2010s, Action-Adventure, Biopic, Sports

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

aka Le Mans ‘66

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Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

By Roderick Heath

Rain, speed, dark: the opening scenes of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari offer a driver’s-eye-view of racing on the famous Le Mans circuit at its most treacherous, deep in the night where the world loses all texture but the consequences of lapsed attention can be deadly. This proves to be a dream-distorted memory of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), winner of the race in 1959 who learns he has to quit racing as he’s developed a heart condition. Ford v Ferrari casts its mind back to the heady days of 1960s motor racing, a time when the sport was on the cusp of new technological wonders but was still leaning heavily on the eyes, minds, guts, and nerves of its committed builders and drivers. The title frames the story as one of clashing brand names, but the more vital battle here is between the dynamic grunts in the cockpits, pit lanes, and factory floors, and fatuous executives engaged in territorial pissing.

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The story grows out of an attempt at corporate rebranding, as young sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tries to turn around a buying slump for Ford as it trundles along under the glum stewardship of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Hoping to imbue the Ford marque with new, hip appeal, Iacocca talks the boss in trying to buy the great Italian car manufacturer Ferrari. That company has been dominating racing with its brilliant, carefully fashioned cars for several years, but has run out of money. Iacocca travels to Italy to arrange the purchase with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), only to be contemptuously seen off after Ferrari uses the Ford offer to leverage a buy-out from Fiat instead. When Iacocca reports Enzo’s barbed and personal insults, emphasising that the boss is just a feckless inheritor and maker of ugly, boring cars, Ford II decides to get revenge in a fitting but arduous manner, in setting up his own racing division.

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Iacocca hires Shelby, who has set up a fledgling car design enterprise, to attach his concern to Ford with the aim of producing a champion car. Shelby fixes on Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an eccentric and often truculent British-born racer with a knack for winning but no head for business or public relations, as a most fitting collaborator and driver. It’s an uneasy partnership: Miles takes such exception to Shelby’s criticism that he tosses a spanner at him, shattering his own car’s windscreen instead, turning off some Porsche bigwigs who were interested in hiring Miles as a test driver. Miles, who lives with his wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), has recently had his garage taken from him for unpaid taxes, but still hesitates at Shelby’s offer because of his uncompromising streak. That streak, once he does sign on, quickly rubs another Ford exec, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the wrong way as he sees through the marketing glitz around the Mustang. Beebe nixes Shelby’s intention to have Miles drive at Le Mans in 1965, which proves to be a good thing as the first Ford cars entered prove glitch-prone if promisingly fast. Shelby has to repeatedly convince Ford II to let him run the show as he sees fit, and eventually Miles proves his mettle by winning at Daytona, setting up an epic clash Le Mans in 1966.

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Ford v Ferrari is a potent example of an endangered breed in contemporary mainstream cinema, a breed that used to be pretty commonplace: an ambitious, well-produced entertainment taking on a story rooted in fact, armed with all the technical might and storytelling savvy Hollywood has to offer. One justification for the all-consuming vortex that is contemporary franchise cinema is that it helps directors who sign on for a spell get other, more risky and personal projects financed. Ford v Ferrari represents the payoff for James Mangold after slogging his way through two vehicles for the Marvel comic book character Wolverine. A lot of people liked those films but they bored me silly, for they demonstrated Mangold had no affinity for the fantastic genres as he tried valiantly to skew them towards his native turf of melodrama driven by strident, conflicted characters, but he could never quite contend with how such efforts foiled the best qualities of each mode. Ford v Ferrari is much more a work in Mangold’s wheelhouse, a tale of striving and grounded struggle for protagonists whose objects of aspiration promise release from, and intensify the pain of, their private hells.

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It’s a touch surprising that Mangold, who debuted with a modest entry in the ‘90s indie film stakes, Heavy (1995), has proven to be one of current Hollywood’s most dextrous artificers, one who’s gone to a lot of effort to become a plain master of his craft on a technical level. Ford v Ferrari is beautifully crafted, with a palpable sense of physical context. Mangold’s second outing, Copland (1997), was a crime tale inflated well beyond its rather modest storyline by being overloaded with stars and production values when Miramax decided to try and make it a major award contender, resulting in a bruising flop, but Mangold persisted and rebounded with the slick and popular drama Girl, Interrupted (1999) and the psychothriller Identity (2003), a film that amusingly rendered Mangold’s interest in fractured personalities trying to piece themselves back together in gleefully literal and schlock-fun manner. His 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, whilst inevitably reducing the scope of Cash’s achievements, evinced Mangold’s cunning talent for digging out the raw nerve of a strong, essential storyline, in a manner that reproduced Cash’s own propensity for mythic-moralistic yarn-spinning, style and subject uniquely well-aligned.

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The emphasis in Ford v Ferrari on antagonistic personalities who eventually realise a hair too late they’re friends also recalls Mangold’s flavourful if lumpy remake of the canonical Western suspenser 3:10 From Yuma (2007). Ford v Ferrari reproduces some of the best qualities of Mangold’s work on Walk The Line, particularly Mangold’s feeling for period detail and sensibility, and gift for being attentive to his actors without devolving into shaggy indulgence. Ford v Ferrari might have grown as a project out of Michael Mann’s long-frustrated intention to make a biopic about Enzo Ferrari, as Mann was a producer here. The initial precepts of Ford v Ferrari, from its title on down, describe a clash between European and American sensibilities and business methods, and propelled, at least initially, by the potent emotions lurking behind the pudgy, pale faces of suit-clad industrialists. The script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, tiptoes around the more disturbing political associations of both companies, Ford as founded by a rabid anti-Semite and Ferrari by a former Fascist collaborator, but it retains a surprisingly attentive engagement with its various characters, and companies, as social phenomena.

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Ford II encourages Shelby to get to work by pointing out the building where the company built bombers during the war and instructing him to treat their venture the same way, as a war of worlds. In our peculiar epoch, such a story could be taken as a metaphor offered in dogged celebration of an Anglo-American partnership, for all its fraternal fractiousness, sticking it to snooty Europeans, in line with some political desires amidst Britain’s ongoing divorce from the EU. But as the film unfolds it disowns such readings, or at least complicates them. Shelby presents himself as the archetypal American individualist, half-cowboy, half-artisan, a man who once flew the bombers Ford built and who gives speeches wearing a Stetson. Miles, a man who’s left one country for another, is the battered progeny of an age, a war hero who nonetheless acts in a way that makes Beebe describe him as a beatnik, and whose intense, angular physicality on top of his unstable behaviour suggests he may be suffering from lingering PTSD, even if he manages most of the time to expend his angst in racing. His wife’s well-used to his mercurial strangeness and understands too well his particular addictions because she shares them to a degree, terrifying her husband as she drives the family wagon at speed whilst chewing him out for being evasive over his dealings with Shelby. His evasiveness is rooted in his deep-set ambivalence for the idea of becoming a company man, a deal with the devil he knows well will sooner or later cost him some big lump of pride.

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Mangold’s visual shorthand captures contrasting aesthetics as rooted in cultural gaps, Ferrari having his breakfast in the workshop of his factory in leafy old world surrounds that mimic the old padrone overseeing his villa’s business, versus Ford II ensconced high in his shiny tower, a man who almost accidentally embodies a specific moment in human history trying to work out the biggest trick in business, how to transcend that moment: can the great modernist project survive its own all-consuming will? Ford II makes clear to his workforce, both on the factory floor and in his executive ranks, the ultimate cost of failures of imagination and will, when he shuts down the assembly line in mid-flow and asks his employees to imagine that as a permanent state of affairs. “James Bond’s a degenerate,” he comments when Iacocca tries to use the fictional hero as the perfect example of a style icon for a new generation as a fantasy of gone-wild thrill-seeking and licentiousness, sharply contrasting the Ford imprimatur’s self-perception as a pillar of parochial American values. Enzo is offered the personification of a certain European ideal of the owner-manager who protects his brand and his personal aura with the integrity of an artist. Ford II speaks another kind of language, flying in and out of race events in a helicopter, stirring the mockery of the Italians but also stating to the world at large he’s a being from a vastly different stratum of business, one who exhibits his imperial, dynastic might in new ways.

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Letts, who’s also of course a playwright, beautifully nails the key moment of the drama when Ford II absorbs the import of Ferrari’s insults, the look of stirred anger blending with a shade of blank despair, the one weak spot in his armour expertly located and pierced. But it’s telling that even as Ford v Ferrari gives unexpected insight into what makes a man like Ford II tick, it carefully metes that empathy. Mangold takes unseemly delight in a sequence where Shelby takes Ford II out for a ride in his new racecar only to leave the great industrialist weeping in shock and fear, newly respectful of the abilities of people who can work at such extremes. This gives way quickly to a more familiar narrative pitch, concentrating on Shelby and Miles as the men who do the real work, building and wielding formidable hunks of technology, in tension with an increasingly corporatized enterprise. By the last act the games of plutocratic dick-measuring have given way instead to the efforts of risk-taking inventors and performers. It doesn’t take much critical squinting to see Ford v Ferrari as Mangold’s report on his experience as a director working for big studios on packaged product, arguing his belief that in the end even the most valuable property has to be turned over to creative people whose ways and means are alien and fear-inducing to boardroom types.

