Almost Edgy

David Brent: Life on the Road

A David Brent movie was never going to work because the character isn’t worthy of a movie to begin with. Why would a documentary crew want to revisit the guy? In making a Brent movie, Gervais has detached the character from his original premise. In the television show Brent was part of an ensemble, the core of which was , Gareth and Tim, backed up by Dawn, Lee and later ‘the Swindon lot’: the television show happened to find Brent  at work there, the crew didn’t go to the paper-merchants because they’d heard of him. Half the point of The Office was Brent’s ridiculous behaviour, caused by him trying too hard to impress the documentary viewers while simultaneously trying too hard to get his staff to like him.

But Brent is not a bad guy, he’s actually a gentle character with no real malice. I saw him once described as ‘the boss from hell’ but the person who typed that possibly hadn’t seen the show. If they had they couldn’t have paid much attention. Brent is a properly realised character – he’s not a name given to an actor who’s paid to deliver the dialogue: he actually has an internal existence, he does things because of how he thinks. He doesn’t just do things ‘to be funny’.

His problems are several. Already mentioned, he wants too much to be liked; he is terrified of women and is awkward around them, especially those he considers attractive; and he is (slightly) detached from reality in the sense of not knowing what attempts at humour are appropriate in the – ahem! – ‘workplace’. Considered together, he appears to be suffering from a kind of arrested development. It’s this mild arrested development which is taken by Gervais for the movie and turned into a form a dementia, where Brent has literally lost his reason, if not his whole mind, but only when it suits the script.

The Office was a very safe comedy, it didn’t have any sort of dangerous ‘edge’. No minorities were offended in the making of the tv show. Only majorities had the piss taken out of them. Boring middle-management white-men and their weedy kiss-ass ‘team-leaders’ were the main butt of the jokes. Brent and Gareth were the two office idiots, and taking the piss out of white-men is perfectly acceptable.

The Politically Correct aspect to the TV show was sometimes painful to watch. I felt like I was being lectured by a know-it-all teacher. Consider the scene in which Brent is telling a stupid joke about ‘a black man’s cock’ and a chillaxed black man saunters over just as he’s about to get to the punchline, thus dropping Brent into yet another embarrassing situation because he can’t finish the joke. Gervais makes the black character so chillaxed that he’s not offended by the joke – but a white woman decides to be.

Do we need to have a white-woman – in a convenient close-up – ask why should it be only black people who are ‘offended’ by racism? It’s almost edgy; it’s one step away from stating that black people are not experts on racism just because they’re black – but Gervais doesn’t go there. He wants to lecture us, so has Jennifer, Brent’s boss, explain that jokes about large black cocks are based on racial stereotypes, and therefore very bad indeed. Did we not already know this? Brent didn’t because Gervais even has him offer the ‘it’s a compliment’ defence. He’s the middle-management white-man so obviously he’s clueless.

Wouldn’t the scene have been more interesting if the black guy had become ‘offended’ at a joke which wasn’t racist, and had to be lectured by ‘Jenny’ about how people who take offence at pretty much anything are a fucking menace to liberty?

I mean, if we’re going to have some social commentary disguised as fiction then why not give it some edge?

And Brent being unintentionally cruel in respect to ‘the disabled’ is actually very safe indeed. Even when he talks about ‘the wheelchair ones’ we know nobody is getting upset anywhere, because he’s not mocking the disabled. He’s just showing how stupid a man Brent is. The ‘more shocking’ Brent is, the safer he actually becomes because Brent only sounds as if he’s making fun of disabled people. We laugh at him, at how stupid he is. We can all take the piss out of the little manager-white-man.

In the television episodes Brent, at his most clueless, is only ever half a step away from reality. In the movie, however, he’s lost his mind on some things but seems quite sane on others so that one wonder if he’s playing at being sane – just acting that way to fit in with the office crowd – or whether his bouts of cluelessness are just a bit too convenient?

Would anyone who could hold down a job as a rep in a sales office really hire a tour bus he didn’t travel on, to take a backing band to venues and hotels so close together they all could have stayed at home and got the bus each morning? Brent can’t be that clueless, that deluded, but we’re meant to believe he is. Why has Brent lost his mind? What has happened to him?

And then there’s the songs.

They’re supposed to be awful and embarrassing, but they’re not really. They are amusing, but what stands out about them is that they are well-written, obviously by someone quite clever. It takes great skill to be that bad deliberately.

