Mike and I discuss scandinoir, why Tomas Alfredson — who is not Thomas Anderson — is such a great director, how some shots in this film made me swoon, why Chloë Sevigny’s performance is so great and Michael Fassbender’s, gloriously handsome as he is in this movie, is not. Was Val Kilmer dubbed? Why does a film that has so many extraordinary elements not quite add up to the sum of its parts? Is Snowman a Europudding? Spoilers abound
The first of a series of interviews of books on cinema. The intention is to expand and disseminate our understanding of cinema and its diverse histories and various cultures by bringing attention to recently published books in the field in order to enhance understanding of and access to the knowledge the books provide. This first one is an interview with Lawrence Napper — author of ‘British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years’ (2009) and ‘The Great War in British PopularCinema of the 1920s: Before Journey’s End’ (2015) — on his contribution to Wallflower Press’ Short Cut series, an excellent introduction to silent cinema, ‘Silent Cinema: Before The Pictures Got Small,’ (2017).
The latest instalment in one of my very favourite series of books. The title partly indicates what’s offered, the last formal interview granted by its subject. But the sub-heading indicates other conversations: the promise of more. The books are published posthumously about the recently deceased. And until now, they’ve all be writers: David Foster Wallace, Jacques Derrida, Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño. As the series has expanded it has grown to include the not-so-recently deceased (Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin) and grown to be more inclusive in its definition of writing (not only novels and short stories but also philosophy and now music). I was as surprised to see Lour Reed in this series as I was to see Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But both grew to make sense to me. And certainly here Lour Reed refers to what he does mainly as writing, the only exception being to when he’s performing. Also, his influences and his aspirations all reference writing, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the work of Hubert Selby, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Delmore Schwartz and other American post-war writers and poets of subcultural urban alienation.
I’ve loved all the books in the series because they seem to offer a distillation if not a summation of their subjects’ concerns at or near the end of their lives, like they’re passing on to us that little bit of knowledge they’ve acquired after a life-time of experience. ‘Learning to live should bean learning to die’ says Jacques Derrida in his last interview book, ‘learning to take into account, so as to accept, absolute morality (that is, without salvation, resurrection, or redemption — neither for oneself nor for the others)’. For Kurt Vonnegut life was about helping each other get through this thing, this life, whatever that is: ‘There are all kinds of ways we can help each other get through today. There are some things that help. Musicians Really do it for me.’
Lou Reed’s music has certainly been important to generations of people. But his last interview doesn’t offer the kind of neat summation that is found in other books in the series. Part of the pleasure of the book is in seeing celebrated writers trying to convey why he meant so much to them, whilst also trying to take some lesson in life or even merely an insight into the music that they can take away, and ending up leaving with nothing. Here’s the legendary Lester Bangs, florid and self-aggrandising, telling us much more about himself than about Reed. Here’s Neil Gaiman, fan-boy purity in adulthood, chasing Reed around to express appreciation and to gain insight and getting so little from Reed he’s reduced to conveying his own journey. Here’s Paul Auster much more interested in himself than in Reed. It’s amazing how Reed skirts, dodges, bypasses and then accuses and demands; all whilst giving his interviewers so little. ‘If you want to ask a question, you should know what you’re asking about, don’t you think?’ he challenges Farida Khelfa from Rolling Stone ,…’Someone will say, ‘Have you head that so-and-so sounds like you?’ Why? Because they sing out of key?’ For him it’s all in the music. For some of us, the music is why we especially love reading interviews like these. His ornery modes of evasion tell their own story.
We couldn’t stay away. And with a second viewing, time to percolate, and responses from friends informing us, Eavesdropping once again delves into Blade Runner 2049.
What to make of the film’s representation of women? How does the film use names? Why did Mike have a little weep at the end this time? Do gay women have cottages? Does the film function as a story about slavery? What about criticisms of its lack of diversity in casting?
