The montage is foreign to real life. Off screens, we fill out forms and wait for buses and generally get on with the slow, narratively unexciting business of living. This stands in notable contrast to visual mediums, which hold elision as one of their most important tools. To better serve the story and for the avoidance of confusion, superfluous details in films and TV programmes are often changed or omitted entirely: a supporting character in a biopic will be a composite of several actual people, an inessential sub-plot will be dropped from an adaptation, and years will pass over the course of a pop song or even a single jump cut. No-one uses the toilet or does laundry or defrosts a fridge, unless something of narrative worth is going to happen when they do.
A certain amount of abridgement is to be expected in a finite story, but things become interesting when looking at how the process affects the presentation of physical geography. In a 2012 interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh discussed the footchase at the climax of his black comedy In Bruges:
“The chase can be done in real time. From point A to point B to point C. They weren’t the most pretty bits of Bruges but it was a straight one-minute run. I’ve read online of people going there after the film and seeing how logical and truthful it actually was.”
For the majority of his audience who don’t live in Bruges or intend to travel there to test it out, McDonagh’s decision to make the sequence spatially accurate may seem perverse rather than admirable, but I’d argue that it’s admirably perverse instead. By choosing verisimilitude over aesthetic considerations, the film – shot entirely within half an hour’s walk of the director’s hotel – has an internal logic. The story may be outlandish but is grounded in a place that feels like the real Bruges, boring and beautiful in equal measure.
McDonagh’s strict approach is relatively uncommon. Films and TV shows set in real locales often have an elastic sense of distance, invent fictional areas, or choose disparate locations in order to find somewhere better looking or more convenient to film in. Some of these deviations are stylistic, while others are pragmatic, hence Vancouver, nicknamed ‘Hollywood North’, frequently stands in for various American cities due to its generous tax incentives.
By exploring how different productions use geographical logic when depicting the same city – in the following examples, television programmes set in contemporary London – it is possible to reflect on our own relationship with urban spaces. Our experience of city life is similar to a film-maker’s: while we live in a real, ever-evolving place, we self-construct it through the areas we frequent. Everyone in a city lives in their own particular version of that city, but given its size and the socio-economic and cultural variety, this is more true of London than of most places.
While Sherlock is among television’s most intricately plotted shows, the London it depicts is made of silly putty and string. The most egregious example of its fickle geography was during the 2014 episode The Empty Hearse: Dr John Watson’s journey sees his Jubilee line train transform into a District line train, before he jumps out at Euston Square – a station served by neither line – after which the episode’s portrayal of the Tube network only becomes more inaccurate and haphazard. The complicated logistics of shooting on the Underground necessitates some fudging (hence Watson and Holmes eventually heading to disused station/ubiquitous filming location Aldwych), but as most Londoners have specific sections of the Tube map tattooed onto their brain, the experience of seeing Watson bounce around an ephemeral Underground is disorientating.
Fassett Square in Hackney bears an conspicuous likeness to Eastenders‘ benches-and-crying-filled Albert Square, which is unsurprising as the garden space was used to film the show’s pilot. That the producers ultimately decided to eschew the actual square for a set was one of their most significant decisions: the fictional borough of Walford exists in its own bubble, able to emulate the identity of the East End without being tied to any specific part of it. The hermetically sealed environment contributes a dramatic component essential for any soap: the sense that the characters are part of a community but also somehow trapped, able to leave only through death or in the back of a taxi. Its portrayal of life in an imaginary part of a real city has always inspired an odd dissonance, which has only grown more pronounced as Albert Square has struggled to keep up with the brutal rate of gentrification. Walford may have its own postal district and a stop on the Hammersmith & City and District lines, replacing Bromley-by-Bow on the programme’s tube maps, but it doesn’t boast a single crêperie.
The return of Doctor Who to television screens after 16 years away was accompanied by many changes, but perhaps the two biggest were the shift in narrative focus towards the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler and the movement of production from London to South Wales. As Rose was from modern London these would seem to be at odds with each other, but the solution employed was a mixture of London-based location shooting and Cardiff-based fakery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new incarnation’s first episode, where Queen’s Arcade in Cardiff was half-heartedly disguised with an outdated tube roundel and an old Routemaster. But if, on occasion, London in Doctor Who looks suspiciously like Cardiff then this is only following in a charmingly lo-fi tradition, where the interiors of spaceships look suspiciously like darkened corridors at the BBC and alien planets look suspiciously like quarries in Surrey or Kent. The slightly ridiculous, cheap-and-cheerful aesthetic is essential to the programme, so it would be stranger if its depiction of London wasn’t also uncanny.
Aside from the time its eponymous detective got grumpy with his job and threw his coat off Southwark Bridge, or the other time he got grumpy with his job and fled to the seaside, Luther is set almost entirely in east London. While the show makes good use of interesting, rarely filmed locations, however, the relatively confined setting means that most of the time Idris Elba is hunting down serial killers who are a couple of stops away on the 55 bus, and who he could probably find if he just yelled loudly enough. The vivid sense of place means that the programme avoids the could-be-anywhere quality of sleek London rival Sherlock, but also means that it’s essentially an urban Midsomer Murders: characters drive towards and away from the Shoreditch Central junction so often it’s remarkable that it’s never been the victim of an intricate satanic murder. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, DCI John Luther works in a living, breathing London, it’s just a shame that it’s a London so small you’re liable to run into your murder suspect at the local newsagents.
Originally published on White Noise. To read the original article click here.
It seems that each generation of Hollywood leading men is a response to the one that came before. Between the conflicted everyman anti-heroes of the 1970s and the six-pack touting Adonises of the superheroic present came a wave of actors ill at ease with their preternatural good looks, determined to appear slipshod at every available opportunity. Out of this crop, the quintessential masquerading movie star is surely Johnny Depp, who has been hiding himself beneath costumes, outlandish props and layers of makeup since his brooding breakthrough performance as the eponymous topiarist in Edward Scissorhands (1990).
This predilection for production design grew in concert with his box-office success: in the years following his Oscar-nominated role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the sight of Depp unembellished all but disappeared from screens. Inevitably, this has produced diminishing returns: as daring independent features were replaced by distended-but-lucrative blockbusters, he has increasingly given the impression of someone playing dress-up rather than actually acting, each new role bringing another implausible accent and elaborate costume festooned with knick-knacks and gewgaws. (His Tonto in The Lone Ranger  was just the latest in a long line of OTT get-ups.)
At first glance, Scott Cooper’s true crime drama Black Mass, based on a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, suggests more of the same. As the infamous mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp is once again recognisably unrecognisable: chill blue eyes and damaged teeth sit beneath a balding pate on a wan horror show of a face. Starting in the mid-70s and continuing over two decades, the film follows Bulger – ruthless head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang – as he attempts to become the city’s leading crime boss. In an incredible real-life twist, he was substantially aided in this ambition by his relationship with two men: his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts Senate, and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who persuaded the bureau to recruit Bulger as a major informant. Bulger, unsurprisingly, exploited this position to brutally eliminate his rivals as law enforcement officials consciously looked the other way. With his fingers clasped around Boston’s throat, it’s notable that Bulger himself doesn’t change a significant amount in the film, but instead causes a deep spiritual rot to take hold in those close to him.
