Sunday, 17 November 2019

A Question of Aesthetics

Thoughts on a film: Repo Chick (2009)

It's been ten years since the release of Repo Chick (2009); writer and director Alex Cox's self-proclaimed "non-sequel" to his earlier but still very much enduring cult-classic, Repo Man (1984). At the time I'd intended to post something about the look and stylisation of the film, which struck me (and still does) as incredibly intelligent, even satirical; however, a combination of laziness and procrastination meant I never got around to it. Having recently read and blogged about Cox's great and very self-deprecating 2008 book, "X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker", I'm once again drawn to discussing the director's work and feeling compelled to come to the defence of this particular film, which seems misunderstood.

A cursory glance at the YouTube comments for the film's trailer, or indeed the user reviews posted on Letterboxd and the IMDb, give an immediate impression as to why Repo Chick was so mocked and derided. The general consensus is that the film looks cheap (it was, comparatively speaking: the final production budget was $200,000) and that the imagery is flat, fake and bordering on the amateurish. Two of these criticisms seem fair. The imagery is flat - it's frequently composed in a presentational, tableau-vivant style, which restricts the natural movement of the actors within the frame - and it is fake. All scenes were shot with the actors positioned in front of a green-screen, with the backdrops - created through a combination of miniatures, old toys and CGI - added in later. But is it amateurish? I'm not so sure.

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

Given the context of Cox's film, its emphasis on a superficial character - a kind of post-Paris Hilton/pre-Kim Kardashian trust-fund millennial forced to work and engage with the seamier side of life following the 2008 financial crash - it would be fair to say that the film is meant to reflect the point of view of its title character and her background of sheltered privilege. If the world looks fake - and it does - then it's probably because the character is fake. The presentation of the world here is seemingly superficial, made childish and immature in order to reflect the character's sense of arrested development. The artificiality of it, the flatness, the plasticity, are all intentional, and suggest the life of a character imprisoned by circumstances and a culture devoid of authenticity.

In terms of its context and conception, the stylisation of the film, with its posed artificiality, its falseness, the almost Barbie™ doll diorama of it all, is incredibly important to the film's wider socio-political subtext. The character becomes a toy, controlled and manipulated by unseen forces. Through this, Cox is creating a dual commentary: on one hand  illustrating how people, especially young people, are controlled and manipulated by the culture, the media and marketing, by parents and peers, while on the other hand illustrating something of a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of cinema and storytelling, where actors are moved around a play-set facsimile of the world and given thoughts, actions and opinions by some omnipotent, controlling force.

While stylised to look intentionally cheap and kitsch, the filmmaking is in fact incredibly clever and works to suggest subtleties and nuances in the text and sub-text of the film. If audiences found this style dismissible, or refused to engage with it on the academic, post-modern level at which it was clearly aimed, then it's probably because the "form" stands in direct contrast to their perceptions of what a film should be; or more specifically, what an Alex Cox film should be in the context of the earlier Repo Man and its particular "brand."

Repo Man [Alex Cox, 1984]:

Contrast and compare with the imagery from the earlier Repo Man, with its gritty Los Angeles noir and nods to atomic-age B-movies recalling the apparently more authentic and conventional influences of The Driver (1978) by Walter Hill or Kiss Me Deadly (1955) by Robert Aldrich.

What critics and audiences were really reacting against in their dismissal of Repo Chick and its particular visual aesthetic was that the film didn't conform to their expectations of what an Alex Cox film should be. Even though the film is true to the same spirit of post-modernist deconstruction, socialist politics, genre play and subverting expectations consistent throughout the filmmakers career, the markedly different approach to the stylisation - which looks nothing like the earlier Repo Man or Sid & Nancy (1986) - saw Repo Chick dismissed as a failed experiment.