Why do people think this film is dull? Is it the film’s fault? Television’s? Humanity’s? Why don’t we care to engage visually any more?
We discuss why Blade Runner 2049 is so moving and beautiful, how it develops and unfolds from the first one including relating gestures and costuming as well as characterisation and design. Lots of spoilers.
With a weary sigh, we get to Flatliners. Ellen Page, James Norton, Diego Luna and Kiersey Clemons expand their minds and run around shitting themselves in fear. Questions abound: Why did they call this Flatliners when the obviously correct title is Hot Doctors? Was Kiefer Sutherland wasted? Is it wise to be wasted while appearing in a film? In precisely how many millions of ways is the film inconsistent? Just how stupid and blind is its attitude towards the very real problems it presents? Does it make sense as a horror flick? Just how obsessed are Mike and Jose with the cast’s attractiveness? Who’s hotter, the ginger guy or the hot girl? All this and Catholic guilt too.
How bad is Home Again? Why did we not walk out? What kind of nepotism makes us angry? A woman’s film that is not quite a romantic comedy? We could have been funnier and meaner but it wouldn’t have been as honest.
What is IT? Is IT any good? Is IT scary? How much of IT did Mike watch through his fingers? Why would he agree to see IT in LieMAX? Was he right about the bit with the sink? (Spoiler: He has googled it and discovered that he was wrong.)
This wasn’t as cringey as I expected it to be. I hadn’t realised Stephen Frears is the director. And he does a fine job indeed.
Judi Dench is absolutely extraordinary in the role that first made her a star twenty years ago (Mrs. Brown, John Madden, 1997): she not only brings all her stage-craft and know-how but gives her body up to the camera so that it too can contribute to what’s being dramatised: those hanging folds over the lonely eyes, the wrinkled skin of someone who’s lived too well and lived too long. Frears put the camera on Dench and she no longer fears it or ‘performs’ for it: the camera is placed and then she places herself in it to offer her eyes and skin, a tone of voice, pitched just so; a glance, line-readings that know cadences and haven’t forgotten the power of timing. She’s in a league of her own. But Ali Fazal is very good as the munshi and an excellent counterpoint both dramatically and visually — he’s tall, dark and handsome. And it’s great to see Osborne, and the jewels and the outfit.
It’s not much of a story really, and what is shown is a bit of a whitewash: the establishment was really racist, but the queen who’s on top of everything isn’t etc etc. Eddie Izzard is very good but my favourite was Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, eavesdropping at every opportunity, glaring her indignation at all passersby, having an eye cocked to every opportunity. Only great actors do so much with so little.
i catch myself watching the original Kingsman on TV now with more pleasure than I remember upon the first viewing. I re-see the odd snippet and it seems elegant, fun, attractive. Watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle reminds me that this partial re-viewing is also a partial forgetting: the sexism, the crude anal jokes with the captive princess etc. But nothing about the first film prepared me for how crude, manipulative and exploitative this sequel is. Cynical too, not only in the relentless product placement but in the lassoing in of American stars to pave the way for the success the original didn’t quite achieve there. Thus we see snippets of Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and what what has until now been my favourite presence in the US audiovisual landscape, Pedro Pascal (probably best known from Narcos), none of them except for the latter offered much of a character or even a chance to shine. How much money do these movie stars need anyway? And if the filmmakers brought them in to make the shit shine, they failed. Julianne Moore is the only star who makes anything of the part played. And Elton John — who deserves a medal for being so open and game — is the only one the filmmakers succeed in getting some good jokes out of. If the idea behind casting these stars was so that the movie could sell better in the States, then the film is not only cynical but stupid. You can’t cast all the Americans as villains, secondary characters or merely inept and have that be your anchor in their market. But here we are, talking about audiences, markets, stars, what might sell. Yet, one look at how the action scenes are filmed — all so CGI that any human skill, effort, danger, and grace evades one’s consciousness — and the crass ineptitude of the whole project is visible to all. It’s like all the marketing and selling opportunities have been given way more thought than story, characters, and the staging of exciting adventure with slinky gadgets etc, ie. all that we want out of a movie like this. They’ve thought so much about the selling that they forgot to come up with something anyone would want to buy. They should all be ashamed of themselves.