Gervais must know that people will know that, and will say to themselves ‘my isn’t he clever, he can write songs and sing and play, too!’ And yet to do it in a movie where he makes his most famous character partially fucking demented, and in doing so significantly less convincing, seems odd. Was the world aching to see more of Brent? Or was Gervais aching to show the world that, even though his eighties pop career didn’t take off, he was worthy of it because he’s a good songwriter?

The movie is amusing, but not that amusing. It seem more an exercise in ego.

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Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

The In House Drive-by

London Has Fallen is the worst film I’ve seen for a long time, and that it has received (so far) a rating of 5.9 on IMDB is one of the mysteries of the universe. 5.9 on IMDB is unimpressive, but trying to reconcile gravity with the Standard Model would be easier than working out why this film has received an IMDB rating twice as high as it deserves. It really is appalling.

The problem with the film is that it tries to be ‘serious’ yet is predicated on the stupidest premise in fiction: the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent enemy.

America itself is personified in one man, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler): a hero so good at what he does, so fucking American, that not even God can kill the President when Gerard Butler is around.

In other words, goodness will always survive when America is there to protect it.

The omniscient and omnipotent enemy is the laziest type of convenient enemy to have. We see that the terrorists have infiltrated not only the British Army, but also the British police, and done so to such depth that terrorists are (somehow) sufficiently undercover to be vetted for official ceremonial duties, and can whip-out the old shooters at just the right time. What would be the back-story for just one of these under-cover baddies? How did they get in the police station and listen to the first briefings? How did they get in the barracks and into their uniforms without being noticed or questioned? How did they drill themselves to walk in step?

The enemy is God, here. Only God can do anything; only God can put anything or anyone anywhere He wants. This is one reason why the film fails. It is an excuse for a lot of preening and posing by Mike Banning.

(Footage of an American body-builder, in stars and stripes pants, poncing about on a stage for an hour and a half would have offered the same message, and a more credible one, too, because the stage on which the posing happened would have had a solid foundation.)

Banning’s doings are the usual ruthless-yet-witty-action-hero-by-numbers fare. Consider two absurd examples.

Banning has grabbed a terrorist while driving at speed in the obligatory chase-scene. The bad guy is leaning in the window, and Banning has grabbed him by the crash-helmet. The terrorist is deeply committed to his cause, and says to Banning: ‘fuck you.’ Banning replies, ‘fuck me?’ and then deliberately swerves the car into a barrier, decapitating the terrorist and leaving his severed head in Banning’s hand. ‘Fuck you’ he tells the dead head.

What is going on, here?

He decapitates the guy in reaction to the insulting language, so we are free to ask why Mr Banning is so easily offended. What would Banning have done had the terrorist not said ‘fuck you’?

His witty quip is without any irony. When the Terminator, or John McClane, offer the old one-liners, there’s an element of self-deprecation, and an acknowledgement of the movie universe in which they live without acknowledging they are fictional characters; but Banning’s ‘fuck you’ isn’t that sort of one-liner. Who is he talking to? The terrorist is dead, so is his line and sense of humour for our benefit? The only thing missing here is Banning looking at the camera and winking after chucking the head out the window.

That Banning doesn’t look directly at us when he speaks doesn’t mean the line isn’t spoken to us. The decapitation scene unintentionally breaks the fourth-wall, and to break the fourth-wall unintentionally is unforgivable. It means the director and writer(s) don’t care about the psychology of fiction, or the relationship between fiction and the audience.

The second example has Banning use the expression ‘fuckheadistan’ when suggesting the bad guys might want to go back to where they came from.

It’s daft enough that the apparently loving, caring, soon-to-be-a-father nice-guy slowly tortures a man to death to annoy another bad guy listening over the radio (making one wonder about Banning’s stupidly unrealistic light-switch personality) but to use such a hicksville expression is to appeal somewhat to the Toby Keith foreign policy school.

These are two examples of straightforward absurdity, and more could be offered.

For instance, where do the millions of London’s public disappear to? As Banning and Mr Goodness-personified run about through London, we are supposed to take seriously the idea that the public will simply vanish, leaving our two heroes alone in a deserted capital city which minutes earlier was conducting a normal day’s business.

I mean to say, this is just stupid.

Deadpool can be taken much more seriously, even though it’s a comedy, because to be a stupid film is perfectly acceptable if the film knows itself, and isn’t pretending to be anything else; but London Has Fallen presents itself without any irony or humour and without any tongue in any cheek: it wants us not laugh out loud, but to punch the air shouting ‘Go Gerard!’

Go Gerard?

Fuck you.