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Bale plays a version of Miles, who was generally known as a polite customer in real life but here is portrayed as a prickly misfit brilliant at his job but hampered by a volcanic temper that he almost seems to unleash with calculation just to see how people will react to it. This is Bale plainly offering rather a variation on his own public persona, star performer as a being who must walk the existential line. But this also aids Mangold’s conflating purpose, as if arguing the car/movie industry needs such personalities to make things happen, Miles as unruly but dynamic movie star and Shelby as visionary director. Bale’s a natural-born scene stealer, but Damon, asked to play the more grounded straight man, gives one of his most effective performances, sharpening his drawl to a point in moments like when he has to muster an effective argument for Ford II to keep the racing team going. Shelby and Miles’ working relationship reaches a crisis point when he has to bypass Miles in the ’65 Le Mans, a benching Miles takes with surprising calm and settles for listening to it on the radio whilst working on a car (in reality he competed in the race along with Bruce McLaren in a Ford only to retire with gearbox trouble, but hell, this is the movies). When Shelby begs Miles to work with him again, Miles punches him in the face, overture to a John Ford-esque moment of manly expiation of friendly contention through fisticuffs. The following year, Miles wins both Daytona and the Sebring 12 hour race, and goes into Le Mans on a red-hot streak, for the ultimate duel with Ferrari’s team.

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Car racing movies have a long if not always honoured pedigree in movies, reaching back to Howard Hawks films like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Red Line 7000 (1965) and extending through the likes of James Goldman’s Winning (1969), Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990), Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001), and Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). There are even distinct narrative affinities between Ford v Ferrari and Ben-Hur (1959) in the theme of a man with a race-winner looking for the right driver to prove both a personal and cultural point. The two best films on car racing to date are John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) and Lee H. Katzin’s Le Mans (1971), both of which were hefty hunks of pricey filmmaking but expressive and unusual in their filmmaking and muted in their emotional palettes, avoiding the triumphalism we now more squarely associate with such films: they came out of a day when a sports movie could also be a study in alienation and disaffection. But the racer subgenre very often concentrates on characters who remain in some fashion enigmas to themselves and those close to them, trying to understand what pushes them out to such extremes of life and death, cutting them off from the ordinary world.

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Another telling inequality between Frankenheimer and Katzin’s films, products of a more cinematically adventurous age, and Mangold’s is that the older films aimed to offer almost poeticised evocations of speed and motion, like the awesome depiction of a car crash in fragmented visions and distorted time perception in Le Mans. Whereas Ford v Ferrari is, like many contemporary films, obsessed with nailing down a specific storytelling arc, an approach that does at least facilitate Mangold’s preoccupation with characters trying to understand themselves. Mangold’s visuals have real beauty that sometimes grazes the poetic in their way, but they’re thoroughly contoured into straightforward function. Mangold’s sharp yet textured images, his use of rich colours and light come in frames rendered with a clear, illustrative force, are one of the pleasures of his best films: his filmic approach is both muscular in a contemporary fashion but also quite classical and unmannered. The racing sequences here are some of the best ever staged, with Mangold’s framings expertly tethered to lines of linear motion, the soundtrack replete with the sonorous thunder of a well-tuned muscle engine at full throttle, cars moving at great speed as rivals and friends crash and hunks of wreckage tumble about your ears.

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The brilliant climactic recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race depicts with immediate verve and intensity the experience of driving a car pell-mell through thickets of rivals amidst flurrying rain and dark, frames awash with gushing spray and red taillight glow and boiling flame, a realm where Miles is most perfectly himself, delivered from a world of compromise and pettiness, brushing the edges of the sublime state he believes resides in the zone above 7000 rpm. But the whole film is wrapped in a lush gloss apparent even in interpersonal moments as when Ken talks with his son whilst sitting on a stretch of LA airport tarmac the team likes to use for practice runs, transformed into an amphitheatre of technological grunt amidst the glowing mid-century twilight. Mangold uses James Burton’s instrumental cover of “Polk Salad Annie” as a recurring leitmotif on the soundtrack, an instant dash of distilled retro Americana that also communicates the sheer fidgety urge to defy a limit and the love of rolling velocity encoded in its nervously thrumming rhythm. Ford v Ferrari actually digs into the business of making a winner as well as noting the forces that often get in the way of making a good movie. I mean, car.

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There’s a fine sense of detail in the sequences depicting the process of creating such a car, like coating supermodern machines in bits of flapping wool to analyse wind dynamics, as Shelby, Miles, and the Ford brains steadily winnow what they learn to arrive at the GT40, a car with a huge bundle of horsepower jammed into the rear of the car, and coming up with novel notions like a completely replaceable braking system when Miles almost gets wiped out as the car’s braking system locks up during an endurance test. What hampers Ford v Ferrari is its habits of narrowing its focus down to some stock-standard conflicts and refrains. Lucas is again stuck playing the kind of snooty establishment antagonist he embodied in A Beautiful Mind (2002), aggravating through the pinewood texture of his voice. The battles with the Ford hierarchy and Beebe in particular have roots in fact but it’s an aspect, along with the constant swaying between Miles’ work and his home life, that starts to interfere with the pace of the film. And yet the conventionalities are frustrating but serve a function that doesn’t quite become clear until the end.

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The emphasis on the conflict between the racers and the executives proves eventually to have a different cumulative meaning than is usual, and the refrains to Lee’s mostly happy home life, often seem superfluous despite Balfe’s terrific performance as Lee’s stalwart lady, but it ultimately becomes clear that the Miles’ story is one of how what makes us love some people is also what we know well might take them from us some day. Moreover, the climactic race, which has the lustre of folklore amongst race fans for understandable reason, presents a fascinating dramatic situation where character and machinery both are tested. What’s ultimately most interesting about Ford v Ferrari is the degree to which it’s not quite a classic crowd-pleaser, becoming rather a story of heroes trying to identify their deepest, truest yardsticks for success rather than those imposed by worldly expectations. Branded legend is invoked only to force the audience to identify with men who eventually realise their talents and abilities always come second to the interest of those whose business it is selling a product. Enzo Ferrari’s gesture of respect is ultimately tipped to the racers, not Ford II: European auteur gives respect to American studio hand, for there is no difference when the dream is the same and achieved superlatively. The genius of Shelby’s team and Miles’ ability are ultimately subordinated to this interest, as Beebe talks Ford II into arranging the three Ford cars in the race to cross the line together.

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It’s a chance for a perfect publicity photo that however cheats Miles of his win, as McLaren (Benjamin Rigby) is declared the winner for a technicality through backstage chicanery. The irony however is that Miles has already fulfilled his own standard of achievement, setting incredible lap records with ferocious driving, and defeating both Ferraris in duels. Finally he decides to obey the company decision as he finds he’s outrun the need to win alone. The cruellest punchline lies in wait a little further down the road, as Miles dies as a car he’s testing careens off a desert test track, the old braking problem still a lurking imp ready to upturn all faiths of men. Shelby gives the spanner Miles tossed at him to young Peter, and settles in his car for a fit of grief as he wolfs down his heart medication. A surprisingly ambivalent ending for such a movie, leaving the question as to whether all this defiant business is actually worth anything in the face of the human wreckage left in its wake. But the way Shelby drives off confirms he still has the fire in the blood, perhaps an irreducible component of the human condition that burns itself out in different people in different ways — the sense that life is not life unless it’s known at the very limit. Ford v Ferrari certainly doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel. But it is the the sort of film that gives popular moviemaking a good name.

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2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Asghar Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here. His study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, matched his care in describing the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island and the colourful childrens’ adventure of Hugo (2011) and the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, like Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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British cinema, Mystery, Romance, Auteurs, 2010s

The Souvenir (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg

By Roderick Heath

Joanna Hogg’s rise to something like eminence was a long time coming. After experimenting in photography when she left school, Hogg had a chance meeting with Derek Jarman that set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker, with the director even loaning her a camera to experiment with. Graduating from the British National Film and Television School in 1986 with the short film Caprice, starring Tilda Swinton, Hogg spent the next twenty years working in television and music videos. When the time came at last for Hogg to make her feature debut with 2008’s Unrelated, she was determined to work against the grain of every rule TV work had imposed upon her, making extensive use of improvisatory acting and telling stories based around the vague and even petty signifiers that make up much of our lives rather than programmatic melodrama. She followed it with a portrait in class tensions on holiday, Archipelago (2010), and the more recondite, allusive portrait of a couple of married artists, Exhibition (2013), a work that grabbed Martin Scorsese’s attention. Scorsese helped produce The Souvenir, a film that’s made Hogg something of the woman of the moment. The Souvenir purposefully takes on a well-worn artistic motif, casting its thoughts back to the milieu of Hogg’s creative youth in the 1980s.