Although he has always been drawn to outsiders, narcissists and grotesques, before Black Mass Depp has never played anyone quite so visually repellent. Where his recent screen visages have felt like affectations, here his appearance is in service of the character. Bulger’s ghoulish presence causes tangible discomfort in the people he meets, which the character employs to excruciating effect as a way to assert control through intimation. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, he has a conversation with Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) that manages to be both calculatedly innocuous and completely threatening at the same time: despite his amorality and utter lack of empathy, Depp’s Bulger understands human behaviour all too well, aware that touching someone’s face can be as distressing as a brutal act of violence.
Any sprawling American film about organised crime produced today, even a richly satisfying one, finds itself at the disadvantage of standing within a long cinematic shadow. Escape comes only with some distinguishing element; in this case it is Depp’s complicated, vampiric performance – one of his strongest in years. In recent interviews, the actor has downplayed the idea that he’s doing anything different in Black Mass, but that’s not quite true: he’s palpably trying. It’s certainly a better look for him than face paint and a dead crow strapped to his head.
Published in Curzon Issue 53.
More than 20 years after the release of his debut film Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino remains one of American cinema’s most distinctive and influential voices. With the release of his next feature The Hateful Eight fast approaching – either his eighth or ninth film, depending on how you’re counting – we’ve created a guide to the life and movies of the ostentatious, fast-talking director.
A IS FOR ACCIDENTS
The key element that unites Tarantino’s movies isn’t any of his stylistic idiosyncrasies or his exuberant film-making techniques but the way he thrills at the transgressive narrative potential of accidents. Demonstrating little interest in the idea of a hero’s journey, and divorced from the need to sustain a straight line of character development, he’s happy to construct a film as a procession of sequences. Accordingly, his characters are surrendered to the consequences of bizarre chance: life or death can depend on holding three fingers up the wrong way, a bump in the road while pointing a gun, a misplaced shoe, or the inopportune popping of a toaster.
B IS FOR BANDE À PART
Tarantino’s earliest act of cinematic appropriation came with the naming of A Band Apart, the production company he founded with Lawrence Bender in 1991. Much like when he would later take Reservoir Dogs‘ title from a mangling of the Louis Malle film Au revoir les enfants , the company’s name was adapted from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. Godard’s film would be raided by the director again a few years later, when its famed “Madison dance” scene would provide the inspiration for John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing the twist in Pulp Fiction.
C IS FOR CHUNGKING EXPRESS
In addition to his magpie tendency to craft films from rock and roll, surf music, bits of old movies, soul and half-remembered television programmes, Tarantino is an advocate for world cinema that might otherwise struggle to find an audience. In 1994 he created Rolling Thunder, a distribution company dedicated to foreign and independent films. Unfortunately Rolling Thunder was unable to last for more than a few years before it folded, but in that time they secured the American release of films including Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine.
D IS FOR DEATH LIST FIVE
A deadly former assassin seeks murderous revenge against the group that betrayed her. Her first task: admin. In a typically sly touch, Kill Bill‘s The Bride uses a notepad to produce a tidy list of her five targets, as if she might somehow forget. The director’s penchant for numbered groupings is one of his most reliable tics: Kill Bill also features the the “Crazy 88” Yakuza gang, while Mia Wallace’s failed TV pilot in Pulp Fiction concerns the “Fox Force Five.” The cousin of his fondness for character nicknames, this predilection has since grown to encompass an entire film: The Hateful Eight. It’s better than the foot fetish, at least.
E IS FOR EROTICA
“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin’s about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song, it’s a metaphor for big dicks.” Given his talent for self-promotion – surely the equal of his film-making abilities – it’s fitting that the very first voice heard in a Quentin Tarantino film is the man himself. As Mr Brown in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino delivers an attention-grabbing, instantly notorious monologue on the meaning behind the Madonna song. After seeing the film in 1992, the singer asked to meet with the director. He unsurprisingly couldn’t resist asking if his theory was correct. Signing his copy of the Erotica album, she gave her answer: “To Quentin. It’s not about dick, it’s about love. Madonna.”
F IS FOR FRUIT BRUTE
If you think the idea of a cereal cafe is taking things a bit far, spare a thought for those dark days of the 1990s: from Seinfeld to nonlinear crime anthologies, the decade was wall-to-wall breakfast cereal references. With his glimpses of the ’70s era Fruit Brute in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was no exception. The philosophy behind its inclusion, at least, was decent: a noted opponent of product placement, the director peppers his films with fake brands like Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna burgers. Fruit Brute’s frosted fruit taste and lime-flavoured marshmallows made the cut because the product was discontinued in 1982.
G IS FOR THE GOLDEN GIRLS
Years before Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino made his screen debut as one of several Elvis impersonators on an episode of The Golden Girls. “I was the best of the bunch,” he’s claimed since, with admirably perverse pride. “The others were all the Vegas Elvis. I was the Sun Records Elvis, the hillbilly cat.” While his priority was film-making, performing was clearly always a competing interest: it’s notable that although he never went to film school, he did take acting classes. Early in his career there was a period where it seemed liked Tarantino might actually try to pursue acting seriously, but since his significant (self-written) part in From Dusk till Dawn his on-screen appearances have been mostly limited to small roles in his own movies and occasional cameos. These days it’s more likely for him to yell at Kermit in a Muppet TV movie than to co-star with George Clooney.
H IS FOR THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD
Beating Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG by several years, Tarantino adapted Roald Dahl’s work for the cinema way back in 1995. The results, however, were less than successful. An anthology comedy based around a bellhop played by Tim Roth, Four Rooms was a collaboration between Tarantino and fellow independent film-makers Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. His directed segment was “The Man from Hollywood”, an adaptation of a Dahl short story boasting an uncredited turn from Bruce Willis. Coming a year after Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms was considered a significant disappointment, but ultimately it’s as patchy as any other portmanteau film.
I IS FOR INGLOURIOUS (SIC)
“You don’t need technology for poetry,” Tarantino replied in a recent interview when asked if he still writes by hand. During the process of pulling together his screenplay for Pulp Fiction, the film-maker enlisted the help of Linda Chen, a friend who happened to be a typist. She later described the process: “His handwriting is atrocious. He’s a functional illiterate. I was averaging about 9,000 grammatical errors per page. After I would correct them, he would try to put back the errors, because he liked them.” Tarantino’s enjoyment of poor spelling would reach its culmination years later when he decided to give his long-gestating WWII epic the spellcheck-baiting title of Inglourious Basterds.