Tarantino Six

In the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino gave us what was something of a novelty at the time. His characters were talking. That’s not the same as having characters exchange dialogue to further the plot. His characters talked to each other. From the speech about the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin to the bullshitting about tipping, the easy, realistic dialogue made us another character at the table: we were listening to ordinary folks talk, and because we’re ordinary folks, an invisible wall was removed and we were sat having breakfast, too.

The dialogue is one of the immediately recognisable things in a Tarantino picture. The exception to this rule, the Tarantino movie which isn’t rammed with Tarantino dialogue, is Inglorious Basterds, but that movie still has two scenes which are two of the best scenes in the Tarantino canon.

So what are six of the best scenes in Tarantino’s writing?

Reservoir Dogs in not going to be included in the six scenes. Why should it be given what came after it? On the fair logic that the more you do something the better you get, Dogs should be his worst film, right?

This list runs in no particular order and I’m not bothered about the release sequence. The list is simply six of the best scenes and why I like them.

 True Romance (1993)

Drexel Swings the Lamp

This scene is beautiful because Tarantino understands Drexel’s savagery, and also how a savage thinks. Those thoughts are demonstrated by the dialogue. In this scene Christian Slater has gone to the HQ of his new girl’s pimp to get her stuff and tell him Alabama – the peachy chick in question – isn’t coming back. She’s had to tell him that old Drexel is only just human, and that’s a compliment. He sniffs out Christian Slater instantly, and knows he should have nothing worry about.

The whole psychology of the scene rests on the Chinese food. Drexel invites X to sit down and have a bite, and that’s a move to see how confident Clarence is. Tarantino has Drexel explain this to us. He shines the lamp at Clarence and tells him ‘You’ve already given up your shit.’ Straight away, we wonder, what? How’s that? And that’s when Drexel explains had Clarence sat down for food, and acted like he wasn’t worried about anything, then Drexel might have thought Clarence didn’t have anything to worry about, and the implication is that he would have then started to wonder why not – and begin worrying himself. It’s a beautiful bit of psychology which shows the instinct developed by animals like Drexel and the innocence of old Clarence. It reminds me of an old wildlife documentary I saw where two tribesmen jogged right towards some lioness and her cubs, and she picked them up and ran from these two skinny humans. It also strongly implies that Drexel is not just quick, but fucking dangerous.

Which he is.

It’s written beautifully. The audience starts off with Clarence’s POV because we don’t know what to expect, either. Clarence’s first look at Drexel is ours, too. When he’s explained the psychology of Chinese food, us and Clarence both know there’s a wild animal sat over there, but we don’t know what Clarence has planned. Then we shift over to Drexel’s POV, as we don’t know what’s in the envelop, either. When we and Drexel see the envelope’s empty, and Drexel correctly updates his assessment of Clarence and states we’ve got a ‘mother-fucking Charlie Bronson’ in the room, we’re primed for action.

And we get it.

Clifford Smokes a Chesterfield

Clifford is Clarence’s father, a security guard and former police officer. The clichéd Italian mobsters (possibly clichéd because wrote them that way on purpose) interrogate him to find out where his son has gone with Drexel’s drugs. What’s important, here, is Clifford refusing a Chesterfield to begin with, then asking for one a little later. In between these moments, he’s decided the gangsters are going to kill him and there remains a possibility he was mistaken about that.

Upon thinking he’s about to be topped, he asks ‘Can I have one of those Chesterfields, now?’ He then delivers the famous ‘Sicilians are descended from Niggers’ speech. This is not a ‘racist’ speech, there is depth, here: the speech is actually a condemnation of racism. The kind of casual racism Tarantino is condemning here is the kind Eddie Murphy brilliantly jokes about in Raw when he does the sketch about Italians after just seeing Rocky. Eddie Murphy is taking the piss, but Tarantino isn’t. He’s going for the throat with this speech, and the whole speech is clearly motivated by a hatred of racism, and aimed at one category of casual racist.

When I first watched this scene, I didn’t understand what was happening until Clifford began smoking the cigarette. It was the sound of it burning as he sucked it, and bits of ash flicking off it, that made it clear he was really fucking enjoying this cigarette, enjoying it like it was his last, and that’s when I ‘got’ what was going on. The scene ends with the tragic irony that the whole speech was a waste of time because, although Clifford keeps his mouth shut about where Clarence and Alabama have gone, they leave their address on his fridge, so it was all for nothing. At least he got the Sicilian speech in.

 Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Landa Drinks the Milk

This is the entire first scene to Inglorious Basterds, which begins with Landa’s strangely pleasant manners and ends with the murder of the Dreyfus family who are hiding under the floorboards. Talk about a scene having an ‘arc’.