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It’s the kind of story plainly charged with deep personal and autobiographical meaning, approached with the tint of unsentimental rigour middle age imbues whilst still capturing the sharp poignancy of the sorts of experiences that shock a person into full maturity and leave an indelible stamp on a creative mind. At the same time it’s a meditation upon such meditations, contending with the way such experience informs and infuses art. The Souvenir is also a study in ambiguity between people, even people who are nominally very close, the trouble with the yardsticks we’re obliged to use to understand and judge who those people are in comparison to ourselves. Hogg’s central character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is confronted precisely by dissatisfaction with her own identity. The daughter of wealthy parents, she has a sizeable flat in Knightsbridge and a line of credit she can wheedle out of her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), but she’s attending film school and wants to make a movie about how the other half live, hoping to film a project about a young boy in the poor quarter of Sunderland who idolises his mother, a studied contrast to her own frustrating relationship with class and parents. It’s the mid-1980s and Thatcherism is in full swing, and so is an IRA bombing campaign, whilst post-1960s radicalism has faded to a background hum of barbed comments about privilege and desirable addresses and aspirations to social conscience expressed through art. Julie’s apartment is a magnet for nightly soirees of young arty types who rake over their ambitions, obsessions, and personal positions with forensic determination. Amidst one of these parties, a friend brings as a guest a man she describes as her lodger: Anthony (Tom Burke), a beefy, sullen-eyed chap in a blue pinstripe suit.

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Hogg opens with Julie’s black and white photographs of the blasted environs of Sunderland she wants to chart in her proposed dream movie project, a place in stark contrast to the classiness of her family abode and the upscale vantage of her flat, which overlooks Harrods. As the polite interest of her teachers and Julie’s articulate yet unimpassioned attempts to sell the project to them makes clear, it’s an elaborate act that stickily contrasts both the unofficial doctrines of write-what-you-know-ism and the niceties of cordoned interest. It also represents an attempt by Julie to shake herself out of a bubble. Which might succeed brilliantly (and could be correlated with the breakthrough works of some of Hogg’s fellows amongst the ranks of female directors rewarded for earnestly arty accounts of mundane lives in movies like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, 1999, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, 2006), but feels more like an attempt on Julie’s part to find a voice rather than something welling out of her authentic creative imagination. Irony circles Julie, as her life is something like the popular conception of Englishness as held dearly by Tories and foreigners, rooted in country house and replete with posh venues – Julie and Anthony meet to chat in a restaurant that looks like a backdrop for a Henry James tale rather than, say, a McDonalds. Julie’s film school pal, Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), improvises a wry blues ditty about aspiring to such worthy climes.

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Hogg and Burke conspire deftly in the early scenes to keep Anthony an ambiguous entity, standing or sitting with face turned away from the camera, registering as a low drawling voice and physiognomy trapped within that suit, brushing by Julie as he first enters her apartment only vaguely registered. He listens to Julie at the party, looking down upon her as she tries to articulate her immediate ambitions, but later when meets her in that restaurant they’re directly opposed in telling attitudes of appealing openness and supine coolness. Anthony quickly begins engaging her in a manner that splits the difference between patronisation and intrigued challenging, an approach that energises Julie because there isn’t anything else to prod her in such a fashion, except for the broad sniping of her film school teachers. As Anthony comes into focus, so does Julie: where scenes of Julie with her friends or her mother are filmed in handheld shots, Julie’s encounters with Anthony are offered with the precious, detail-rich framing and lighting of a Dutch master painter, as the lovers leave behind the mundane spaces of home and school and roam art galleries and ritzy Venetian hotels.

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The artistic motif finds its lynchpin as the duo roam a gallery with its perfectly composed neoclassical features and fixtures, and admire Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s picture “The Souvenir,” which depicts a decorous, long-tressed maiden fervently carving her lover’s initial into a tree after receiving a letter from him. Anthony tells Julie he works for the Foreign Office, and claims to be involved with business that relates, somehow, to the IRA campaign and other clandestine threats. Such a picture with its idealised vision of romance filtered by distance and historical mores seems a great distance from the louche mores of modern London, and yet the artwork nonetheless speaks eloquently to an affair defined by ardour in a war with distance and obscurity. Julie’s romance with Anthony unfolds in a series of spasmodic advances, shifting from random acquaintances to lovers without gradation, and Anthony could be counted as a masculine equivalent to the “girl who came to stay” John Lennon sang about. Their relationship continues in much the same way. Anthony doesn’t seem on the surface of things a particularly odd person: the son of a successful artist with roots in the northern working class, he’s become an establishment operative, Byronic instinct wrapped a self-consciously maintained Whitehall package. And yet Anthony seems to hover on the fringes not just of bohemia but society in general, contrasting the dressed-down funk of Julie’s arty pals and carefully locating common ground with Julie by airily declaring his great love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose example he points to as a way of looking for artistic truth rather than mere realism.

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Much of the time Anthony seems to be posturing as an Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell character, the saturnine, superciliously knowing public servant who knows life and is only too happy to school his naïve and unfinished young girlfriend. But at home Anthony swans about in a floor length, brass-buttoned coat like a wannabe Dostoyevsky dissolute, and has a couple of tell-tale wounds in the crook of his elbow Julie notices one night in bed. During a dinner with Julie’s mother and father William (James Spencer Ashworth), Anthony successfully negotiates the trickiest of moment of the meet-the-parents occasion as he discusses the terrorist campaign and calmly responds to her father’s perfectly generic Tory opinion with his own position that he’s against the violence he sees being committed by both sides, but managing to seem perfectly reasonable and informed all the while. Meanwhile William recalls the staunch sectarianism of the colleges of Cambridge he attended. Julie and Anthony’s relationship becomes defined by transactions of credit, spiritual and literal. Anthony, after a polite waiting period, makes a play to claim more space in the bed with Julie. Anthony offers Julie the experience of being drawn into a larger world, of new and more complete standards of maturity, including post-graduate sexuality as he buys her lingerie, and she gives him a safe harbour.

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Eventually his most immediate and consequential secret is revealed to Julie when she and Anthony have dinner with her filmmaker friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade), who extemporises airily on shooting two features with equipment he liberated whilst nominally in film school and declaring that there are no good British musical films. Patrick then announces he can’t reconcile Julie’s apparent squareness with Anthony’s reputation as a habitual heroin user. Julie’s disquiet is plain although she officially takes it in her stride, as it hardly seems to be a great bother, even as Anthony occasionally gets her to drive him out to the boondocks to buy gear off seedy beings in backyards, claiming it’s “for work.” One day, just as she and Anthony are planning to go off on holiday to Venice at his suggestion, she finds her apartment has been ransacked and robbed. Anthony claims to have find it in such a state, but after they arrive in Venice he admits what she already suspected, that he robbed it in desperate need of funds for a fix. Julie often has to submit to the commedia dell’parents in calling up her mother to wheedle a loan out of her, usually under the guise of buying equipment, and has to ask for particularly egregious sums as she has to keep Anthony’s habit.

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Hogg thrives on the forms of tension and contradiction apparent in The Souvenir’s purview, presenting a tale of youthful folly and tragic learning from a cool and meditative middle-aged distance. What such a viewpoint loses in raw immediacy gains in being attuned to the sense of the surreal that can linger around such events, that did-that-really-happen? lustre that can light upon events remembered, as well as a more precise ledger for things gained and lost. The gaps in the movie are also the gaps in Julia’s knowledge of Anthony and herself. It’s an interpersonal, even domestic story, but nonetheless rhymed to larger phenomena. Hogg’s evocations of the ‘80s milieu extend beyond mere cosy shout-outs or wistfully recalled psychic geography. Much like the later era of Brexit, the artificial but effective allure of the Thatcherite era lay in its self-willed recourse to an array of icons and ideals of a bygone Britain utterly passé in any realistic sense but so deeply entwined with the national self-perception that it became suddenly recharged with glamour. Even the era’s pop music, with the elegantly glitzy sound of the New Romantics, declared a desire to unify the best of a self-mythologised present and an idealised past – although Julie’s social circle prefers the ganga-and-dole-cheque chic of The Specials. One of the sharper British films of the era, Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), named itself after an advertising creation posing as ye olde repast.