J IS FOR JAMES BOND
A common pastime for idle film fans is to speculate about the uncanny parallel universe where Tom Selleck was Indiana Jones, Edgar Wright directed Ant-Man and the conjoined twins in Stuck on You were played by Woody Allen and Jim Carrey. Of all of the ghostly alternate renditions of existing films, perhaps the most tantalising is the version of Casino Royale that Tarantino wanted to write and direct after finishing Kill Bill: a period black-and-white thriller starring Pierce Brosnan and adapted closely from Ian Fleming’s original novel. While the eventual Martin Campbell-directed Casino Royale became the creative apogee of the Bond series, the thought of what would have been remains alluring. “That wouldn’t have been just throwing my hat in the franchise ring,” Tarantino said recently, “that would have been subversion on a massive level, if I could have subverted Bond.”
K IS FOR KINJI FUKASAKU
When asked what was the best film that had been made since joining the film industry,
Tarantino had the answer ready to hand: Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s savage and provocative drama about a class of Japanese high school students forced to wage war on one another.“If there’s any movie that’s been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one.” Of course, Tarantino said this in 2009, so there’s a chance that Battle Royale has since been usurped by Philomena. Or maybe not.
L IS FOR LISTS
The eclectic, often baffling choices that Tarantino includes in his annual best-of-year lists demonstrate that figuring out what movies you appreciate is a complicated business: his 2013 cohort included thoughtful gems like Frances Ha and Afternoon Delight alongside head-scratchers like Kick-Ass 2 and This Is the End. Given that he’s explicitly built a career out of having unconventional, out-there tastes, it seems strange to express judgement when he articulates some of them. Inevitably, your personal mileage for Tarantino’s work will vary also: if you once found him overrated, perhaps you now find him underrated, or maybe you think Jackie Brown is less ambitious but more rewarding, or that Death Proof is his most subversive, daring, meaningful film. If there’s any lesson to be found in the career of Quentin Tarantino, it’s that it’s okay to like what you like.
M IS FOR MEN IN BLACK
In a medium as collaborative as cinema it’s understandable that there aren’t a substantial number of film-makers who are both the director and sole writer of everything they make. Tarantino remains a notable exception: give or take the occasional Robert Rodriguez team-up, he’s employed the credit “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” for his entire career. The director discussed this stance in a recent interview: “Right away, I presented myself as not a director for hire. I’m not going to sit at home and read these scripts you send me. I’m going to write my own.” This desire for total control wasn’t immediately apparent to studios after the breakthrough success of Reservoir Dogs, however: among the projects offered to him were the soon-to-be-massive-hits Men in Black and Speed. Sticking to his guns, Tarantino turned them all down for a project of his own. It was called Pulp Fiction.
N IS FOR THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA
The lingering cinema-set scenes of Inglourious Basterds and True Romance provide evidence where none was needed that the cinephilia that defines Tarantino’s work covers movie theatres as well as the films they screen. After nearly three decades of frequenting the New Beverly in Los Angeles, including several years of keeping the family-run cinema afloat with monthly donations, Tarantino bought the venue outright after it was threatened with closure. Describing the cinema as being his charity, his role as landlord mostly involves letting the family get on with things, occasional programming suggestions and being evangelical: “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm.”
O IS FOR THE OPEN ROAD
A little like the rumoured Ur-Hamlet play that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version, The Open Road is an enigmatic document that’s possibly the basis for much of Tarantino’s early work. As it’s has never been read and the two key men involved in its creation have said different things about it at different times, it’s hard to ascertain its contents definitively. The general consensus is that Tarantino’s friend and video store colleague Roger Avary wrote an unfinished screenplay called The Open Road, which Tarantino then took on and expanded to mammoth proportions, before giving up and cannibalising parts of the story for his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Elements may have also made their way into Pulp Fiction and Avary’s directorial debut Killing Zoe. Or perhaps they didn’t. Unless someone can persuade Tarantino to dig out several hundred pages of illegible notebook pages we remain in the dark, which is probably for the best.
P IS FOR PAM GRIER
Pam Grier is fantastic in Jackie Brown and it’s shameful that she hasn’t been cast in more things since. That’s all for P.
Q IS FOR QUINT ASPER
Considering the heady collision of influences that makes up every scene he’s ever written, it seems entirely appropriate that Tarantino’s name would also be culturally entangled. His mother Connie named him after two starkly different things at once: the blacksmith Quint Asper portrayed by Burt Reynolds in the TV western Gunsmoke, and two characters (Quentin Compson and his niece Miss Quentin) from William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. It would be quite possible for someone reading far too much into the subject to view this mix of cultural sources as revealing.
R IS A FOR ROARING RAMPAGE OF REVENGE
Tarantino’s preoccupation with revenge narratives has borne unexpected fruit in the second part of his career, as his films have pursued bloody vengeance on behalf of historically oppressed groups. His main tool for this objective is his muse and primary subject: cinema. Even in his films which are less explicitly about its power to overcome oppress – lest we forget, Inglourious Basterds is about an alliance of film projectionists, critics and actors who destroy Hitler in a movie theatre – he employs apostatised genres and pop culture sampling to achieve the same ends. As The Bride in Kill Bill drives her car against a rear projection, she addresses the audience: “When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge. I roared and I rampaged and I got bloody satisfaction.” Her words could have been uttered by the protagonists of every film that Tarantino has made since.
S IS FOR SALLY MENKE
Tarantino’s most important colleague was not one of his regular actors, nor a producer or cinematographer, but his long-time editor Sally Menke. Described by the film-maker as his “only truly genuine collaborator,” Menke’s contribution to his first seven features can’t be overstated: she was as crucial to Tarantino as Thema Schoonmaker is to Scorsese or Michael Kahn is to Spielberg. Their fond working relationship could be witnessed in the “Hello Sally” reels of Tarantino’s later films, where cast and crew members were sweetly encouraged by the director to share greetings in an attempt to make her smile. Tragically, Menke died in 2010 of heat-related causes while walking with her dog. While editing Django Unchained, the first film made after her death, Tarantino put a sign up on his Avid editing equipment: WWSD?
T IS FOR TOILETS
For the first half of his career at least, there’s a strong possibility that any major narrative event in a Tarantino movie will take place in a restaurant, car or bathroom. In the case of Pulp Fiction, it’s the latter that is the most interesting. While rapid internet conversation dwells needlessly on the mysterious contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase (it’s a light bulb), a far more potent question is why violent misfortune befalls Vincent Vega any time he enters a toilet. Without fail, he returns from each visit to find calamity: a robbery in progress, his boss’ wife overdosing on heroin, a boxer with a hunger for pop tarts and access to a machine pistol. What’s that about?
U IS FOR ULTRA PANAVISION 70MM
Tarantino stands among his peers as one of the final remaining holdouts against digital film-making. He fervently defends not just the idea of shooting movies on celluloid but projecting them that way as well: “By losing film projection we’ve already ceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he declared at the first screening of footage from The Hateful Eight. In his latest attempt to bolster celluloid, he’s announced that The Hateful Eight will only be shown in “glorious 70mm” for the opening fortnight of its American theatrical release. In addition, it is also the first film in almost fifty years to be shot in the super wide Ultra Panavision format, shot with the same camera lenses that were used on Ben-Hur. For those blessed few who get unreasonably excited by aspect ratios, this is rather exciting news.