What actually happens, here?

The film begins with a dairy farmer and his daughters going about their normal business, when a Nazi staff-car – with motorcycle outriders – approaches the house. The farmer, Perrier La Padite, tells one of his daughters to get him some water and go inside, but not to run. Running looks ‘guilty’.

The man in the car is Col. Hans Landa of the SS, and he sits at the table. He is offered wine, but – and this is oddity number one – Landa, because he’s on a dairy farm, chooses milk instead of wine, and drinks his glass down with theatrical pleasure, praising the farm and its cows for the delicious milk. What does drinking the milk do?

Drinking the milk is one way we learn something about Landa’s character. He’s on a dairy farm, so he drinks milk. He blends in with his surroundings, in other words, and he makes something of a show of enjoying it. This is important.

What follows is a pantomime.

Landa questions La Padite about the Dreyfus family – a Jewish family, hiding from the Nazis – and wants to know what La Padite has heard about what happened to them. La Padite tries to shrug this off by saying he’s heard ‘only rumours’ and this animates Landa, who says he loves rumours because, whether they are true or not, rumours can be revealing. La padite then, as he lights his pipe, says he’s heard ‘rumours’ the Dreyfus family escaped into Spain . Landa asks, ‘So the rumours you’ve heard have been of escape?’ I would have liked to have seen Landa’s face when he gives this line, but the camera stays on La Padite and drops slightly to show the pipe in La Padites’s mouth looking like Pinochio’s nose. We already know they are under the floorboards, and now, thanks to the ‘rumour’ about their escape, Landa is now convinced they are, too.

I think this is the confirmation he needed, as he always was suspicious. Consider the information he asks for. What number of children in the family? Ages of the children? He doesn’t ask for more than that because he’s not really there to find that out, he just wants confirmation that they are under the floorboards.

It’s here that Landa gives his ‘rat’ speech. He tells La Padite that if the German shared any characteristics with a beast it would be the predatory cunning of the Hawk, and if the Jew any characteristics with a beast it would be that of the Rat.

It’s here that he explains why he drinks milk while on a dairy farm.

He engages the farmer on his dislike of rats, and suggests the farmer wouldn’t be too kind if one scampered in the door. The farmer agrees, then Landa suggests that any filth spread by a rat a squirrel could equally carry, and he also points out that rats and squirrels, aside from the tail, look quite similar, yet he bets La Padite doesn’t have the same feelings for squirrels as he has for rats. La Padite has to confess he doesn’t. Landa then explains that he can ‘think like a Jew’ and that he understands the kind of behaviour a person is capable of after they have ‘abandoned dignity.’ It’s this ability which allows to work out the family are under the floorboards.

Landa is probably a homosexual, and therefore member of a minority persecuted by the Nazis, and he’s hiding by acting like an enthusiastic Nazi. This is how he knows how to ‘think like a Jew’. He knows how persecuted minorities think, and what a person will do to stay alive.

Donny Swings the Bat

This is one of the most memorable scenes from Inglorious Basterds. A German soldier is questioned about the positions of his comrades stationed ‘up the road a piece’ and he refuses to reveal their locations. He is told, quite simply, that Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Basterd nicknamed The Bear Jew, is going to beat him to death he if doesn’t talk. The Sgt theatrically raises his hand and respectfully refuses, while touching the Iron Cross he got for bravery.

In one version of the script I read, there’s some backstory shown of Donowitz getting his Jewish neighbours to sign the baseball bat he’s taking to Europe to beat Nazis to death with. It’s an American kind of brutal death, being battered with baseball bat, Imagine if Donny was instead Donald, and English officer who used a Golf club or a Cricket bat. Would it have worked? I don’t think so. In addition to having this very American death imposed, the Americans are seen scalping the dead Germans, like the ‘Indians’ did to some white Americans. In one simple stroke, Tarantino equates the holocaust of the American ‘Indians’ with the genocidal doings of the Nazis. So while the American punishment is being dealt to the heads of the captured Nazis, we are reminded that Americans have their own ‘history’ to remember, so perhaps we shouldn’t take too much of the moral high ground.

I think he was going for a small act of moral fairness with the German Sgt by having him sit calmly and with immense bravery while The Bear Jew comes out the tunnel swinging. Indeed, he stabs at the Iron cross on the German’s chest and asks if he ‘got that for killing Jews?’ showing a little bit of obsession on Donny’s part. ‘Bravery’ he replies, sitting as like a Buddhist.