Rather than look at the film for what it is, viewers approached it in the context of what it isn't. They wanted the real Los Angeles with its grit and grime, the car chases, the urban sprawl and decay, the disenfranchised Generation X mentality of drop-out nihilism, and they balked when they didn't get it. Rather than embrace Repo Chick as something different, something new or something alive with ideas and ideals, critics of the film merely turned to derivative efforts such as Drive (2011) and Nightcrawler (2014), finding their fix for alienated L.A. noir in those particular works instead.

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

It's worth mentioning that Cox doesn't categorise Repo Chick as an actual sequel to Repo Man; however, given both the title and its plot contrivances, as well as the obvious facts that both films are by the same writer and director, it's not unreasonable for people to drawn comparisons.

In the ten years since Repo Chick was released to mixed reviews and much bemusement across social media, the general language of the mainstream cinema has shifted. The rapid development of digital cinematography, CGI and green-screen technology, has meant that the cinema, post-Avatar (2009) by James Cameron, has become increasingly artificial, with the line between live-action and animation, especially in relation to recent Dinsey® remakes, such as The Lion King (2019), becoming increasingly blurred. If we're to still cling to the criticisms of Cox's film and its flat, artificial aesthetic, then how do we square that with recent films that have been acclaimed by audiences and critics as pinnacles of the modern cinema? Are the images from Repo Chick more or less fake-looking than this?

Black Panther [Ryan Coogler, 2018]:

The above images are of course taken from massively acclaimed, Oscar® nominated Marvel™ blockbuster, Black Panther (2018). While the imagery here has a gloss and a scale that the Cox film isn't able to compete with, it's still to all intents and purposes, flat and artificial. The images lack depth, scale and spatial authenticity, and yet despite all this they're not embracing artificiality as an aesthetic choice, but merely putting up with its lack of photo-realism because the convenience dictates.

The makers of Black Panther aren't satirising the falseness of a character or their arrested state-of-development. Images such as the ones seen here are meant to be believable and true to life. Is it also worth mentioning that the Marvel film in question had a production budget of $210million, enough to fund Cox's film countless times over, and yet the imagery - so acclaimed by modern critics - is scarcely "better" than that of Repo Chick, and certainly less distinctive.

No one would say that the imagery from Black Panther looks amateurish, but the fact remains that is doesn't look authentic, convincing or real. Like Repo Chick, the imagery looks flat and fake. And yet no one has levelled this as a criticism against Black Panther, or of other films in the same comic book sub-genre, such as Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015), or the more recent Aquaman (2019). All of these films were shot in the same manner as Cox's film, with the actors in front of a green screen, and the backdrops rendered later in post-production. And yet the deliberate stylisations of Repo Chick were seen as a deterrent to the film's success - while Black Panther can look like a 90s video game movie and still get nominated for "best cinematography" by members of the Film Critics Association Awards.

Black Panther [Ryan Coogler, 2018]:

Repo Chick [Alex Cox, 2009]:

In Repo Chick, the image has context. The style, no matter how contentious or derided, is a part of the content. There is no context for the garish imagery of films like Aquaman or the video-game-like flatness of Black Panther. These films are aesthetically deficient, not to create a point, but because they're manufactured products. Unlike the stylisation of Repo Chick, the additional films discussed here represent no unique vision, purpose or intent. They're simply examples of the corporate cinema, which unfortunately continues to triumph over the genuinely independent cinema that Cox is dedicated to.

Styling Repo Chick to look and feel identical, aesthetically, to the earlier Repo Man, might've served the kind of audiences and critics that don't go to the movies to be challenged or provoked. It may have even resulted in a return to cult-movie acclaim for its writer and director, who rejected the lure of Hollywood to make greater films like Walker (1987) and El Patrullero (1991). However, it would've been a mistake. By rejected nostalgic recreation and instead embracing the new, the independent, the handmade, Cox is remaining close to the spirit of post-punk anarchism that runs throughout his career. After all, there's nothing less radical than a middle-aged artist trying to play to the nostalgia crowd by becoming a tribute-act to their own past work. Just look at The Rolling Stones.

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.