V IS FOR VIDEO ARCHIVES
Before his film-making career took off, Tarantino’s longest, most significant job was at Video Archives, a video rental shop in a strip mall in Manhattan Beach. Customers from that era describe him as brimming with enthusiasm to share the weird and wonderful films he loved. It’s rare for a director to be defined by the job they had before they started making movies, but at his core Tarantino is still that video shop clerk, trying to turn on the world to his tastes. Describing Video Archives as his college experience, he now looks back gratefully, but after half a decade he’d become stifled: “22 is about the time when you should be working in a video store. Five years later is when I started feeling like a loser.” It was time to make a leap.
W IS FOR WARREN BEATTY
Films speeding towards production lose actors all the time, but the newsification of pop culture and the high-profile nature of the average Tarantino film means that his casting problems regularly make headlines. Scheduling problems stopped Adam Sandler and Simon Pegg from appearing in Inglourious Basterds and Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonah Hill and Joseph Gordon-Levit from appearing in Django Unchained (Hill made a cameo as “Bag Head #2”), while on the less logistical front creative issues meant Warren Beatty stepped away from the titular role in Kill Bill and Will Smith pulled out of playing the lead in Django Unchained, making the valid point that for some reason the role was smaller than Christoph Waltz’s Dr Schultz.
X IS FOR X-FILES
Tarantino’s side career as television director was over before it could really begin. Two years after helming a well-received episode of ER, he was barred by the Directors Guild of America from directing an instalment of The X-Files about a man being controlled by his possessive Jodie Foster-voiced tattoo. He wouldn’t return to the medium for a decade, when he devised the story for and directed a two-part episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Picking one of his previous ideas out of a (Kangol?) hat, the episodes concerns a member of the cast being buried alive.
Y IS FOR YAZOO
In the foreign country that is the past – specifically, the 1997 bit of the past – boy band North & South formed when its members replied to an advert on Teletext. Like a proto S Club 7, the group was created specifically to star in their own CBBC sitcom, No Sweat. After the minor hit of their debut single “I’m A Man Not A Boy”, they ran into trouble with their follow-up “Tarantino’s New Star,” which peaked at number 18 and promptly sank without trace. Through some dastardly fluke, the song somehow managed to simultaneously steal the tunes of both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Yazoo’s “Only You.” 17 years later, it’s still impossible to figure out what exactly the lyrics have to do with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. Weirdly, no interviewer has ever asked the film-maker for his opinion on the ill-conceived tribute.
Z IS FOR ZED
Unlike Pulp Fiction, this guide isn’t presented out of order. If it was then by rights these words would appear somewhere around the letter Q: out of the seven sequences that make up Pulp Fiction‘s narrative, the final one chronologically – “The Gold Watch” – shows up two thirds of the way into the movie. Jules, Winston Wolfe and a no-longer-dead Vincent Vega rumble on for another 38 minutes or so, but the audience has already seen the ending: Butch has had the single weirdest day of his life, somehow made it out alive, stolen a chopper from a sociopath called Zed and is ready to ride away with his girlfriend Fabienne. “Who’s Zed?”, she asks. “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead.”
You know this story. Something bad is going to happen. A clock – maybe figurative, maybe literal – is ticking, and only one person can stop it. The hero’s sole option is to disregard protocol and do what they believe is necessary, rules be damned. Whole genres of cinema are based on this construct, populated with
unorthodox mavericks and rebels who know better than those in charge. While loose cannons make for exciting movies, in the real world it’s not so straightforward and can lead to abuses of power.
This notion lies at the heart of French- Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s seventh feature, Sicario, a tense, muscular thriller that explores the effects of unregulated law enforcement. Unfolding in Arizona and Mexico, where drugs, money and death flow liberally through a porous border, the film follows FBI agent Kate
Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited to a special government unit tasked with challenging the powerful Sonora drug cartel. Led by the sandal-wearing, gumchewing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an operative of uncertain departmental origin, the team make illicit and bombastic trips across the border in an attempt to goad the cartel into a mistake. With objectives that start off opaque and only get murkier, their tactic is to “shake the tree and create chaos” instead of following official procedure. It is in the representation of these moments that Villeneuve, who previously directed the excellent Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010) and Polytechnique (2009), demonstrates an aptitude for gripping set pieces. (A scene involving a convoy stuck in a traffic jam is one of the most suspenseful sequences of the year, despite being a car chase in which
cars don’t move.)
Attracted by the opportunity to affect major change in the increasingly violent drug war and yet against her better judgement, Kate sticks with the unit. She is compellingly played by Emily Blunt, who portrays her
as steely but vulnerable, self-assured but hesitant, and competent yet seemingly adrift in this moral vacuum. Tough enough to conduct her own medical treatment after being caught in an explosion, she is nevertheless realistically fearful in life-or-death situations. Brolin brings swagger to his role, while Benicio del Toro almost steals the film as a haunted, shadowy figure with a hidden agenda.
Villeneuve, aided by Taylor Sheridan’s whip-smart screenplay and Roger Deakins’ exceptional cinematography, takes us deep into this dark world of Black Ops whilst always maintaining enough distance to question the ideology of this enterprise, no matter its success. And for all its thrills, Sicario is wise not to offer any easy answers to a complex, ethically murky situation.
Published in Curzon Issue 53. To read the original article click here.
You might notice something familiar about the poster for Stephen Frears’s upcoming Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. To the left of Ben Foster’s face are the words “CHAMPION HERO LEGEND CHEAT,” and while this effectively articulates what makes the disgraced cyclist such a compelling figure, the inspiration for the tag line is instantly recognisable. Like so many other efforts from recent years, The Program arguably owes a debt to the most surprisingly influential movie poster of the past decade: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was likewise represented on the poster for 2010’s The Social Network as “PUNK PROPHET GENIUS BILLIONAIRE TRAITOR.”
The Social Network poster was the work of Neil Kellerhouse, the go-to graphic designer for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, noted for his minimalist technique and unconventional use of type. Although The Social Network didn’t invent the GOOD THING GOOD THING BAD THING tag line format – examples can be seen in the promotional materials for Abel Ferrera’s original Bad Lieutenant (“GAMBLER THIEF JUNKIE KILLER COP”) or 24 Hour Party People (“GENIUS POET TWAT”) – Kellerhouse’s striking design rippled throughout the increasingly homogeneous world of movie posters. It is a world, incidentally, where the disembodied heads of movie stars float menacingly over landscapes for no particular reason.
As a consequence of its success, The Social Network’s once-impressive poster design is now as much of a cliche as blue and orange colour schemes or romantic leads standing back-to-back. It wearily joins other posters of dubious influence, from The Truman Show (photo mosaics) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(missing eyes) to For Your Eyes Only (splayed legs framing the protagonist, sexism).
This journey from marvel to bore in less than half a decade demonstrates that movie posters are ultimately little different from the features they’re trying so very hard to promote: someone comes up with an original, well-executed idea, others attempt to replicate the formula with diminishing returns, someone else decides to reject the idea in favour of trying something new, and we start all over again. As depressing patterns of behaviour go, it’s strangely encouraging.