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British cinema, still picking itself up after the collapse of the early 1970s, also underwent a split in this period that still lingers, despite some attempts to bash down the divide, between a polished and classy, internationally popular mode of period dramas, and gritty and provocative realism, ironically banished to the art houses. Anthony, in his way, is the living incarnation of such a spirit, with his retro affectations and love for studied, bygone art, his continental jaunts and mumbled reports of guarding against skulduggery, albeit with the other foot planted in a raw and squalid reality, and even seems draw some charge from such disreputable disparities, whilst claiming to be a foot soldier in the official war against existential threats. Meanwhile Julie struggles to invent a form of aesthetic that can comprehend such schismatic ways of seeing. The film’s most crucial yet cryptic entwining of personal and public myth comes when Julie finds Anthony has left hand-made paper arrows trailing through her flat, leading up to a windowsill where he seems to have left a present only for the thud of a bomb blast to shake the apartment – Harrods down the road has been attacked by the IRA. Such a coincidence could be a spasm of Jungian synchronicity, but given Anthony’s sometimes confused references to his work and his generally screwed-up attitude it doesn’t feel entirely impossible he didn’t know about the bombing through the jungle drums of covert intelligence or was even involved in the bombing through some kind of false-flag operation and wanted Julie to know it.

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At the same time it’s just as possible Anthony’s just a professional bullshit artist, an intellectual kibitzer whose creative/destructive impulses turned inwards and arrested in form through drug use and siding with power. Hogg doesn’t make too much of this – it’s just one of those strange and bewildering moments life can throw up given a special flash of rare meaning, charged with an addict’s sense of paranoid connection. What’s more immediately alarming is the strange, tattooed, incoherent lowlife Julie finds in the flat when she returns to it, some connection of Anthony’s who might as well be a horror movie mutant suddenly erupting into Julie’s world: Julie freaks out and bundles him out as quickly as possible. Like many young creative people Julie gets bent far off course for a time by the sheer pleasure of a consuming romance, to the point where the solicitous Marland asks here where she’s been after her ardent and fixated early days at the film school. But she’s also becoming an artist through the perverse and ungovernable processes of life: the lectures on how to use a moviola or the function of editing in Psycho (1960) give way to the efforts of Julie and her fellows, including Marland and denim-skirted, piercing eyed Garance (Ariane Labed), to shoot their student film projects.

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Anthony’s encouraging Julie to look beyond mere fashionable or reflexive realism is ironically realised through the texture of The Souvenir itself, utilising a smart tension between her often jarring edits and the deadpan gaze of her camera to open up zones of ambiguity even when what’s being shot seems perfectly straightforward, and Hogg dramatizes the head-versus-heart split at the centre of the tale as a dialectic of values. The artwork that gives the film its title encapsulates an entirely bygone romantic sensibility that nonetheless still captures something of the obsessive fire of love. Hogg’s previous films viewed haute bourgeois mores and blind spots through the register of suggestion through environment, a la Michelangelo Antonioni, with an added gloss of real estate porn: character inextricable from location, obsessions with domain and property giving form to people rather than the other way around, as in Exhibition which described the lives of artists trying to sell their home and cope with the aftershocks of an unstated crisis in the recent past. Julie’s apartment has a similar potency, gifting her influence and notoriety, independence and authority, even if she doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all.

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It’s quickly become a cliché to describe Hogg as a social realist filmmaker albeit with a different perspective to the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Certainly The Souvenir registers minute vibrations of class and financial disparity, but it also studies the way personality operates lawlessly in such terms. Lebed’s presence bolsters the feeling of affinity with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011), which, whilst quite distinct in its method, nonetheless similarly winnowed its portrait of awkward maturation down to a crux of tragic loss. Hogg occasionally interpolates fixed and ruminative shots of country landscapes whilst Julie reads Anthony’s letters with their stark and surprisingly ardent phrasings. This touch reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s shots of his letter writers reading their words direct to the camera in Two English Girls (1971), if with an inverted affect. The fire of personal communication is swapped for a cool longing for immersion in the calm reaches of pre-Romantic pastoral art with all its intimations of natural harmonies and sublime accords, but the same result in transmuting the staidness of the written word into a potent cinematic device.

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Common oppositions – new and old, aristocratic and plebeian, classical and modernist, establishment and revolutionary, man and woman, parent and child – all are invoked at some point, their limits tested, their mutant offspring called art. Julie and Anthony are lovers but their relationship comes to ironically mimic her mother-son project, Julie’s attempts to care for her lover laced with distinct maternal aspects. Real intimacy seems most possible – perhaps only possible – when Andrew makes Julie complicit in his habit, an admission that should start alarm bells ringing for Julie and yet which also offers the pleasure of feeling at once maternal and childlike before such inchoate need. The siren call of bohemian pleasures offers the possibility of maintaining some hot line into an authentic if dangerous mode of life experienced like a secret theatre within the package of bourgeois solidity. Hogg constantly envisions Anthony and Julie in separate spaces within her frames, usually in some disparity of business – Anthony cooking whilst Julie cleans, or the like, or talking over a table – in a way that nonetheless informs us of the way they contend as beings and inhabit space without quite meeting in it.

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Even in bed they have what Anthony wryly refers to, a la It Happened One Night (1934), as the Walls of Jericho between them, taking the form of the stuffed toy lion that betrays Julie’s uncertain level of maturity. This portrait of schism is also, more sarcastically invoked as Hogg portrays Julie and her film school fellows listening to a lecturer, the teacher at the centre of the frame, Julie and Garance on the right, and the male students crowded into the left. This sense of distinction is paired off with the use of mirrors, festooning the walls of Julie’s house, offering up alternate selves, alternate universes: the first time to pair are seen speaking is in reflection. The crucial scene where Julie is made aware by Patrick of Anthony’s habit sees Julie framed alone with Patrick and his girlfriend in reflection behind her, with Anthony then taking his place, intruding into the shot and completely transformed by Julie’s new awareness. Later, after Anthony’s been through an agonising attempt to kick his habit cold turkey in the apartment with Julie watching over him, a mirror panel on the wall glimpsed behind William’s head is seen to be punched in, echoing a key vignette in The Red Shoes (1948) and silently declaring the shattering of illusion. The most purely romantic moment in the film sees the couple dancing with their reflections granted equal space in the frame, the real and the illusory given perfect momentary balance and truth.

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These twinned motifs finally converge when the couple arrive in Venice and are installed in a beautifully decorated hotel room within which Julie and Anthony rove uneasily. Amidst the plush décor of the space a mirror contains both lovers as Anthony kisses her on the head, their little, crowded corner of baroque emotion in the midst of the ages’ splendour as purveyed in the shuffle of commercial tourism. It’s small wonder Hogg references Powell and Pressburger, however dubious a mouth she puts the admission in, as The Souvenir reveals itself as one of the great British tradition of romanticism lurking under a restrained surface in a way the filmmakers captured, and glimpsed only rarely in such other odd places as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Brief Encounter (1945), and Hogg casually nails the sensibility Paul Thomas Anderson spent the entirety of Phantom Thread (2017) labouring to nail down. After their fusion in the hotel room, Julie is transformed into a la The Red Shoes’ heroine as she follows Anthony in a ball gown through the winding streets of Venice, heading off to the opera: they have finally entered a magical land, delivered from the meanness of the present and become the flesh of their dream-selves. Back in their hotel room Anthony fucks Julie in garter belt and stockings, a capstone of intense yet dreamy sexuality befitting the haute couture cosplaying and Julie’s sense of arriving in amidst the fleshpot delights and filthy fantasias of true adulthood.

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Return to London however sees reality impinging ever more urgently until Anthony is arrested and, after she bails him out, Julie confronted by a different array of paraphernalia, Anthony’s junkie kit, and she orders him to get out. Julie sets about getting herself back on track, plunging back into work and brushing aside admonitions from her teachers and picking up one-night-stands with a new ease, filled with erotic glee mixed with a detectable self-satisfaction as she watches a hot young lover strip down before her. But when she reconnects with Anthony their gravitational pull is still strong. Anthony puts himself through the hell of withdrawal for Julie’s sake, and the ordeal seems worth it as Anthony emerges wan and shellshocked-looking but apparently clean and calm, to the point where he’s again dining with Julie and her parents to celebrate her birthday. But Julie’s immersion back in creativity, which sees her staying up to work on a project, seems to open up a void again for Anthony. Julie’s relationship with her mother is eventually revealed to be more than just one of indulgent parasitism as Rosalind voices hopes to Julie and Anthony about trying to go back to school, and she stays with her daughter one night when Anthony doesn’t return from a jaunt about town.