Donny looks almost sad as he tees up the bat, ready for the first blow. But by the time the German’s head is battered this way and that a few times (which is shown in a long-shot which is somehow unsatisfying) old Donny’s blood is flowing to where it’s needed, and he’s shouting about ‘Teddy fucking Williams!’ whose knocking one out the park and so on.

There’s no attempt to hide or in any way sweeten the near psychopathic violence of the Americans, and it’s this which is important, too. How do you deal with Nazis? You can’t talk to them, or reason with them in any way. You just gotta kill the fuckers.

 

Death Proof (2007)

Mike offers Pam a Lift, not a Ride

Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot or bottle of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.

(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)

That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.

After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)

Follow the conversation closely:

PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?

MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.

PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?

MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.

PAM: Will you be able to drive later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.

PAM: Which is what?

MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.

Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.

Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:

PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?

MIKE: No

PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.

PAM: Which is?

MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.

So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.

 

Django Unchained (2012)

Django takes the Dynamite

This wonderful scene comes toward the end of the movie, and by this time, we know Django is heading back to Candyland to have a word or two with the white folks over there. This scene is splendid for a few reasons. First, it allows the murdered King Shultz to be proved right, even after he’s dead. He tells Django to keep the handbill of his first kill for luck, and it’s this handbill Django uses to get the interest of the guys taking him to the mining company, so it’s nice that Schultz’s wisdom is in play after he’s dead.

Django sells the idea of going back to capture the outlaws, and shoots the men transporting the slaves. Well, one of them gets blown up. Just as he’s about to ride back to Candyland, he goes to the slave cage where the slaves have been watching him go about his ruthless business, and takes the dynamite. It’s here the scene is superb. What does Django say to the slaves? What bit of inspirational pep-talk do they get which will change their lives for the better?

None.

Django takes the dynamite, rides off looking like an Indian, and leaves them there; and it’s in his silence that he fucking roars at them and us. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t wait around for anyone’s permission. Django’s speech is conspicuous by its absence. This is smart because, had he spoken, what half-assed motivational bullshit could he have spewed? Much better to say it by showing it.

Get off your own ass.

Better Never Than Late

Yesterday, twenty three years after it was released, I watched Schindler’s List for the first time. I didn’t feel glad after I had done so. I was quite fed-up after watching it, but not for the reasons which might seem obvious.

Contrast this film with a later WW2 movie – Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. The Schindler picture is certainly the more ‘serious’ picture, and it’s based on actual events; Basterds is Tarantino’s ‘bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission’ movie and is significantly counter-factual, so one might expect all the ‘weight’ to be with Schindler and all the – well, all the Tarantino to be in Basterds.

Here’s one thing which annoys me about WW2 movies. I don’t like it when English or American actors play the Nazis and talk in English, either with or without a German accent. It’s convenient for the viewers (some of them) but it annoys me. I’d rather read subtitles. It makes the movie more believable.

(Actually, what else annoys me is when the foreign language is dubbed into English. The French zombie movie Le Horde was ruined in this way; the original, which I preferred because I have no problem reading, was a hundred times better than the unwatchable dubbed fuck-up which followed it.)

For all the seriousness of Schindler, the two lead roles are played by an Englishman and an Irishman, they speak in accented English, and spoken German is left to the background players for background noise.

Tarantino cast French actors to play the French characters and native German speakers to play the German characters. Why is their more authenticity in a ‘less serious’ movie than in the ‘serious’ Schindler?

Could Inglorious Basterds be a more serious movie than Schindler?

It certainly is. Schindler is about a ‘more serious’ topic, but Basterds is the more serious movie.

Also – and I’m not going to name them – but plenty of humans knew all about the deliberate destruction of the Jews from outside Germany, our hero Schindler only seems to realise the Nazis are a little nasty after accidently watching a Jew ghetto being cleared, and only then does his moral wheel start (very slowly) turning, though he’s working quite close to the military.

Another point needs to be made. Shooting it in black and white was a mistake. Black and white film was never an aesthetic choice, it was a technical limitation. It’s the same with silent movies, why make a ‘silent movie’ these days? Those who went to the cinema in the 1920s might have taken silent movies for granted, but every person would have known that people, in real life, spoke words when they moved their mouths to speak, just as they would have known the real world is not black and white. Reality wasn’t black and white during the silent era, and it wasn’t black and white when Schindler was made. Black and white is nostalgia, or an attempt to be ‘arty’.

Goodbye Rick: The Kneeling Dead

It’s got to be Rick who gets his head smashed in. Well, okay – it doesn’t have to be him.