The defining image of Miranda July’s audacious debut Me and You and Everyone We Know isn’t July scrawling ‘FUCK’ on her windscreen or John Hawkes setting his hand ablaze but a piece of impromptu ASCII art created by a six year old. Four brackets and two greater-than signs illustrate his simple desire: “I’ll poop into her butthole and then she’ll poop it back into my butthole, and then we’ll just keep doing it back and forth with the same poop.” By attempting to approximate how a physical process can embody an emotional bond, he sums up the struggle to connect openly that is the theme not just of the film but most of July’s multidisciplinary work. Even when they can’t articulate it, all of her characters – like me, like you, like everyone we know – are ultimately just looking for someone to poop back and forth into their butthole, forever ))><((
Published as part of Little White Lies’ “100 great movies by female directors” feature. To read the original article click here.
CHARLIZE THERON IN YOUNG ADULT (2011)
Charlize Theron is known as a former model largely because of a couple of years she spent in the profession as a teenager. While her successful two decades-long acting career might suggest it’s time to lay the former model tag to rest, it could be argued that the same criteria should just be applied to everyone else too, so Andrew Garfield would be known forever as “Former barista Andrew Garfield”, and Johnny Depp would be “Former ballpoint pen telemarketer Johnny Depp.” Regardless of the particulars of her teen job, Theron is absolutely brilliant in Young Adult – damaged, deluded and devastating – and we’ll get into a mortifying drunken argument at a baby’s naming ceremony with anyone who disagrees.
GEMMA WARD IN THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
Constantin Stanislavski famously said that there are no small parts, only small actors, but this one might be a stretch: as “Languid Girl,” Gemma Ward is in The Great Gatsby for approximately four seconds of its 143-minute running time. It’s difficult to accurately rate four seconds of anything, but she does give her one line of dialogue some gusto. In reflection, perhaps she gives it a little too much gusto, considering the only information the screenplay provides on her character is that she’s languid. Still, at least she’s better than Tobey Maguire: given his woeful miscasting, it’s a shame he also wasn’t in the film for that long.
NATALIA VODIANOVA IN CQ (2001)
It’s never a great sign when your acting debut is in a film with Billy Zane. Such was the fate of Natalia Vodianova, who played a tiny role in CQ, Roman Coppola’s affectionate, underseen homage to 60s film-making. Fortunately for her, CQ, while below Orlando (1992) or Zoolander (2001) in the grand pantheon of Billy Zane movies, is several fathoms above The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption. With Vodianova’s part restricted to two small scenes, her spotlight was stolen by another model with a substantially bigger role, Angela Lindvall, much like Billy Zane’s spotlight in Titanic was stolen by that cad Leonardo DiCaprio.
MONICA BELLUCCI IN THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003)
To include Monica Bellucci in this list is to make it an unfair fight, so we’re handicapping her by going with The Matrix Reloaded rather than, say, Irréversible (2002) – also we never want to watch Irréversible ever again. The first of many mid-career follies from the Wachowskis, The Matrix Reloaded doesn’t lack ambition, but also doesn’t lack for endless raves scenes or confusing reams of exposition either. Bellucci is largely wasted as neglected wife Persephone, with little to do other than be cheated on and later reveal a passage hidden behind a bookcase like she’s in a cyberpunk Scooby Doo.
GISELE BÜNDCHEN IN THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
Gisele only agreed to be in The Devil Wears Prada if she wouldn’t have to play a model, which is as if Mo Farah agreed to appear in a remake of Chariots of Fire on the condition that he didn’t play a distance runner. She turns up during the scene that takes place in most early Anne Hathaway-starring films – the “Anne-Hathaway-is-wearing-slightly-nicer-clothes-and-everyone-is-shocked-at-her-transformation-even-though-she-looked-like-Anne-Hathaway-this-whole-time” moment. Despite Gisele’s limited acting ability and negligible role it’s remarkable how well she holds the screen. If she took some acting lessons who knows what great films she might be able to not play a model in.
ABBEY LEE KERSHAW AND ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY IN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
It’s long been assumed that the only things that might live through a global apocalypse are cockroaches. The upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road posits another possible group of survivors: models. For his first return to dystopian oil-starved Australia in 30 years, director George Miller has wisely eschewed Mel Gibson for the likes of Abbey Lee Kershaw, Rosie Huntington Whiteley, and “former model” Charlize Theron. This can only be an improvement, unless Huntington-Whiteley also turns out to be a horrible misogynist racist in a couple of years.
LILY COLE IN THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS (2009)
Tom Cruise is regularly teased for his diminutive stature, but movie stars are a decidedly tiny breed. It’s difficult to say why so many are shorter than average – perhaps their condensed features are good for close-ups? If this is the case then Lily Cole was born for the cinema, not so much for her height (average), but for her broad, expressive face. She puts it to good use in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, exerting much charm amongst the ill-disciplined excess that unfortunately characterises much of Terry Gilliam’s later work. Cast her in a kitchen sink drama set in a dying industrial town and she’ll really shine.
SASHA PIVOVAROVA IN IN TIME (2011)
Given that Angelina Jolie once played Colin Farrell’s mother, it might be sadly unsurprising to find Sasha Pivovarova cast in In Time as Vincent Kartheiser’s mother-in-law. Thankfully, the reason for this is not Hollywood’s appalling gender-based ageism, but the film’s time-as-currency premise, where everyone stops aging at 25. Pivovarova doesn’t get an opportunity to explore this potent idea, however: if you’ve seen In Time‘s trailer then you’ve witnessed the entirety of her performance. She stands there for a few moments, looks strangely uncomfortable for someone whose job involves being photographed a lot, and that’s it. It’s probably a good thing her role wasn’t any bigger or her unmistakeable nerves might have caused her to spontaneously combust.
CARA DELEVINGNE IN THE FACE OF AN ANGEL (2014)
Without cheating, answer this: who plays the main character in The Face of an Angel? A cursory glance at the film’s marketing materials would suggest Cara Delevingne, but her role as Daniel Brühl’s new barmaid friend is peripheral at best. Nevertheless, Delevingne is warm and engaging in Michael Winterbottom’s knotty film – a much-needed dash of humanity in a mostly cerebral exercise. Three films into her career she’s no Charlize Theron, but then Charlize Theron’s debut was Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995), so maybe she’s doing okay so far.
MILLA JOVOVICH IN THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
Does The Fifth Element exceed the statute of limitations for this feature? Possibly, but Jovovich’s committed comic performance deserves appreciation: her portrayal of the eponymous Fifth Element is by far the best thing in Luc Besson’s obdurately Gallic sci-fi action-adventure. The only dampener is that she would later squander the promise she demonstrated here on workmanlike action movies. At last count Jovovich had appeared in 17,304 instalments of the Resident Evil (2002) franchise, all of them terrible.