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Casting the real-life mother-daughter duo of Swinton and Swinton Byrne not only gives the film a smart charge of immediacy in their interactions but also, given Hogg’s creative history with Swinton, lets them take on an aspect of a split sense of self, generational drafts with all their varying levels of hope and experience, knowing and becoming. Family has other forms and potentials, too: Hogg films Julie travelling with her pals and collaborators late in the film in a van, united in their voices and enthusiasms, and the film crew becomes a different form of enveloping and delivering family, a collective act of arbitrating vision and ability rather than subjective and egotistical submersion. Their project comes to resemble something Jarman might have shot, a tip of the nod to the mentor and a depiction of the growing aesthetic courage and independence of the young students. When Anthony fails to return home Julie and her mother wait up and finally Julie pins a note to the building’s front door telling him not to worry about waking her.

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The sight of Julie’s unread note flapping unread on the door is one of the most forlorn sights in cinema, and her mother soon gets a phone call confirming the dread inevitable: Anthony’s been found dead of an overdose, consumed by his incapacity to sustain himself in the endlessly drawn-out tension of the immediate moment, which Julie can escape through creative and intellectual submersion. The loss is terrible and transfigures Julie, but it’s also another fantastic cessation, the vanishing of one aspect of her life as others crowd in, filmmaking no longer just an ambition but an authentic necessity. Hogg’s last shot is totemic, as Julie stands in the doorway of a sound stage, gazing from the threshold out at the countryside beyond, caught between the real and the created, the wild and the safe, ready to turn it all to good use in art, but also cursed with the incapacity to choose in which realm she stands. Hogg hides a brilliant sting at the very end of the credits, promising The Souvenir II, coming soon. The franchising of the art film, a new frontier for cinephiles.

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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascianted young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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2010s, Chinese cinema, Experimental, Film Noir, Romance

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

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Director/Screenwriter: Bi Gan