The first thing which is weird after the The Walking Dead season finale is that Glenn is actually the safest member of the group. The producers already messed about with him with  the fake-death thing from earlier in the season, and they removed his name from the credits to play with us some more.So to mess with Glenn again might seem a little lame.

Also, Glenn is the character who gets killed by Negan in the comics, so it would be too obvious to make it him who gets battered.

How to think about the likely victim?

First, if it’s not a major character, then what’s the point, right? A supporting character’s death doesn’t justify the off-season wait to find out who it was, and it would irritate the fans to wait that long for a minor character be revealed as dead. So logic requires it’s a major name.

So who are classed as major names? I’d say – and in order of majorness:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl, Eugene, Morgan, Sasha, Rosita, Gabriel, Tara, Aaron.

It’s an order which can be argued about, but no matter.

Okay, so does long-term character or series regular mean the same as major character? I think not, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Glenn, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

I’ve alread discounted Glenn, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Carol, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

But Carol isn’t there because she’s off with Morgan, getting shot, so the list becomes:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Abraham, Maggie, Carl.

Now, who of those could die without the viewers caring too much? Abraham. So that leaves:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Carl.

At a push, Carl could die without too much uproar: he’s already tainted goods in anycase because of his eye, so I don’t see the audience caring too much if it were him. So that leaves:

Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie.

If Negan wanted to show he was a real evil shit, he’d kill a kid or a woman; if Carl’s discounted, that leaves Maggie. But why would Negan kill the most vulnerable of them? Surely he’d want to weaken their group by taking out a strong member? He wants to make sure they know he’s now in charge. That leaves:

Rick and Daryl.

The best way to assert your authority is by killing the enemy leader. That leaves…..

Rick is the character to die.

He’s the least likely because everyone would consider him the safest.

Spolia Opima Baby.

 

The Ulcerous Wolf

Shame (2009) could be all done in an hour. It’s artificially long – too long for its action, certainly.

Alright, so Michael Fassbender plays a porn addict who can’t create proper relationships because, for porn ‘addicts’ there’s not enough immediate stimulation in real relationships.

His psyche has an ulcer.

This is how it shakes down in real life:

The ‘addict’ realises he doesn’t find (let’s say ‘women’) attractive. He notices this about himself one day. He knows this is odd because he’s not gay – he likes women. So why is he not noticing them anymore? He’s not looking at them on the street like he used to, or noticing what they’re wearing. Once he realises this, he realises he has an actual psychological problem.

Too much porn conditions the brain to expect immediate pleasure – or pleasure quite quickly. A gentleman wants these periods of manual labour to be over quickly, and doesn’t realise he’s training his brain.

So when the gentleman has the company of a lady, he might find that he suffers from one of three possible ‘issues.’

First – and although business is conducted to the woman’s satisfaction in one way – he can’t satisfactorily conclude proceedings. He might not be bothered by this, but the women will not be happy, and will see this as a failure on her part..

Second, business is conducted okay for a while, then the chap softens his position and allows the woman to rest.

Third, the poor devil doesn’t need to soften his position in the first place.

That Fassbender wants to screw his sister (and not for the first time) is, probably, more the cause of his psychological trouble than his addiction to porn is. The porn doesn’t help, but his sister is the real cause of his trouble.

We first see her in the shower – and this scene is very interesting.

We know that, whoever’s in the apartment, they’re in the shower because we can hear the water running. They also put some music on.

So what follows?

Fassbender grabs a baseball bat, and rushes into the bathroom shouting ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’

This is quite clever.

Who did he think was in there, The Yakuza? The London Irish?

He storms the bathroom because that guarantees him a look at his naked sister, and he pushes his way in carrying the huge hard-on he’s got for her – the bat.

This happens while I Want Your Love by Chic blares on the soundtrack, by the way.

She asks him:

‘Don’t you fucking knock!’

And he replies, with some surface justification:

‘What the fuck, why would I knock? I live here.’

The question acts as plausible deniability. But he’s denying things to himself – not his sister.

This is the point: sure, why would he knock? But that he wouldn’t knock is hardly a reason to come storming in like the SAS. If he was concerned enough to arm himself, and be concerned enough to think he better take the intruder by surprise, he could easily have called the cops, or left the apartment and called them. His action is paradoxical.

He’s trying to convince himself he was in danger through his behaviour, but his unnecessary behaviour reveals he never really thought he was in any danger to begin with.

After a few moments he gives his sister a towel, and she throws it back after a moment, revealing herself to him again and smiling, says:

‘Good to see you.’