World leaders have been exploding a lot lately. In December North Korea brought Sony Pictures to its knees over their planned release of The Interview, a film that notoriously ends with Kim Jong-un’s head detonating when hit by a tank shell. Kingsman: The Secret Service concludes in similar fashion, but on this occasion the exploding head belongs not to a brutal dictator but the world’s most famous liberal politician. The scene, which takes place during a lavish montage of expiring dignitaries, acts as a grisly exclamation point at the end of one of the most sustained acts of right-wing film-making since its jingoistic 1980s action heyday.
Kingsman is the fifth feature-length effort from producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn, whose filmography also includes Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and a 2008 short film used as a party political broadcast for the Conservatives. Adapted from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series The Secret Service – although given its prevailing interests it could have conceivably been based on a couple of old copies of FHM found in the woods – the film follows the talented but unvarnished youth Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as he vies to join the titular covert organisation, while being mentored by the agency’s top spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth).
Despite stealing much of its plot wholesale from Men in Black, Kingsman is a James Bond pastiche in its bones, teeming with quips, easily dispatched henchmen and umbrella-derived weaponry. Most crucial to completing the 007 look is a megalomanic villain, who takes the form here of Samuel L Jackson’s Richmond Valentine. A genius tech entrepreneur with a fondness for McDonald’s and limbless sidekicks, Valentine plans to use malevolent SIM cards to force most of the world’s population to violently kill each other, leaving only a select few to inhabit the Earth. The problem with this, other than it being ridiculous and making absolutely no sense, is his motivation. Rather than pursuing money, power, or any other capitalist goal traditionally desired by supervillains, his monstrous strategy is an attempt to halt global warming.
That last point demands to be repeated: the world-threatening villain of Kingsman is a climate change activist.
In the film’s most mortifying attempt at being self-referential, Hart and Valentine have a tense dinner together, with Hart expressing his distaste for modern Bond films, declaring: “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” The depiction of Valentine’s plan as a throwback to a less serious era of spy movies is revealed as a feint, with the ulterior motive of undermining environmentalists: not only is the character amoral and dispassionate, but his methods are buffoonish, the doomed-to-fail scheme of a lisping, squeamish eccentric.
Everything about Kingsman exists to disguise the fact that it is solidly conservative – even the theme song is by Take That, presumably recorded as part of some elaborate tax-avoidance scheme. If the film is a throwback, then it’s a throwback in the worst manner: not a carefree romp, but James Bond shooing away a female masseuse with a smack on the bottom, telling her it’s time for “man talk”. It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.
The extent of Kingsman’s troubling moral viewpoint is matched only by the determination of reviewers to overlook it. “Just try not to think too much,” suggests Time Out. This curiously disengaged sentiment runs throughout a surprising number of the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews. Call it the Blurred Lines defence, where the unsavoury message of a work of popular entertainment doesn’t matter so long as it’s catchy. And in filmic terms, Kingsman is catchy: the action is well staged and attractively shot, Firth is an engaging presence as ever, and the whole thing thrums along at a steady clip. Vaughn is an undeniably talented director, but he is also a deeply reactionary one, a fact mostly ignored in light of his enjoyable, seemingly flippant output.
Is it meaningful that Kingsman’s genocidal villain is an environmentalist, or that it features a leering, lengthy scene involving the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent people, or another scene in which Taron Egerton’s hero will rescue an imprisoned woman he doesn’t know only if she agrees to kiss him, or that most of the working-class people it depicts are violent layabouts, or that it ends by killing the most notable left-wing political figure in modern history, who is shown earlier to support the antagonist’s plan to decimate the Earth’s population? Yes. These things are very meaningful: just because a film acts as if it doesn’t take itself seriously isn’t an indication that this is the case. Kingsman is the cinematic equivalent of Nigel Farage, hiding its unpalatable political convictions beneath a studied affectation of cheerful irreverence. It may as well be holding a pint, in tweeds, grinning with just its mouth.
One of the most significant milestones in recent cinema history occurred in a film you’re probably still trying to forget. Towards the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski’s infelicitous follow-up to their 1999 original, waistcoat aficionado and coloured pill dispenser Morpheus has a sword fight on top of a speeding lorry. Like most of the brawls in the film there’s little reason for its existence beyond it looking cool, but it’s tempting to imagine that producer Joel Silver had the superfluous scene in mind when he infamously boasted, “We’ve raised the bar so high, there is no bar.”
Just because something has been said in some mad fit of coked-up hyperbole doesn’t mean that it can’t also be true. The Matrix sequels mark the precise spot where the barrier of technology for live-action cinema was finally and irreversibly removed. Once it was possible to stage convincing sword fights on the roofs of heavy goods vehicles there were no limits to what could be depicted on-screen. Silver was right: the bar had been raised so high that it no longer existed. Providing that they had a large enough budget, film-makers were able to make whatever they wanted.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
The concept of the modern blockbuster was born in 1975 when a film starring a malfunctioning shark and an insufficiently large boat became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. In the nearly four decades that have passed since Jaws’ unprecedented box-office achievements (swiftly dwarfed by Star Wars two years later), blockbuster movies have become the “tent poles” around which major film studios construct their production schedules.
While an increasing emphasis on spectacle was inevitable – Jaws, after all, doesn’t even fully show its selachian villain until 81 minutes into the film – over the past fifteen years this has gone hand in hand with a systemic bloating of both content and running times. Where the average length of the top 10 highest grossing films of the 1990s was 132 minutes, the average for the 2000s was 154 minutes. A sea change has taken place: to get a project green-lit with the sort of budget demanded of a big summer blockbuster the film must now boast a running time that would have once required an intermission. Lean, efficient blockbusters like Men in Black (98 minutes) and the first X-Men(104 minutes) are almost unimaginable today.
The rapturous critical and commercial success of Titanic in 1997 can shoulder a little of the blame for blockbuster film-making’s descent into exorbitance, but the real catalyst was The Lord of the Rings. Formula-repeating, money-vacuuming sequels have always been a predilection for studios, but after Peter Jackson’s three-film opus grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide a movement towards monster-sized trilogies began.
Without rich source material like J.R.R. Tolkien’s twelve hundred pages of Middle Earth follies to draw upon, however, the power of satisfying one-offs like Pirates of the Caribbean were diluted by overlong sequels and bogged down by convoluted plotting and endless action sequences. Jackson himself fell prey to the temptation to expand unnecessarily when his adaptation of the 310-page children’s book The Hobbit unfathomably bloated into three enormous films in an attempt to emulate his earlier accomplishments.
As the films have become bigger, the possible forms they can take have narrowed. A blockbuster that can’t potentially birth a franchise has little value, irrespective of its other qualities. Not only is any picture with a budget over $200 million expected to be an epic in length, such films are now also required to anticipate at least two potential sequels, regardless of whether the story (inevitably pulpy and genre-based) can support this or not. While it’s understandable that a well-received and financially successful film might spawn a follow-up, the amount of effort many blockbusters put into world-building makes them feel like feature-length advertisements for their own sequels rather than distinctive pieces of popular entertainment in their own right.