By Roderick Heath

Bi Gan was inspired to become a filmmaker after by a college viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) assured him that you could do what you liked with film. His debut as a feature director, Kaili Blues (2015), instantly marked him in both China and abroad as a new talent with startling accomplishment for such a young voice. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his second film, is a statement of artistic ambition rare on the contemporary film scene. A surprisingly big hit at the Chinese box office, in part because of a cunningly obfuscating advertising campaign, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also a film that tries to embrace contemporary frontiers in filmmaking like a bold application of 3D, usually reserved for special effects spectacles, and a unique brand of showmanship to a defiantly unconventional brand of filmmaking. Related to Eugene O’Neill’s great play only by a sense of living in a present inescapably haunted by the past (the Chinese title is equally loose in appropriating a Roberto Bolano book’s title), Bi’s film is neatly bifurcated as a viewing experience, the two halves – the title card doesn’t appear until almost precisely halfway through – corresponding to different states of perception and being.
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Bi’s approach to cinema is certainly original, and his vantage on art film internationalist. Nonetheless he threatens to unify some familiar traits that many other major Chinese-language filmmakers share to varying degrees. The lushly visual and dreamily psychological cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and the painstakingly evocative externalist portraits of Hsiao-hsien Hou meets the gritty reports from directors like Jia Zhangke and Li Yang, and even Johnny To’s bravura genre twists, to make account a deliriously shifting social and emotional landscape. His method, subsuming film noir motifs into a more abstracted and experimental brand of movie, also echoes a long tradition, back to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain-Robbe Grillet. After all, the obsessions of much modernist art, with vagaries of identity and form, knowing and ambiguity, the sense of paranoia and estrangement pervasive in much of modern life, the uneasy relationship of personal agency with blocs of great power and crises of faith and ideology, conjoin very neatly with noir’s basic motifs, where the individual is so often an existential warrior in such a void. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays out a kind of film noir plot in disrupted and spasmodic fashion, used to illustrate a general, ephemeral sense of existence, where one search blends into another and all roads to a nexus of identity, far more ephemeral and romantically charged than such heady forebears.
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The setting fits such a story perfectly, offering a corner of a vast and prosperous nation where nonetheless not many interested eyes seem to be turned and it’s easy to imagine human flotsam slipping through the cracks. As with his first film, Bi’s real subject, or at least the most tangible one, is Kaili itself and surrounds in the southern province of Guizhou, a mountainous, subtropical region that’s plainly missed out on the great millennial economic boom. Bi surveys a backwater vista of decaying, blasted industrial structures, dilapidated enterprise, and drifting, isolated and disorientated people. Bi’s hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is first glimpsed, haggard and grey-haired, after a tryst with a prostitute, on his way back to Kaili after a ten-year absence. Luo seems to have been working at a scrap metal merchant’s as a cutter and welder. Bi’s camera tracks from a view of him driving off in a van and then along rusted metal barrier whilst Luo’s voiceover recounts how his one-time friend Wildcat was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo’s return is prompted by his father’s death: he finds his father has left him his van but left his restaurant to his second wife, a move Luo accepts with weary approval. The second wife takes down a clock his father used to sit and drink in front of and replaces it with a photo of the father. Luo checks the clock and finds why it served such a totemic function for him: he had hidden a photo of his first wife, Luo’s mother, in the mechanism. She vanished when Luo was still very young, and he begins trying to track her down.
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One quest for a woman is conjoined with another. Luo also wants to find his former lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he became involved with years earlier, or who might have been named Kaizhen. She reminded Luo of his mother in some ways, particularly when he first saw her with smudged makeup. At the very start of the film, Luo tells the prostitute he dreamt of a woman, surely Qiwen, who always returns to him in dreams just when he seems at the point of forgetting her. What follows for the rest of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s first half is a near-random-seeming assortment of scenes that start to fit together mosaic-like, recounting Luo’s present-tense attempts to find where his mother went to, as well as pondering his past with Qiwen and seeking her ultimate fate. Qiwen appears like an apparition out of the mess of Luo’s past. Luo recalls how he met her, as Wildcat’s former lover, tracking her down and catching her on a train that became halted by mudslide.
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Luo seems to rough her up, grabbing her hair and pointing a gun at her forehead, much to Qiwen’s detached and world-weary lack of great concern. As if in compensation after deciding she had nothing to do with Wildcat’s death, Luo took her out to dinner and encountered her again walking down a seedy tunnel wearing a green dress and smeared, blood-red lipstick. Luo showed her the same photo of his mother to her he would later rediscover in the clock. Or are his memories and his present bleeding into each-other? The older Luo visits Tai Zhaomei (Yanmin Bi), a woman in prison who was a friend of his mother’s when she was younger, and mailed the photo to his father’s restaurant. Luo learns things about his mother, including that she was a good singer, and was involved with criminal activities like forging identity cards. Mother and son both seem to have shared a fate to remain rootless and outside the law, and Luo and his father are unified by their fate to constantly dream about the woman they lost.
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Bi’s eliding visuals mimic the haziness of Luo’s memories, replete with rainy haze, reflections, unfolding in places that seem sequestered from the hoary everyday. Bi tends to break up longer, relatively coherent scenes with sudden plunges into subliminally connected recollections, a random access memory for vignettes charged with needling relevance. Luo’s voiceover describes Qiwen as someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then return there. His memories of her are often layered and mediated, a face in shadow lit by flame, a solitary figure swathed in green, glimpsed in mirrors and through rain-speckled glass, at once palpable and immaterial. Settings have a similarly conjured intensity, like the tunnel where Luo encounters Qiwen. Or the abandoned building with peeling paint on the walls and water constantly dripping from the ceiling, a place where Luo retreats and apparently once lived in with Qiwen, and which Luo recalls his one-time paramour teaching him a magic spell to set spinning around. Or the grimy railway café where Qiwen makes a fateful statement to Luo, and a cobra is kept in a glass case, rearing up in impotent fury, like an illustration of the lurking danger in their lives.
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Fragments of sublime and languorous romanticism are glimpsed, as when Luo and Qiwen lying kissing by a pond, or talk in the café where the subject is urgent but the mood is distrait, almost surreal. Such flashes of beauty are wound in nonetheless with a threat of violence and deep-seated angst. Luo tells his mother-in-law he’s been managing a casino, a tale that proves to be rooted in an old ambition he and Qiwen had talked about. Another vignette sees Luo promising Qiwen that if they have a son he’ll teach him pingpong. Qiwen wanted to leave Kaili with Luo because a man she knew named Zuo was returning. She recounts to Luo a story of how, when singing karaoke, he told her “I will always find you.” Who Zuo is and his place in the lovers’ life resolves as Bi offers a shot of a man wearing a white hat singing karaoke with Wildcat dangling like a meat carcass, in the bowels of some seedy building, with Qiwen seated but apparently browbeaten by Zuo, who grabs her hair and tries to make her sing with him. Luo recounts having seen Wildcat’s ghost on a train not long after he died, and later there’s a glimpse of his corpse being trundled into the mine shaft that became his last resting place. It seems that Zuo killed Wildcat, and Luo intended retaliation by sitting behind Zuo in a movie theatre and shooting him in the back, but Bi never shows whether he really did the deed.
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Back in the present tense, Luo is handed a handwritten message from Tai Zhaomei by a cop, giving what might be the current name of his mother, Chen Huixian, and an address. Luo visits a hotel, but it’s uncertain whether it’s his mother or Qiwen that he’s tracked there: the jovial but shabby manager tells him about one of his quarries, who used to pay her rent by spinning entertaining stories and stated she was born infertile. Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser who Luo once was an apprentice to. Her account of Zuo’s dealings with her son and Qiwen sound startlingly like what Luo experienced, including being her lover and the deed of shooting a man on her behalf. Did any of this happen at all, or is it Luo’s feverish fantasy, or a blend of conjecture and identification rooted in things that happened to others? Was Qiwen Luo’s fellow survivor and islet of comfort in a harsh world, or a free-floating agent of destruction constantly ensnaring men and driving each to destroy the last? Bi doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions, but continues signalling subliminal connections between people who step in and out of roles in life – villain, victim, lover, parent, child – as time drags them along routes that seem at once utterly happenstance and eternally repetitive and predictable.
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The dichotomous hunt for Qiwen and Luo’s mother conjoins as a search for a kind of cosmic feminine, and often from scene to scene it’s hard to tell exactly which one he’s hunting for in that moment. Lookalikes proliferate. Meanwhile Luo explores a world where casual sights, like a karaoke truck or a boy petting a dog in a train station, will be appropriated and mixed into a fantasy landscape. Consuming fruit becomes an odd motif: Qiwen has a love of pomelos, whilst there’s an extended sequence of Wildcat eating an entire apple, stem and core included, as part of an odd ritual designed to end a feeling of sadness. Bi identifies an entire world of similarly uprooted and estranged people, as his camera notes Luo riding a bus full of itinerant workers sleeping, and a shattered factory populated by singer-prostitutes about to be left without a venue. Much like Jia with films like The World ( 2004) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Bi seems to perceive modern China as a place where the pace and type of change has left everyone’s head spinning, the country fundamentally fractured on the basic levels of community and psyche, the regressive lilt of its backwaters at once dogging the memories of its go-getters but also offering no cheer upon return. But like Wong Kar-Wai, he also sees the way we’re constructed by a mass of ephemeral impressions, always becoming and never more than a sum of the past.
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Throughout Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi works in some blatant nods to some beloved inspirations, including the self-animating glass of Stalker and the cattle skull-bedecked motorcycle of Touki-Bouki (1972). Such quotes certainly show Bi working through his cinematic touchstones, but they also serve a function as something like aesthetic milestones, points of recognition and orientation in the midst of a free flux of style. “The difference between film and memory,” Luo considers at one point, “Is that film is always false.” But memory is much more pernicious, blending together all the meal of being and identity, and our favourite artworks tend to become deeply entwined with impressions of places and times (this might also be the first and last film ever made to hinge in part on Vengaboys nostalgia). Tang’s presence in the film, as an international movie star whose beauty has the right mask-like, hallucinatory quality for Bi’s textures, provides another locus of recognition. Qiwen has an air of scarcely being present in mind even when physically present, of being too life-bruised and exhausted to react with anything like passion to any situation, barely bothered to resist clasping hands as if she’s been manhandled too many times to waste any but the minimum required energy fending such abuses off.
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Qiwen’s allure in the grimy and depressed setting Bi shoots is nonetheless inescapable, like something fallen from the sky. Qiwen shares a name with a cantopop star, a name that seems to distinguish her and signal her alien, too-good-for-this-place aura – this touch is reminiscent of Hsiao-hsien Hou naming the heroine of his equally wistful Three Times (2005) after the movie star Bai Ling, counting on such recognition for an archetypal charge: such names spell our moment and become our vehicles of self-expression and identification. Except that when Luo goes to a karaoke venue set up in an old factory about to be demolished, and thinks Qiwen might now be one of the singing concubines who works there, although the emcee-madame thinks he means an impersonator of the singing star, as her ranks are crammed with girls who specialise in mimicking such stars. To be subsumed to an image is to be erased. The opening with Luo chatting with the prostitute who looks something like Qiwen, signals the way Luo tries to retain a grip on the past’s illusions and his inability to move beyond them. Meanwhile he encounters people persisting in their small bubbles of subsistence – the hotel manager who points an ancient musket at his young employee as a bored practical joke, or Wildcat’s mother who works out to a video dancing game. Everyone and everything feels submerged, as if in a flooded city. After talking with Wildcat’s mother, who plans to dye her hair just as Qiwen once wanted to dye her hair red.
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Such throwaway and ephemeral details return transformed in meaning in the film’s second half. To waste time until the karaoke starts up, Luo goes to watch a movie and dozes off with a pair of 3D glasses on: at last the film’s title is displayed and the movie Luo watches becomes his own story. If the first half is an unmoored and skittish portrait of a man trying to sort out fact from fiction in his memory, the second has the fluid and metamorphosis-riddled aspect of a dream. The central conceit of Bi’s approach is that the dream seems much more lucid and negotiable than the section dominated by process of memory, which is associative and leaps time frames with jarring and bewildering randomness, although slowly it begins to add up to a kind of sense. The radical reorientation of style leaves behind the opaque shuffle of events for a rigorous, apparently single-shot experiential excursion, one that might be a “dream” and yet also seems clearer, more coherent, and more literal than the earlier half, albeit one filled with jolts of magic-realism. This section is replete with motifs anyone might recognise from dreams they’ve had over the years – mysterious journeying, strangely conflated setting and places, people who share multiple identities, anxious blends of public ritual and private angst.
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But Bi’s visualising of this, rendered in what is apparently one, long, sustained shot, inverts usual expectations for portrayals of the real and imagined, and ultimately makes you wonder which is which is his imaginative universe. He follows Luo as he enters an underground mine complex, leaves it on motorcycle and then rides a flying fox, entering a sort of industrial citadel amidst a jagged gorge that proves also to be a compressed pocket of reality where the stations of Luo’s particular life-long crucifixion are all neatly contained. People gather in a frigid plaza to watch and perform karaoke, big, beaty anthems echoing plangently around the locale, at once inviting the roaming outsiders and expelling them from the common run of humanity. Luo’s search becomes a literal trek around this segregated reality. Along the way Luo encounters a young boy living in the mine who also goes by the name Wildcat, and who loves playing ping-pong. He meets a woman who’s the spitting image of Qiwen except with a short red-dyed hairdo, managing a pool hall for her boyfriend. Another looks like the old Wildcat’s mother and has the same hairdo as the Qiwen avatar, who begs the hotel owner to come with her on some journey and confesses to be the one who burned down the building where Luo and Qiwen lived.
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Bi’s ostentatious yet resolutely unhurried formal device depends on a number of seamless transitions from shooting stage to stage – the ceaselessly roaming camera speeds before the motorcycle and then seems to glide through the air in arcs of languorous movement as Luo rides the flying fox and he and Qiwen make used of a ping-pong paddle the boy Wildcat gave him that has the potential to become a mode of flight, surveying the citadel and the human flotsam below as if momentarily granted deistic purview. As in myth, Luo has to pass a challenge to move from one zone to another, in his case winning a ping-pong match with the boy Wildcat. Luo has a potency in this zone that eluded him previously. He’s able to masterfully intimidate two teenagers who harass Qiwen, and fends off the hotel owner with a brandished pistol. In much the same way, the subterranean logic Bi employs throughout this sequence, the conjuring trick that is his cinema, ironically gives all a unity, a sense of completeness, that initially eludes it: the film’s second half is a statement of faith in art as a mode for making sense of experience. Luo is free to make associative connections and realise hidden truths. Resources of magic are available and time inverts.
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Each character realises multiple identities. The boy Wildcat could be the lingering spirit of Luo’s dead friend and also his fondly imagined and wished-for son, a reality in an alternate dimension. The vignette of Wildcat’s mother and the hotel owner could be simply be versions of the people they look like. Or smudged representations of Luo’s own mother and her ambiguous fate. Or Qiwen and her current boyfriend. Or future versions of Qiwen and Liu. They can be all at once in part because Bi has spent the entire movie carefully setting up the array of echoes and doppelgangers, generational examples of the same cyclical problems. Bi even has a certain droll sense of humour about the symbolic meaning of all this, as he has Qiwen comment on the symbolic value of the firework as representation of the transitory. In the truly surreal world, such representations break down, distinctions are lost, and opposites threaten to unify. The greater part of Bi’s game here is less to intrigue with such ponderings, however, than to articulate an oneiric feeling nearly impossible to articulate except with the tools cinema gives him. The sense of being at once present and removed from circumstances, of dreaming but also being aware.
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Luo’s encounters have a vital, salutary quality, helping the women he’s known, and by extension himself, escape frames of identity they’ve become entrapped by. The Qiwen he meets in the hillside town lacks the identifying marks that fixed the old one in his mind but nonetheless becomes the one he searches for, the green dress swapped for a flashy red jacket, just as iconographic but declaring a more worldly and contemporary aspect: classic femme fatale become ‘80s thriller neon goddess. Her fondness for pomelos suddenly gains meaning, as the highest rize on the fruit machine she likes to play, longing for fiscal deliverance. Strange as it all is, so much of Luo’s life clicks together like a jigsaw in these scenes, leading to its dizzyingly romantic climax as Luo and Qiwen kiss in the ruined building and do sit it spinning. His camera then threads an independent path, free of reference to his characters, through the citadel until focusing on the burning sparklers Luo left in Qiwen’s dressing room. Symbols of the transitory indeed, but burning brightly. We are of course watching Bi’s movie and he knows it, using the privilege to rewrite his own reality.