This is his sister’s fishing line. Now he’s supposed to say, while staring at her naked body:

‘Good to see you, too.’

But he walks out instead.

They’ve been screwing in the back-story and this has left them both damaged. He’s got a fixation with porn because normal sexual relations don’t give him the thrill he got by screwing his sister, and she’s got scars across her arms from self-harming, and is uber-needy with a car-crash relationship.That’s about it, really. They argue about her being in his apartment. He doesn’t like having her around because he wants to screw her.

And she’d let him.

The Duchess of Malfi

A Snail on the Moon

Time-loop paradox stories are the worst type of science-fiction, and that’s because the best type of science fiction is hard science fiction – and you can’t get softer than a time-loop paradox.

Actually, Triangle (2009) is not awful, but it is only redeemed at the end when we realise Melissa George’s character has died. This makes her predicament quite unpleasant to think about, and Stephen King said his own idea of Hell is repetition – and it’s easy to see his point.

Predestination (2014) is a film which deserves to be tied to a post and shot. (Or blown out the nearest airlock.)

What could be the motivation of the Spierig brothers to adapt such a stupid story?

The point of good science fiction is to open the minds of the readers and viewers to our insignificance in the universe: only when we have a grasp of our smallness can we begin to appreciate the cosmos. This means more than just being told we’re small and accepting it’s true, it means feeling small. The only thing of mine which opened when I watched Predestination was my mouth when I yawned.

The start-point for fiction is the what-if question. That’s a good place to start, but the what if should be something possible, if only theoretically.  Which is going to lead to a better story: a what if which might happen, or a what if which could never happen?

That’s Predestination’s problem.

Acknowledging the original short story from the 50s, it’s a sort of The Adjustment Bureau meets The Man Who Folded Himself meets Coherence type movie.

So, yes, if a person could travel back in time they could fuck about with themselves when they were younger, and end up becoming their own parents and children and lord knows who else. It’s all really interesting…but it’s impossible. And ‘impossible’ is the first thing decent science fiction needs to avoid.

Would anyone care about a story about Sammy the snail, who, after overcoming significant personal problems, realised his dream of becoming an astronaut and visiting the moon?

Thought not.

I think sometimes fiction is pointless. I never thought I’d say that: I always thought I would grant to the fiction writer any amount of licence, but impossible science fiction seems to me to be a crime against fiction. Calling it fantasy sci-fi won’t wash because you make the word science absurd.

Yes – I’m being harsh.

The Cat in Lovecraft’s Hat

The Babadook is a complicatedly simple movie. Behind the fourth wall (or inside the fictional action) is a kind of ‘third wall’ which stands between symbolism and realism within that fictional world, and it’s this third wall which the movie breaks – and that might be the movie’s problem.

Consider Goldberg and Mccann in (because this is a movie blog) Friedkin’s (1968) version of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They are symbols: of religious authority and state power, but also symbolise two repressed people, in this case Jews and Irish, while still representing actual individual characters – real people – in the play. The Babadook is written in a comparable way in that the monster (initially) represents the mother’s grief over the death of her husband, but the grief is intense enough to actually break the internal wall between symbolism and in-context realism and manifest itself into the movie’s reality. Her grief becomes an actual character in the movie.

Had the behaviour of the mother been just symbolic of the grief she’s feeling and its negative power on and over her, then her son wouldn’t have been afraid of Mister Babadook because he wouldn’t have existed in his reality; in his reality he would have just had an ever more insane mother to worry about.

It’s a rather stark situation we’re given to watch: a worn out mother – who hasn’t slept properly for years – is shown reassuring her son there’s nothing in the wardrobe – a classic childhood fear. But there’s no cuddle for warmth or encouragement: she appears almost bored with the routine and pays not much attention to her son clinging to her, and it’s the shot of them lying in bed – where the mother moves as far away as she can from her son while remaining comfortable – which illustrates the emotional distance she wants to have between them. Some critics have suggested the monster represents her grief, and this is true, but what’s more dramatic is what she does with that grief. She uses it to blame her son for her husband’s death.

(Her tiredness is what finally tears her sanity. Tiredness can cause significant problems, and one thinks of Peter Mullan in Session 9 (2001) as an example of the problems caused by fatigue.)

The mother is in a constant state of mourning for her husband, but also for the emotional attention a man would give her. This is understandable, and realistic. Though it might seem strange that she rejects the kindly romantic advances from a co-worker, given what’s missing in her life, this demonstrates the extent to which her mind is locked in the past, and that is demonstrated by her checking the door to the basement is safely locked tight. The basement is her memory.