I highly recommend Dylan Jones’ oral biography of David Bowie. I’ve only ever seen the form applied to sweeping historical subjects and was first introduced to it by Studs Terkel’s landmark work, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970). It’s interesting to note how this form, developed to put the personal back into the historical, to give first-hand accounts of vast social changes, evolved into first-hand accounts of one person’s experience of a historical period (for example the Nella Last’s Mass Observation Diaries, turned into books and which Victoria Wood then used as a basis for Housewife, 49.) and latterly, as a form of biography cobbled together from interviews of people who knew the subject at various points in their life (Michael Zuckoff’s excellent Robert Altman: An Oral History, 2010)
Jones’ book has the great advantage of getting dozens of first-hand perspectives on Bowie across a long period of time whilst almost entirely keeping the ‘author’ out of the narrative, which, if you dislike him as much as I do, is a good thing He brags, without a soupćon of irony about bringing Giles Coren, Rod Liddle, Piers Morgan. AA Gill and Boris Johnson to write for GQ. You can imagine all as teenagers, wearing their public school top hats, burning £5 pound notes and throwing rocks at that David Jones with the long hair from Bromley.
What comes across in David Bowie: A Life is a very nice man, unfailingly polite, constantly curious, trying to find form in sound and image to express states and feelings, and seeking to do so with great interest, curiosity and application. Students of film will find his constant process of developing, trying on, marketing and discarding personae so that the changes in personae become the persona itself, particularly fascinating. Fans of Bowie will find an incredible amount of detail on the recording of some of the great pop music of the last century. Those interested in the salacious will also find what they seek in this book.
We’re so lucky now to be able to follow this type of book whilst listening to and seeng all the music and films referred to on you-tube. I was surprised at how familiar I was with all of it, much of which I wouldn’t have recognised by titles alone. In listening and seeing now, I remember what I felt then, but can now name, contextualise and articulate. Great book.
What is Darren Aronofsky’s latest fever dream all about? How is it allegorical? What does it mean? How good is Jennifer Lawrence? Why we both loved it. Is the audience reaction fair and what might that mean?
Why Detroit is the best film currently on release. Is John Boyega a star? Does Kathryn Bigelow get the respect she deserves? Is race the political unconscious of American cinema? Why hasn’t a great film on such a timely subject found an audience?
I was really intrigued by the first two episodes of The Inhumans being released in advance on Imax and saw it as an opportunity to compare the experience and quality of the image with what is shown on TV. But the show is so poor….The image looks just as dense and glossy on a big screen, some of the effects also hold up well, the set seems overly sparse and geometric, but would be less noticeably so on a small screen: the story, acting and all the other production values that go into making a decent-budget film and that are not restricted to CGI are strictly bottom of the barrel. A real disappointment, though not for the reasons expected. The story is far from Best of Marvel.And instead of thinking about the image, the question it left me with was: why is acting on American TV shows often so abysmal?
Is it possible for a film about drug smuggling, weapon dealing, CIA-sponsored militias and getting ludicrously rich to be in any way immoral? Tom Cruise helps destroy several Latin American governments and cultures, oblivious to everything except money and a sense of adventure. Do we empathise? Find out as we tolerate American Made so you don’t have to.