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2010s, Biopic, Musical

The Runaways (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Floria Sigismondi

By Roderick Heath

I know I was there, but I’m not sure what we were all doing around the start of the decade. Perhaps all basking in the glaring heat of LMFAO’s career, or praising ourselves over how cultured we were chortling at the toilet jokes in The King’s Speech. Sensitive white boys were masturbating over freeze-frames from Wes Anderson movies and the dudes who now trip over themselves to praise Kristen Stewart’s recent starring roles were all sharing memes about how talentless she was in those heady Twilight days. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t doing what we should have been doing, which was going to see Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways. Pescara-born Sigismondi, daughter of opera singers, was named after the heroine of Tosca. An auspicious beginning for a woman who, after attending college in Canada, swiftly found repute as a photographer and director of freaky music videos. Sigismondi’s visions became prized as showcases first for Canadian bands and then internationally, for their bizarre dreamscapes laden with grotesquery, as in her striking work on The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “She Said”, and clips for David Bowie and Christina Aguilera. When Sigismondi made her feature directing debut, she chose a topic close to her professional experience and interest, in deciding to adapt the memoir of Cherie Currie, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, an account of Currie’s experience as lead singer of the prototypical all-girl rock band The Runaways.

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The Runaways failed to gain much commercial success in their day, except in Japan, and they’re remembered today chiefly thanks to their staple “Cherry Bomb,” which has turned up in such odd places as the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack in the undignified company of “The Pina Colada Song.” That song offered a swaggering lyrical attitude and heavy, chugging guitar parts, pitched somewhere at the nexus of glam, punk, and metal, a nexus fans of all three modes would probably prefer not to acknowledge could exist. The band was a relatively short-lived music phenomenon, releasing four albums in as many years and stumbling on after scene-stealing frontwoman Currie left the band, leaving it to lead guitarist Joan Jett to fill her shoes. Jett ultimately found her own mojo as a solo performer and eventually gained much greater success. The Runaways weren’t taken very seriously at the time, either, never fitting in with punk’s asocial credo, and far too spiky for the lushly eroticised sounds of disco. But their albums are spectacularly entertaining, with their little myths of reform school girls battling authority and hunting down sex and fun, like modern day Bacchantes enacting ‘50s B-movie plots. Sigismondi’s film, in drawing on Currie’s account, is less the success story of Jett, although that’s covered too, than her own tale of a talented girl falling afoul of the oldest and greatest trap of stardom: the freedom to indulge appetites whilst arresting the need to deal with the stuff of actual life.

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The opening shot lays it all on the line: a giant blob of menstrual blood spotting black tarmac, the moment Cherie became a woman in all its gory spectacle. It’s a touch that gives the film an unexpected sense of linkage with Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) which kicked off with the same fateful moment. Like that movie it’s a drama of an innocent being pushed out into the wild to hang with the witches and vampires, ready to transform you into a thing of beauty or suck your lifeblood. Cherie (Dakota Fanning) worked in an LA diner alongside her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough, in her film debut), daughter of a pretentious former actress (Tatum O’Neal), who, as Cherie describes it, kicked their father out for leaving coffee rings on the furniture. Talented as a poseur long before discovering any other ability, Cherie struts the stage at a talent show at her high school dressed as Bowie, lip-synching to one of his songs, and when the crowd gets rowdy and abusive at her freaky gyrations, she turns jeers to cheers by giving them the collective finger. She starts hitting nightspots, turning heads with her evolving look, and soon attracts attention that will change her life.

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Joan, likewise sporting ambitions to form an all-girl rock band even as her guitar-playing skills are still a work in progress, is a totally different type to Cherie, fashioning herself in the mould of old-school male greasers. She dares to approach Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a famed and influential music promoter and record producer whose career started with the novelty hit “Alley Oop” in the early 1960s. Fowley, a bizarre and showy personality who specialises in staying at the head of the pack in the music business by being weirder than the weird, likes Jett’s idea, and introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Once the girls prove to have musical chemistry, Fowley takes them out on a hunt for a singer, a performer to bring sex kitten zest to contrast the rock toughness, and fixates on Currie, with her carefully crafted apparel – “little Bowie, little Bardot, a look on your face that says ‘I could kick the shit out of a truck driver.’” Soon the band is filled with bristling guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat). Fowley bundles the girls up in a trailer in the wastes of San Fernando to practice.

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Dismayed by Cherie’s choice of an audition song, Fowley sits down with Jett to throw together a song that can double as a mission statement for Cherie, making a pun on her name and extrapolating a defiant message as the two improvise what will become “Cherry Bomb.” Fowley then provokes and taunts Cherie and the rest of the girls into realising their rock’n’roll fierceness, training them in the fine arts of playing whilst being pelted with garbage by having neighbourhood boys do it. Fowley’s antics nonetheless begin to pay off as the girls survive their first gig, playing an illegal party concert where they have to bat away flying missiles and general adolescent energy, before setting off on the road. Their adventures out in the wilds see them weathering abusive encounters with a contemptuous headlining rock band (inspired by several different bands, including Rush), provoking Joan’s revenge by pissing on their guitars. Once Fowley gets them signed to Mercury Records, the band gets big in Japan, so they wing across the Pacific to tour. But Cherie finds herself circling the drain as she anaesthetises her guilt about leaving her sister to take care of her alcoholic and ailing father, and a pariah amongst her bandmates for readily playing up her sexuality in racy photos that make them all look like soft-core peddlers.

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I liked The Runaways a lot when I first saw it, and since then it’s proven a constantly rewarding and entertaining movie to revisit. It doesn’t quite come together as forcefully as it might have and faces a difficulty that dogs many music biopics in trying to make a tale about spiralling addictions and detachment from real life fresh. But it’s still perhaps the most visually inventive music pic since Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), achieving like that film a texture that accords well with the music at its heart and the experience it records, preferring less a mood of earnest realism than one of being submerged in an aesthetic, animating a desire to portray not just a gang of musicians but the vivacity of a moment in time and way of seeing the world. Rock biopics, like the legion of biographies and memoirs of music stars that are something of a publishing standard now, depend on a dynamic a little like what critics detected in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics. They feed eye and mind with gratification and allowing the audience to get off on all the aesthetic pleasures of hedonism and addiction with the added pleasure of (hopefully) good music, whilst contouring them into a moralising narrative where we pretend to be interested in somebody’s romance with so-and-so or learn they’re really a family person at heart when we’re just after the gorgeous orgies.

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A contradiction to this is the fact that watching other people’s self-indulgence can swiftly become boring if they don’t tap the sensation of maniacal descent or transcendence through excess. The best movies in this vein tend to tap the latter quality, as Sigismondi achieves spasmodically. Since The Runaways’ release, life has added on its own fascinating and disturbing appendices. Currie, whose simultaneously antagonistic and overawed relationship with Fowley defines her tale, cared for him in his ailing later years before his death in 2015, after which one of the band’s real bass players, Jacqui Fox, who asked not to be portrayed in the film, stated that Fowley raped her. Such revelations add a discomforting extra dimension to Shannon’s ferociously convincing performance a self-made imp of the perverse. Fowley galvanises the band into a working unit at the expense of giving them a close and personal glimpse of egomania at a high-falutin’ extreme, delivering pseudo-philosophical diatribes about their role avatars of youth experience who must alchemise free-floating neediness into a coherent message (“This isn’t about Women’s Lib, this about women’s libidos!”). Fowley is the walking nightmare of the rock world who comes knocking on Sandy’s front door to speak to her straight-laced mother, who shags in his office whilst on the phone, and is glimpsed at one point hanging upside down and reading The Art of War. Fowley arms the band members with such arts for strutting the stage and staring down an audience bristling with anger, frustration, and desire. But he also claims his own ruthless price, as they must put up with his aggression, dominance, and willingness to sacrifice their real selves to a conjured image.