So the basics are that she feels intense grief over the husband’s death, blames the son for his death because the crash happened while the husband drove her (in labour) to the hospital, and the emotional distance she subsequently feels is the cause of the son’s ‘behavioural problems.’ In other words he doesn’t feel loved so is fighting for attention.

This is standard drama; that’s not to say it’s bad drama – it isn’t – but it’s standard drama in the sense there’s some element of circular tragedy to the relationships shown: there’s a reason for almost everything.

What works – and is mighty impressive given the movie is the director’s first feature film – is the lack of cheap and easy ‘sudden bang’ shocks which are popular because they’re easy. The Babadook slowly builds its tension, drawing the viewer in to the action by creating trust because the viewer is not waiting for the next ‘jump’ so relaxes into the action. This is done so well that when the mother has really lost it and is trying to kick the door in, we’re in the room with the kid, hiding…

The Squeeze Touch

Sex is the subtext in many movies; whether it’s rape (Alien) or infidelity (Jaws) there are plenty of examples to offer, and I recall listening to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson explain how A Nightmare on Elm Street was actually about fathers screwing their daughters. It makes sense that sexual matters are bubbling about in the subtext because humans are sexual animals and some of us can be driven quite mad by desire and so on.

That the sexual business is usually to be found in the subtext is what makes It Follows so bloody creepy to begin with: the movie tells us it’s about sex pretty much right from the off. So here’s the thing: if it’s about sex on the surface, what hell is it going on under the surface?

What the hell is the subtext to It Follows?

 It begins with a young girl running in a circle outside her house, looking behind her as she goes, then darting back in to grab the car keys before speeding off to the beach. Then we see her calling her parents to leave a message telling them she loves them as we cut to her point-of-view of the car she drove there in. This is the first suggestion she can see something we can’t because she’s obviously looking at something (hence the POV shot) but all we see is her car. Then we cut to the following morning and the poor love is artistically mangled and very dead.

Then we cut to our lead chick: she’s having a dip in the pool while the neighbouring kids spy on her. This is the first incident of voyeurism – the kids are checking her out because she’s wearing a swimming costume, and one of the same kids, later on, spies on her through the bathroom window (while she’s wearing suspiciously boring underwear which made me think of the Queen of Drab: Emily Rose.) That’s two instances of voyeurism and it’s said that, in drama at any rate, if you want your audience to remember something – when there’s something you want them to ‘get’ – you mention it three times to stick it in their heads, is it two times with movies?

(This tiny piece of speculation comes from Olympia Dukakis asking ‘why do men chase women?’ in Moonstruck. I ‘remembered’ this question being the thing she ‘spends the whole movie’ trying to figure out; then I went back and checked the number of times she asks it and it is just twice.)

The basics run thus: the girl goes on a date with a guy and has sex with him in the back of his car on some waste ground. All okay so far. Then he presses a drugged handkerchief over her face – the classic move of moustache twirling villains everywhere – and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair while her male friend rushes about looking for the thing which has been ‘following’ him. When he sees it he tells her that it’s going to be following her now, and it might be slow but it’s not stupid. To get rid of it she needs to sleep with someone else to pass it on, and if it kills her, it’ll return to coming after him.

So starts the movie proper.

What the hell is the ‘thing’ which is following her and invisible to everyone else except those who have been followed and managed to ‘pass it on’? Does it represent guilt about something, or maybe a sexually transmitted disease? Does it represent a kind of knowledge about the world which we get through a loss of innocence as we get older, and the sex idea represents this loss of that innocence?

Is it a dark satire about the dishonest games adults play with each other about relationships and sex – satirised using the idea of the childish ‘so and so has fleas – pass it on!’ game children play?

I think that’s more likely to be the case than any question about disease or guilt.

I think this movie is about the lies and bullshit people spin for themselves and each other as they bed-hop their way through life using pleasure to distract them from Thanatos, who’s always stalking very close behind. It’s a movie which understands the atheistic nature of youth; understands the desire of youth to reject authority and religion, while inventing new ways to deny death – and by doing so, confirm further that rejection of religion by realising that the survival of death is religion’s only selling point.

It Follows (quite unlike the pseudo-religious-death-survival-fantasy-bullshit of Lucy) is a movie which subtly makes the case that we do not survive death, and this unfortunate truth might be what motivates us to seek pleasure and happiness while we are alive.

Take that to nihilism through hedonism if you like, but one could just as easily take the meaning as the advice to create meaningful relationships and ‘enjoy life’ while we are here for the short time that we are.

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