apply there as they do here, but the aesthetic was used much more sparingly in Wicked City than it is in this subsequent work. From the outset, the interplay between the two colours is made a defining feature of Demon City Shinjuku, obvious even in the on-screen presentation of its title. The text is repeated twice, once in red, and again in blue, as both colours re-enact a version of the rooftops battle that we've previously seen. Here, it's the colour blue that remains dominant: a telling sign perhaps of which side of this cosmic battle its filmmakers have taken.

[NOTE: One could argue from the screen-captures included that black is also a dominant colour. However, I tend to think of black, in this context, as a neutral backdrop, like the white of a piece of paper. The blank canvas or arena of a medieval darkness on to which these colours, as a personification, interact.]

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

Let's cut back to that opening fight for a second. In narrative terms, this scene is pure exposition. It establishes a context and back-story, but also gives purpose to our as-yet to be introduced central character, Kyoya Izayoi: Genichirō's son. One of the defining characteristics of the anime films of this period is their ability to marry exposition to scenes of action and spectacle. In conventional terms, it's unrealistic to assume that these characters would be sharing necessary background information so freely during the midst of battle, but then there is very little in the film that is realistic, or that aims to reflect reality in the literal sense. As such it's something we either embrace and go along with, or reject and move on.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As the battle here progresses, Kawajiri and his animators push the saturation of the colours even further, abstracting the reality of the (human) world as it might ordinarily appear and showing instead how it is destroyed (or reclaimed) by the shadowy supernatural forces of the demon world. There are broader social and political implications to this scene, specific to the destruction of Japan by the allies during the Second World War, which I'll return to in more detail in a subsequent post, however, there's also something more subconscious to this relationship between man and "world" that is worth remarking on.

At this point, it's probably not a massive spoiler to suggest that the noble Genichirō loses his battle. It's often a cliché in such films that the early death of a character is used to provide purpose to the subsequent protagonist, and especially if the deceased character is a parent, as is the case here. However, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the characters and the worlds that they inhabit. For example, if Genichirō is wounded, then the world is wounded. If Genichirō dies then the world dies too. Each physical wound against the human body causes a corporeal "wound" upon the landscape itself.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

This subsequent shot, depicting the bruised and bloodied figure of Genichirō, makes the point somewhat clear. As the character approaches death he must look on, hopelessly, as the city he was fighting to protect falls into rubble and disarray. The colour red, now the colour of blood, suggests the severity of his wounds and the visualisation of life escaping into the shadowy depths: further clarifying the role that red, as a colour, will play in signifying death.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

After the defeat of Genichirō, the subsequent shot of the city as it's reduced to rubble is entirely saturated in the colour red. In this timeline, blue has been removed from the palette. I'll return to this image in a subsequent post as I find its significance goes far beyond the level of mere aesthetics and opens up on an interesting thread that runs throughout many Japanese genre films of this period (and especially in OAV/anime movies.)

Demon City Shinjuku is in no way a masterwork. It's anticlimactic - feeling more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent narrative - and is marred by many of the shortcomings of other Kawajiri films, specifically his fondness for obnoxious characters and scenes of sexual violence against women. However, it stands out in part due to its bold imagery, its nightmares of body horror mutation and the atmosphere of its ruined world.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Sheltering Sky

Thoughts on the book by Paul Bowles

"And in the same fashion, the strange languor in the centre of her consciousness, those vaporous ideas which kept appearing, as though independently of her will, were mere tentative fragments of her own presence, looming against the nothingness of a sleep not yet cold. A sleep still powerful enough to return and take her in its arms. But she remained awake; the nascent light invading her eyes, and still no corresponding aliveness awoke within her; she had no feeling of being anywhere, or being anyone."

Several years ago I saw Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the book in question and found it rather forgettable. The film version felt like the story of a bourgeois couple who venture off the beaten track in search of new experiences and pay the price for their xenophobic entitlement. It was all surface, with none of the deeper nuances or illusory tone that Bowles captures so brilliantly in his book. Here, the connection with the female protagonist, Kit Moresby, is so absolute, that it becomes impossible to view the book as anything less than the story of a woman seeking liberation against the imprisoning factors that attempt to define and dominate her throughout. Feelings of guilt and grief circle about the thoughts of this character like the encroaching sandstorms that drift across the book's arid North African deserts, as Kit finds herself incarcerated repeatedly by systems and circumstances, and finally by the landscape itself.

The Sheltering Sky [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990]:

I saw the Bertolucci film for the first time in October 2012. At the time I wrote the following: "Like its characters, the film is in too much of a hurry to get from one location to the next; rarely capturing the atmosphere or the colour of a place before we're off again, onto the next misadventure. Bertolucci seems to view North Africa with a cynical suspicion. The landscapes may be striking but the people are seen as shady, even untrustworthy. The closing lines are beautiful (and beautifully delivered by the author himself) but offer only a vague hint to the reflective and possibly even poetic film that might have existed before it collapsed into melodramatic excess."

The Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles, 1949]:

Needless to say I found the book remarkable. Not least in its storytelling, but in its moments of evocation and surrealism. Passages where the language becomes so heightened and atmospheric that it passes through the influences of observation and the "travelogue" to become charged with something altogether more figurative and revealing. Images that are stark and entirely unforgettable in their illustration, but also in what they communicate; imparting upon the narrative something richer, more psychological and suggestive. Without wishing to spoil anything for the uninitiated, the final part of the book in particular maintains an odd, dreamlike tone, becoming more than just a continuation of the character's journey but an effort to distil the narrative of the first two parts into a figurative, psycho-dramatic, psychosexual expression of Kit's inner consciousness.