Logan Lucky: a great performance from Daniel Craig, amiable ones from the rest of the starry cast (Hilary Swank, Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katie Holmes, Seth McFarlane); every shot is something worth looking at; there are at least a trio of really interesting female characters (written by Rebecca Blunt, who it is said is a pseudonym, though it is not clear for whom), and the theme of getting one over a system that seems stacked and unfair is very well done. For a change, here’s an American film that *likes* its white, working-class rural characters. There’s a lot to praise. So why did it feel so slack and rambly to watch? This has been an interesting feature of quite a few of Soderbergh’s recent films: Haywire, Contagion, Side-Effect. And yet, there’s Behind the Candelabra when every shot is necessary and everything moves at a clip, hard to do in what is a character study, even such a flamboyant one. Odd. And I don’t think this is true of his Magic Mikefilms or his other more glam and streamlined caper films, except for maybe Ocean’s 13.
This week the focus is on The Hitman’s Bodyguard and the topics under discussion include: Can an action film that goes through Coventry be any good? Is it important that action scenes are funny? Is Gary Oldman a whore? All valuable questions. All answered in our chat about The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I think.
A film that felt essential viewing going in but a let-down upon leavingt. What I love about Tom of Finland’s drawings is the freedom and joy they evoke, their playfulness, the emphasis on male beauty — albeit one version of it only, and a very exaggerated model at that– and what seemed the subversiveness of its fetishization of uniforms and the authority figures associated with them. In Tom of Finland drawings, men are having sex everywhere, in and out of uniform, often on bikes, often in nature, and they’re relaxed, free, easy, happy, playful. This is almost the opposite of what the film tells and evokes
Touko Laaksoonen — a former Finnish officer who got the look for the Kake drawings from a Russian parachuter he kills with a pen knife — lives in fear. The police chase him when he’s in the parks; the private home parties he attends could be raided at any moment; he’s vulnerable to the dangers of shock treatments in sanatoriums, to blackmail and robbery from tricks and pick-ups. All of this is what many people who lived through that generation in Finland and elsewhere experienced. But they did not produce the sexy and joyful drawings Tom of Finland is associated with.
The first half of the film is grim and dour without even the excitement that war and danger sometimes evoke. The risky sex in parks and public toilets evoke not one frisson of sexyness or even desire. It’s all needy grimness and glumness, in compositions often shot at eye-level or just above. For a film about an artist, the film does not exactly dazzle with visual finesse. What’s depicted is dangerous but the compositions are so dull that the danger is seen but not felt.
As the film unfolds, Touko who lives with his sister, falls in love with a dancer, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), the romance of his life. They go live together, and eventually Veli gets to hold hands with Touko in public and gets the sissy-ish yellow curtains he’s always dreamed of, but only because the throat cancer he’s been struggling with is now certain to kill him. By this point Tom has already made a name for himself in an America that, in contrast to Finland, is shown as being sunnier and lighter in spirit as well as in sexually freer. This is where Touko Laaksoonen becomes Tom of Finland.
The film first treats his drawings as a kind of therapy, a vision of what it is to be gay that many gay men found personally liberating, and which I don’t doubt is true; it then brings up the issue of AIDS, something Touko arrogantly takes responsibility for, believing that the sexual freedom his work represented and propagated was the cause, thus losing the heart to draw. The film ends with Tom of Finland finding renewed purpose and returning to his art, this time in aid of AIDS research and awareness.
Touko kills a Russian soldier and gives birth to his ideal
The film is a disappointment because nothing about it evokes the beauty, joy, sexyness and skill that Tom of Finland drawings do, not even at the end in California, when the film clearly means to. Contrast for example the photo of Tom of Finlandd at the International Mr. Leather Contest to the way the way we’re shown it: one is happy and sexy, the other….well it tries.
The film’s structure might seem a bit trite. It’s framed as Tom of Finland’s reminiscence as he’s waiting to enjoy the acclaim we will see him earn by the end — a staple and rather hoary structure in the traditional biopic. But it has also got interesting moments of reverie in which Tom’s fantasies join him in his room. I did find aspects of the film moving, particularly the central relationship between Touko and Veli. It was also a great pleasure to be exposed to the beauties of Finland itself. But it’s always a bad sign when one comes out of a film praising the landscape, particularly when it’s a biopic of such a personage.