This trend seems likely to burgeon further still as the major film studios – emboldened by the enviable profitability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – look for ways to tie properties together in a similarly gargantuan, synergy-promoting manner. Even though there has been an undeniable pleasure in watching Marvel Studios skilfully weave the warp and weft of its epic superhero tapestry over multiple franchises, their use of intensive serialisation and rigid commitment to an enjoyable-yet-cautious house style (this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy proving a joyful exception to the rule) makes it very difficult for their films to be genuinely surprising. Creating nine motion pictures that are mostly good-to-excellent is commendable, but their consistency can’t disguise the creeping sensation of exhaustion.
The tendency to engorge blockbuster films beyond their natural size has only been exacerbated by the strides made in CGI over the past twenty years. Once genuinely astounding, sequences like the battle that opened The Fellowship of the Ring are now commonplace. A few of the Harry Potterfilms aside, it’s difficult to think of a major blockbuster from this millennium that hasn’t featured either a gigantic battle or a city being destroyed, often at the same time. Such sequences provide diminishing returns as the sight of computer generated figures waging war against each other rapidly loses its attraction. In trying to top each other with their bombast and magnitude, such films become less distinctive, their impact dulled by visual noisiness. Accordingly, the third acts of many modern blockbusters are largely interchangeable: does it really matter if the CG buildings are being destroyed by Superman or some Transformers; by a crashing starship or one of a dozen Marvel superheroes?
The troubled state of contemporary blockbusters doesn’t deprive them of value. There remains a number of incredibly talented film-makers who manage to create interesting work despite being unable to entirely break free from dominant conventions. Until its skirmish-heavy, building-destroying conclusion, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is bleak, thoughtful, intelligent and gripping, while Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ lengthy withholding of the eponymous reptile’s first appearance overtly channels the work of Steven Spielberg.
Even 2012’s Avengers Assemble is a good example of a contemporary blockbuster that works despite being a colossal mess. Regardless of that film’s many positives, however, it could have undoubtedly been improved by a tighter narrative and less generic action. It’s not insignificant that the most memorable moments take place in the comic interactions between characters rather than any individual set pieces. An interesting thought experiment: aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, what do the other enemies in Avengers Assemble look like? Would you be able to draw one from memory? What actually happens in any of the action scenes, beyond people flying or hitting each other?
Confronted by widespread piracy, the terminal decline of physical media sales and attendant rise of streaming options, ever more sophisticated home entertainment systems and a booming era of television, the appeal of supersized blockbusters for film studios is obvious. Keen to discourage the growing allure of home viewing, studios focus their efforts on producing films best experienced in a cinema, ideally by purchasing a more expensive 3D or IMAX cinema ticket. This means that the major film studios are making fewer films and the ones they are making are aimed at as broad of an audience as possible.
The problem with this strategy is that as the studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a handful of films, the risk increases exponentially: Disney’s underwhelming John Carter had a budget so gigantic that it had to become one of the highest grossing films of all time in order to make its money back. When a film has to earn over a billion dollars to avoid being considered a flop then something in the industry has gone wrong. This level of risk incites predictable caution, leading to the exclusion of original screenplays in favour of a near-talismanic dependence on pre-existing properties with any semblance of audience recognition, from sequels to reboots to the adaptations of board games.
The propensity for studios to place all of their financial eggs into a couple of cinematic baskets each year also has ramifications across all of film-making, as the diverse range of mid-priced pictures that studios used to make now struggle to secure funding. If such films are made at all they’re often stuffed into a vicious few months at the end of the year, doomed to be ignored and forgotten if they don’t pick up immediate Oscar buzz.
For all the damage that this endemic bloating has had on the film industry, it’s the blockbusters themselves that have suffered the most. It takes the viewing of another of Spielberg’s superlative blockbusters to see how things have gone awry, and to contemplate a possible road back.
Re-watching Jurassic Park twenty-one years later, a dozen of them filled with increasingly distended blockbusters, what’s most striking is how elegantly constructed and efficient the film’s narrative is. It’s easy to imagine that if the film had been made today it would be a shapeless, three-hour-long muddle, lousy with subplots and gratuitous destruction. Instead, Jurassic Park spends its first half patiently establishing its world and characters before the park’s security system shuts down and hell breaks loose. Even after that cataclysmic event, David Koepp’s screenplay takes efforts to space out the action scenes, interspersing them with moments of character development and reflection.
By exercising restraint, Jurassic Park avoids the sort of fatigue that besets anyone trying to make their way through a Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers film more than once. Aside from an unfortunate outdoor toilet no buildings are destroyed, there are no indistinct crowds, and each scene features only a handful of characters who spend much of the film in immediate danger. Populating its story with easily-injured humans rather than superheroes, Jurassic Park provides actual stakes: the world isn’t at risk, but the protagonists are.
Almost every aspect of Spielberg’s film seems to now stand as a rebuke to prevailing trends in blockbuster film-making. Despite being commonly seen as a turning point in the development of CGI, only 80 shots in Jurassic Park actually employ computer-generated effects – by contrast,Avengers Assemble features over 2,200 visual effects shots. In using the technology so sparingly, relying on animatronics, long shots and sequences set at night, the film’s effects hold up remarkably well. Even if technical limitations played a part in deciding how its threats were depicted, the austere usage of CGI enhances the audience’s sense of both wonder and fear: a single Tyrannosaurus Rex is scarier than hundreds of them.
Like its dinosaurs, each of Jurassic Park’s action sequences are memorable and distinct: the night-time T-Rex attack, the race to turn the security system back on, climbing the fence, the raptors in the kitchen. Excluding Hitchcock there has probably never been a director more gifted at staging set pieces than Steven Spielberg, and their impact throughout Jurassic Park serves as a reminder of how much more effective a blockbuster can be when it isn’t just lurching from one giant fight to the next.
After twenty-one years of unrelenting technological advances Jurassic Park has inevitably lost some of its capacity to astonish, but regardless of how far CGI develops the film will remain a fulfilling undertaking because it’s a good story, well told. Disappointing sequels were to follow but the film itself is completely self-contained: the heroes escape, the dinosaurs commandeer the island, and that’s it. There is no need for a post-credits tag.
The impetus for film studios to make blockbusters is – and has always been – to make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be something beautiful about the idea of populist entertainment. Are there many cinematic enterprises more enjoyable than rounding up a group of friends to see an eagerly anticipated blockbuster, or cramming onto a sofa with your family at Christmas to watch that same film, out of your gourd on Quality Street? There’s a reason why blockbusters are often the first films people fall in love with. At their best, they provide a communal experience that combines spectacle with a satisfying narrative. As the spectacle overtakes the narrative, that unique joy is in danger of being lost.
To read the original article at The Quietus, click here.
A pig is strolling along a beach in Tynemouth, thinking about the dead. Still weary after his lengthy flight from Japan, he decides to rest on a nearby bench for a moment. It’s here that he’s accosted by the ghost of the late author Robert Westall, who has taken the guise of a terrier. The pair discuss literature, aeroplanes and World War II, and before they go their separate ways they head to a nearby pub for a drink; they’re in Newcastle, after all.