I took my copy of the book with me on a recent Scottish excursion and as such it's now pretty beat up. However, the bends and tears that mark its cover and the water damage seeped into its yellowing pages each bear the memories of that great trip, which of course feels fitting for a book about travel, and about the lure of losing oneself completely in a culture that isn't your own. I may return to the Bertolucci film at some point in the near future to see if a familiarity with the book deepens or enriches the adaptation, but in all honesty I think the subconscious film that was constructed in my own mind during the reading of Bowles's evocative and illusory text remains more powerful and certainly more transportive.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Thoughts on the 9th (?) film by Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is a difficult one to unpack, critically speaking, so this cursory review, if one can even call it such, is more a summing up of initial thoughts, as opposed to any sort of definitive statement. An attempt to process some of the reactions to the film, both from my own initial viewing, as well as the cultural conversations that have surrounded the film since its first release.

To begin, I felt the charges of racism and misogyny seemed a bit off to me, although his female characters have never been more transparent as they are here. It's rare for a Tarantino film to be this lacking in non-white representation, but not unprecedented. Reservoir Dogs (1992) has only one black supporting character, and Inglourious Basterds (2009), despite historical revisionism, is still a largely "white" film. And while the violence at the end of "Once Upon a Time..." is certainly gratuitous, its aimed at both sexes. Tarantino's violence has never had a gender bias.

I had greater problems with the more conventional aspects of the film; chiefly its narrative structure. Tarantino has always been wildly indulgent as a screenwriter, but it's difficult to think of another film of his as undisciplined as this. For a good 90-minutes "Once Upon a Time..." has a relaxed, conversational quality that evokes filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater; positively luxuriating as it does in a painstakingly recreated late-1960s setting, where scene after scene of characters going about their odd-jobs and daily routines feel designed to barely progress the narrative but suggest something of a life being lived. At one point Tarantino throws in a flashback within a flashback, both of which function mostly as covert exposition (essentially to establish stuntman Cliff's almost superhuman abilities and ease around death - both of which pay off in the final scenes) before jumping eight months ahead for a last act, which for some reason now has a storybook narrator.

I wonder if Tarantino has become so accustomed to dividing his films into chapters that he's now incapable to telling a straight story? Unlike the unconventional narratives of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), the storytelling of "Once Upon a Time..." just has the feel of bad plotting.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

After seeing the film, I wrote on Facebook that it was, for the most part: "Tarantino's most restrained and mature film since Jackie Brown; finding an emphasis on leisurely observation, period detail and genuine melancholy. A film that at first seems to be preoccupied with a feeling of finality; its disparate strands of plot and the collisions between real-life and fantasy always arriving at the end of things; the end of the Hollywood studio system, the state of innocence, the American "West", a life, the friendship that exists between men, etc. Then all of a sudden it isn't; erupting into an orgy of cartoon violence in its final scenes.

The title however is the clue. "Once Upon a Time...", like in a fairy-story? Here Tarantino wants to show the triumph of Hollywood escapism over brutal reality; re-writing history to provide the closure, catharsis (even vengeance) that real life denies us, but which the cinema is more than capable to indulge. As Carleton Young said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But is this enough?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [John Ford, 1962]:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

If I have a complaint about the film it's this: I wish Tarantino had shown enough courage to follow the story through to its historical conclusion. Throughout so much of the film there's a sick-inducing sense of tension and inevitability developing around the expectation of the real-life horrors to come. In this sense, the characterisation of Sharon Tate is the film's representation of American innocence - primed as she is to be lost in a bloodbath of counter-cultural decadence - and the often observational scenes of her character gong about her daily life have a beautiful sadness to them, which is powerful. But by subverting the reality of Tate's eventual fate, Tarantino betrays those scenes and reduces the characterisation to nothing. A shame."

I liked "Once Upon a Time..." a lot better than my least favourite of Tarantino's work to-date, Django Unchained (2013), where the extended third act descent into cartoon violence felt more egregious. But as much as I found a lot to appreciate here, it still ranks as one of the weaker Tarantino efforts for me, far behind my very favourite films of his, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight (2015).

As an aside, I would argue that "Once Upon a Time..." could form an odd little triptych with two other recent "auteurist" films, The House That Jack Built (2018) by Lars von Trier and Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan, in the sense that they function both as a kind of final statement or meta-commentary on their filmmakers' respective careers (loaded as they are with all the quirks, eccentricities and manipulations that their authors are best known for), but also a provocation to the audiences that have both derided and defended them; "doubling down" as it were on the more contentious aspects of their aesthetic and ideological concerns to the extent that the films both define and obfuscate (intentionally?) their actual intentions.

The sense of nostalgia permeates every aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its evocation of late-1960s Los Angeles to the point at which the film becomes less concerned with the more conventional development of character and plot, and instead finds drama and interest in the images of actors driving classic cars through painstakingly recreated Hollywood streets; where the camera picks out and lingers on period signage and billboard advertisements while songs and commercials play from stereo to stereo. For Tarantino, such sequences are the backbone of the film, and it's this immersive, atmospheric quality and the sense of period authenticity that really defines the film as a genuine experience.