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The Runaways marked a coming of age for Stewart and Fanning, who have both since proven hardy, multifarious actors, but who were at the time struggling to prove themselves as adult performers. The crossover audience for people who wanted to watch former child star Fanning playing a doped-up jailbait exhibitionist and Stewart’s Twilight fans eager to go out to a gritty rock biopic proved to be about five people and a dog. But Stewart’s reputation now as a fearless and inventive star owes everything to her segue into this role, playing Jett with gunslinger swagger in leather pants and evil grin as she encourages her band mates to get in touch with the clitorises and their same-sex longings, as when she instructs Sandy to masturbate with a shower head and think of Farrah Fawcett. Fanning had the harder central role in playing a girl who, unlike the iron-souled Jett, isn’t really sure who she is or what she wants, painting on glitzy guises and playing roles asked of her to avoid the question; rather than growing into the apparel of stardom, she becomes a void around which such paraphernalia amasses.

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The Runaways unabashedly presents its heroines, products of sundered homes, distracted parents, and the mores of a grow-up-fast culture, as nonetheless the first ripe crop of femininity to emerge in a louche and liberated era and trying to grab the world’s plenty by the throat. Such hatchlings emerge amongst the tawdry but quietly fostering atmosphere of the LA suburbs where self-invention is a form of religion because everything else has a transient, prefab aura. Cherie daubs herself in paint and glitter and emerges as the new-age Venus, sexuality becoming just another pop trope she tries to master. Hormones blend with the beckoning promise of all things now being possible, as Joan’s pal Tammy (Hannah Marks) snatches a chance to kiss her and covers it with the excuse, plucked from Suzi Quatro’s lyrical refrain, “I’m a wild one!” Cherie is furious with her mother for leaving her and Marie to subsist whilst she jaunts off to Indonesia to marry her new boyfriend, and mocks her diva breezily egotistical affectations (“Places, people!”). But Cherie commits herself to doing the same thing first chance she gets, leaving her sister in the lurch with her grandmothers and father who’s left sickly and crippled by his own addictions.

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Cherie can’t escape them, however, or the impulses they generate which stick like barbs in the mind: Cherie’s return home sees her pathetically proffer to her long-broken father a $100 bill, totem of prosperity that can’t even save her own self. Life on the road sees the girls introduced to all the hedonistic pleasures available to them. Cherie quickly loses her cherry to the band’s skeevy roadie Scottie (Johnny Lewis), the kind of guy who likes leaping nude into hotel swimming pools, but also edging towards romance with Joan, who otherwise takes the place of sister and comrade in arms. Fowley nudges Cherie towards making an exhibition of herself for magazine photographers, but she leaps in high-heeled boots and all in trying to radically reconstruct herself as a fetishist icon and publicity magnet, only to be interrupted by her broom-wielding grandmother who tries to chase the photographers away.

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Skills in making music videos, a realm often dominated by purely stream-of-consciousness image-fashioning and brand-aware marketing impulses, don’t always translate into effective cinema directing talents, although many major filmmakers of recent years have cut their teeth in the field. Sigismondi’s well-honed skills for achieving strange and dreamy textures in her music videos proved invaluable in creating a dense and fetidly convincing recreation of the mid-70s setting in all its sweaty, fleshy, Me Decade tackiness and bravura. The Hollywood sign looming over the period LA is a crumbing and sorry sight, the tattered ghost of a bygone age claimed as stomping ground for hooligan inheritors. Much of the film was shot on Super 16mm to gain a grainy texture. Sigismondi’s eye picks out little splendours in the period recreation to turn to her purpose, like the chintzy tiling in a period hotel shower into which Cherie seems to dissolve as she frays, glitter make-up and mascara sliding off her skin and the small girl left naked and shivering as if she’s being sucked into the texture of banality. Vignettes like the band playing a house party that gets busted up by the cops, the band’s first real foray out of their trailer and into the big world of performing yet still in a bizarrely intimate, domestic setting, wields the potency of all pop music styles when they feed directly from the social landscape on a basic level, the synergy of entertainer and entertained.

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Sigismondi superbly catches the feeling of being swept up in a wave of excitement, and the way general euphoria blends imperceptibly at first with the heightened states of drug use and sexual unfettering. The film’s first big performance set piece recreates the band’s “Dead End Justice,” a Roger Corman drive-in juvenile delinquent flick set to song, performed for a thrashing nightspot crowd, as an orchestral show of light and dark, Cherie and Joan at the centre of a typhoon of noise and motion. A venture into a roller disco sees a swooning interlude of erotic discovery as Joan leans over a prostrate Cherie and breaths cigarette smoke into her mouth before kissing her, all in a flood of red light with The Stooges’ weirdo anthem “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its intimations of weird coupling and degrading delights, all the transformative thrill and danger of youthful experimentation packed into a single dreamy image. This segues into a drugged-up bedroom romp, tracing outer edges of Jesus Franco-esque sexual psychedelia where the two girls almost melt into each-other in hallucinatory spasms. Sigismondi puts over the druggy thrill and blurriness of Cherie’s spiralling habit coinciding with her efforts to hide in a guise with the gleefully totemic image of pills on a shining floor surface crushed up under the black gleaming form of her colossal stilettoes.

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Sigismondi plays up the queer aspect of the story, much as Todd Haynes claimed the legends swirling around Bowie and Mick Jagger to construct his own vision of rock’s vital place in bolstering gay emergence and visibility in Velvet Goldmine (1998), although Sigismondi’s approach is more intimate and ephemeral, celebrating the spree of possibilities set in motion as the rock’n’roll creed tests every boundary and seemingly makes everything permissible. Such bounty is part of both the creed’s grandeur and its depravity, adventures of self-discovery blurring imperceptibly with predatory behaviours. The performed sexuality seen on stage, particularly in the climactic recreation of the band’s thunderous performances of “Cherry Bomb” for a Japanese audience, is by contrast a zone of Amazonian accomplishment, Cherie donning a pink corset and stockings that in Joan’s words makes her ready for the peep show circuit, but placing it in her service of her own efforts to outpace onanistic fantasies by provoking them. Sigismondi sees in her efforts the seeds for Madonna’s later, more successful manipulation of this idea.

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Where The Runaways as a film runs into trouble is, aptly, where the band also floundered, in the process of establishing and maintaining a domain where its big personalities can operate and control their own image, but the less wilful collapse and fail. Cherie eventually digs in her heels and resists Lita and Fowley’s bullying, and walks out during a recording session. Joan, infuriated, starts trashing the studio and abusing Fowley, who is, ironically, delighted with such a display of proper rock’n’roll attitude. But the band can’t survive as a concept or unit without Cherie’s personality as its alluring and mediating face. Whilst Cherie descends even more deeply into drugged-up dissolution, Joan hides out in blank suburban bunkers and takes recourse in lesbian orgies, before resisting all temptation to give and fade back into the fate Fowley predicts for them all, as fat and happy housewives. She instead slowly but assuredly getting her mind back on music, and resurges as a solo star with her beloved cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

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Where the film’s first two-thirds are sublimely confident in transmuting loose history into a punchy narrative and sprawl of cinematic lustre, Sigismondi’s grip fails as events become more disjointed and the timeline becomes blurry. Both Cherie and Joan’s diverse processes of eddying and recovery require more time and nuance, and Ford’s moderately successful solo career isn’t even mentioned. In real life Cherie continued to hover around the edge of the celebrity scene (in real life she recorded a song with her sister, married Airplane! actor Robert Hayes, and starred in the 1980 teen flick Foxes alongside Jodie Foster, another brush with a big rising star) before dropping out. Sigismondi’s visuals retain strength even as narrative becomes diffuse. Cherie’s low ebb is well-visualised as she explores the innards of a supermarket, dressed in glam fashion but barely upright on two bandy legs whilst exploring the linen aisle, and traipsing across a weed-ridden car park, citizen once more of a crumbling and barren suburbia. Sigismondi also manages to give the film a wistfully fitting grace note, in the form of an awkward phone conversation as Cherie, now working as a shopgirl, calls up a radio show Joan’s being interviewed on to wish her well. The gulf between celebrity and civilian is ultimately defined by another disparity, harder to describe, not exactly one of the weak and the strong, but one of a certain innate warrior mentality that some have and some haven’t. The lapses of The Runaways are frustrating because it’s a lush, exhilarating, stupendously entertaining movie at its best. Sigismondi is still making major music videos, but damn, I hope one day she makes another movie.

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