The visitor’s name is Hayao Miyazaki, and when he not assuming porcine form he’s considered Japan’s greatest living filmmaker, beloved for co-founding Studio Ghibli as well as writing and directing many of its finest pictures, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away. For most, turning into a pig would be noteworthy, but Miyazaki has made a career out of extraordinary acts of transmogrification: in Ponyo, the eponymous goldfish starts to become human after eating an errant piece of ham, while the fighter pilot protagonist of Porco Rosso is changed into “The Crimson Pig” by a curse, and the Boar God Okkoto-Nushi in Princess Mononoke becomes a demon after a corrupting gunshot wound.
Miyazaki’s encounter with Westall takes place in his short manga, A Trip to Tynemouth. It is one of many such efforts in which the animator appears in his printed comics – known as manga, as opposed to the animated medium, anime – as a moustachioed swine with bottlecap spectacles, reflecting upon the influences and obsessions that have shaped his work.
Like an aging prizefighter, Miyazaki has had a tendency to erroneously retire from his chosen profession. Indefatigably hard working – he has typically drawn or redrawn by hand thousands of frames on each of his films – his assorted retirements have usually been greeted with a reasonable degree of scepticism. Recently, however, he announced that the forthcoming historical epic, The Wind Rises, would be his last film. At the age of 73 it’s probably wise to finally take him at his word. As his cinematic career draws to a close, then, it is worth contemplating, as Miyazaki himself often has through manga, not just his body of work, but how he became the filmmaker that created it.
With Studio Ghibli’s output widely admired and the tree-growing narcoleptic Totoro a burgeoning global icon, it can be easy to forget that the company’s cultural eminence is a relatively new development: not only did Miyazaki not form Studio Ghibli until 22 years into his professional life, but several years passed subsequently before any of the studio’s films were actually seen in the west, outside of the illicit, battered videotapes that circulated amongst communities of anime enthusiasts. Even today, when Studio Ghibli’s films are dubbed by Hollywood actors and aggressively distributed internationally by Disney, being a western admirer of Miyazaki means that one is still exposed only to a small segment of his work: his superlative Studio Ghibli films represent merely the part of the iceberg that we’re able to see.
What’s missing from our understanding is the underberg, comprising Miyazaki’s mangas and early television serials that have largely evaded English-language release. Momentarily putting aside their own merits as ragged, vibrant works of art in themselves, it is possible to trace the beginnings of ideas, motifs and characters that found fuller expression in his films. A panel in a 1969 manga anticipates an identical image that occurs a decade later in his theatrical debut, while a story Miyazaki struggled with in 1980 about a boy-turned-giant-mountain-lion was reconfigured into the very different historical fantasy Princess Mononoke seventeen years later.
It shouldn’t be expected that mangas like Air Meal (a comic rumination on the history of in-flight food) or For My Sister (a graphic poem about a boy taking his terminally ill twin sister on a flight around the world) will provide a Rosetta Stone to fully understanding Miyazaki any more than his cinematic efforts do. Like any complicated, prolific artist, his artistic identity is multi-faceted; a fact illustrated by the Japanese critical reaction to The Wind Rises. An embellished biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, chief engineer of the notorious A6M “Zero” fighters in World War II, Miyazaki was criticised by both the country’s left and right for his nuanced and contradictory portrayal of his protagonist as a brilliant, sensitive man whose exceptional talents nevertheless contributed to widespread destruction.
Miyazaki’s non-film work rebuffs reductive suppositions. Instead, it shows how despite his enduring interest in supernatural elements, Japanese folk tales and British children’s literature, everything he creates is deeply personal, regardless of scale or content. Daydream Data Notes, for instance, is a collection of illustrated essays on pre-WWII military vehicles contributed to the hobby magazine, Model Graphix. Miyazaki had grown up during World War II, when his father’s manufacturing company was producing rudders for Japanese fighter planes. The essays demonstrate how his childhood obsession with sketching such vehicles developed into the persistent reoccurrence of similar aircraft throughout his films. A thoughtful pacifist, his early passion for aircraft was counteracted by witnessing their devastating potential during the firebombing of Utsunomiya. From this perspective, the tension in his films between wonder and horror at what technology can do becomes more comprehensible.
The unique and specific combination of Miyazaki’s creative obsessions and personal history conspire to render his progressive values – feminism, environmentalism, pacifism – in ways that are visually exciting, original and moving. Miyazaki’s storytelling instincts, honed by the thousands upon thousands of images he has personally drawn in his lifetime, have always tended towards depicting complex ideas through vivid imagery – hence his early discovery that supernatural metamorphosis was an elegant way to portray on the outside what’s happening on the inside. While his narrative reliance on forms of transmutation can be partially attributed to its place within Japanese literary tradition, the process exists as a useful visual metaphor for man’s ruinous treatment of the environment, a theme he has been exploring for decades.
For all of the marauding demons, wood spirits and dust creatures that find their way into Miyazaki’s films, the key to their lasting appeal is the humanism imbued in them by their creator. Where most of America’s animated feature films, for example, are created in industrial parks in Southern California, Miyazaki has maintained a genuine connection with nature, spending much of his time in a remote mountain cabin. His emphasis on the importance of the natural world stands in stark contrast even to Pixar at their peak—a company whose films, perhaps by virtue of their use of computer animation as much as their environment can’t help but be relentlessly modern, even as they eschew the lazy pop culture references of their peers. While Studio Ghibli have also incorporated the use of computer animation into their filmmaking, their work is still mostly produced using traditional cel animation. Even if the paint is digital, their features are still largely drawn by artists, one image at a time. This increasingly anachronistic approach finds an affinity with the films themselves, which allow for moments of stillness and beauty largely absent from comparable animated films emerging from other studios.
Studio Ghibli’s reputation has been built almost entirely on the creative brilliance of two men: Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – the studio’s other co-founder and director of Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko and Only Yesterday. While the studio has released appealing films from other directors, increasingly so as Miyazaki and Takahata have slowed their work-rate, their imminent departure can’t fail to have an effect on its fortunes. Based on the principles instilled by Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli will doubtlessly endure, and continue to produce excellent work. Even so, the unavoidable fact remains that a significant era in the history of animation is ending.
In searching for an appropriate way to consider Miyazaki’s departure, it is perhaps best to look to the man himself. As a developing artist, he made a conscious decision to eschew the influence of seminal manga artist Osamu Tezuka in favour of developing his own style. Writing in his memoir Starting Point, he recalls: “When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka’s, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch.”
Miyazaki would inevitably be the first to argue that his retirement should herald the arrival of something new, rather than inspiring pale imitations of his own work. His career breakthrough came when he and Isao Takahata co-directed fourteen episodes of a popular television series about the master thief and scoundrel Lupin III. But after achieving enormous success with Lupin III on film and television, Miyazaki decided to leave him behind to pursue fresh ground. In his memoir, he bids farewell to the character, whose time had come: “I often think of Lupin fondly, for he was hungry in those days; he was a bit lecherous, fastidious, scattered, and headstrong, and he was crazy about mini-car races.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty