All posts by NotesonFilm1

King John, RSC, Sept, 27




King John is not often revived and I suspect that´s because it´s one of Shakespeare´s weaker efforts. But Rosie Sheehan´s female-focused  production currently at the RSC in Stratford is extraordinary. Bridgitta Roy plays King John, Katherine Pearce is a witty and sassy Cardinal Pearce. Male pronouns are kept, even though it´s women playing the roles. The costumes are all circa 1965. It has musical interludes at the beginning of scenes, accompanied by dances that echo that period just before hippies and Haight-Ashbury, that bring a shot of adrenaline to the whole production. The fight scenes are all staged as if in slow motion. And the tone of the show is a bit like Down with Love throughout — knowing, slightly camp, a winky play to the gallery –until the final descent into tragedy. All of this surrounds the language, which sometimes powerfully pierces through (“Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale). One of those productions were you run to buy the program at the intermission because you´re so excited by it you want to know who did what. I still couldn´t quite follow the plot, and this in spite of having seen the previous production at the RSC of a few years ago.  But that felt irrelevant.


José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 176 – Fight Club

A film that jogs memories for Mike, as in the process of revisiting Fight Club he realises what an impact it had on him as a teenager. David Fincher’s outrageously stylish and visceral story of a generation of dispossessed men finding purpose in violence has only increased in relevance in the twenty years since its release, drawing comparisons to incels and school shooters, but it also leads Mike to recall how it affected his interests and attitudes in his youth. José, who saw it on its release, was on the positive side of its mixed response and recalls trying to convince his friends of its greatness – and is proud to have been proven right in the years since, in which it rapidly became perhaps the defining cult hit.

Mike is surprised to discover a sexual dimension to it that he hadn’t quite realised was there – obviously, Tyler and Marla’s ceiling-shaking lovemaking sessions hadn’t escaped his attention, but it wasn’t until this screening that he saw Marla as desirable and human, rather than simply present and symbolic. She’s weary but hopeful, fiery and alive but constantly flirting with death, and with the benefit of knowing the film’s infamous twist, deeply sympathetic. Mike argues, too, for a strain of homoeroticism — Steve Erickson writes that Chuck Palahniuk came out as gay in 2004. The clues are everywhere both in his book and Fincher’s film — in the fighting and particularly in Brad Pitt’s appearance – more than powerful and intimidating, he’s attractive, the narrator’s ideal self (though we don’t, as José points out, see him topless and sweaty nearly as often as we might remember).

It’s not without its problems. The question of exactly what it says, and indeed how deliberately it says it, is dependant perhaps on the viewer’s mood and cultural context as much as anything. Fight Club wants to be thought of as a satire, that’s clear, but of what – and is it as much of a satire as it thinks it is? Mike suggests that much of what drives this problematic area of debate is the effectiveness with which the film brings us into the narrator’s mental state, conveying beautifully his attitudes, desires, repressions, regardless of whether we might think of them as positive or negative. Were the film more objective, more willing to offer judgement of its characters, these questions would be less troubling but the film would have none of its potency.

We agree that Fight Club is a considerable piece of work – José less enthusiastically, but it would be hard to be as turned on by it as Mike is. To have seen it on the big screen is a treat – every one of its compositions is electrifying, beautiful, considered and inventive – and the themes it explores have only grown in relevance since 1999. If it comes round, don’t hesitate to buy front row tickets. If it doesn’t, dig out the DVD, which you definitely own, and watch it again.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Demi Moore, Inside Out (London: Fourth Estate, 2019)

inside out

When life gets busy and stressful, I find comfort in reading a biography and sinking into other people´s lives. This first week back teaching I read Demi Moore´s Inside Out. There’s surprisingly little on the career, a sparkly one that is central to an understanding of popular Hollywood cinema in the ’80s and ’90s,  and even less about the films: Joel Schumacher helped her keep her role in St. Elmo´s Fire whilst she got off drugs; people still want to talk to her about Patrick Swayze and Ghost; she thinks Indecent Proposal is a better film than is credited; she gives an insight into how she got that big paycheck for Striptease; the fights to resist the love affair between her character and that of Tom Cruise´s in A Few Good Man that the studio was begging for; she talks of how men in the industry reacted to her G.I Jane body etc. But there´s not much and more space is devoted to the Vanity Fair covers she did with Annie Leibowitz (perhaps rightly). The spine of the story is her relationship with her mother and the best parts of the book are her descriptions of growing up with two parents who were mainly interested in drink, drugs, gambling and a good time, running away from bills and responsibilities all over the country, scamming their way into new houses, and then repeating the cycle all over again every few months with new names, constantly on the move and always on the fringes of criminality. One of Demi´s daughters says she wasn´t raised but forged. And reading the book one understands why. A book I very much enjoyed reading.


José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 175 – The Blue Angel

The film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to America, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a man who gives up everything for love. Emil Jannings is delightfully pompous and uptight as Professor Rath, a schoolteacher charmingly disarmed by Dietrich’s seductive cabaret star Lola Lola. The two marry, but unable to change and consumed by jealousy, Rath loses his status, dignity and the woman he loves.

Dietrich is captivating as Lola, wearing a seemingly permanent smirk of knowingness – much of the film’s action takes place backstage, an environment she controls effortlessly, in which the fewer items of clothing she wears the more uncomfortable Rath grows. José notes a moment in which she ungraciously adjusts her underwear, and who cares who’s watching – Mike remarks upon her legs, which at times are posed and filmed to take on a character all of their own. José considers the greatness of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, of which this was the first, and in particular the way he composes layered, complex imagery here.

We discuss the film’s characterisation and morality – it’s a tragedy, and to some extent its cabaret world is responsible for Rath’s decline, but because of his inability to understand and adapt to his new life, rather than an inherent immorality to the setting. Lola, too, isn’t simply some succubus; she may find Rath socially useful to marry, given his status as a professor, but moreover her affection for him is apparent. And we consider the film’s two-part structure, how it mirrors itself through its two memorable tracking shots in the classroom, the clown character into whom Rath is transformed, and Rath’s rooster-like crowing on his wedding day taking on a different significance at the film’s climax.

The Blue Angel is ninety years old and remains as tragic and sexy as ever. Don’t miss it if it’s showing near you.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 174 – The Farewell

We love Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama The Farewell, about a Chinese family that knows their grandmother, Nai Nai, has cancer, but keeps it a secret from her. Awkwafina brings humour and sensitivity to the American-raised granddaughter who argues that her family is in the wrong, and although the film opens up questions of cultural differences, it’s remarkably even-handed, refusing to judge or criticise any opinion. Zhao Shuzhen, playing Nai Nai, is delightfully warm and snappy, and shares wonderful chemistry with Awkwafina.

The Farewell is a gentle film that tells an engrossing story, and it’s simply a pleasure to be in its world.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 173 – Ad Astra

Ad Astra sees a withdrawn, isolated Brad Pitt take to the stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut in search of his father, and with him writer-director James Gray shows us stunning imagery and brings us brilliantly into McBride’s suppressed mental state. José is head over heels in love with the film’s epic feel, its exploration of universal human problems, the way in which it imagines a human race that, in spreading to and taming other planets and moons, brings its pre-existing problems with it, and the way in which Gray expresses McBride’s inner turmoil through action. Mike is less keen, particularly arguing for the weakness of the film’s first act, and asking questions of the film’s gender theming, but finds much to love too.

Ad Astra is a vast, careful, $100m art movie, the likes of which only Christopher Nolan normally gets to make. It’s very much worth your time. See it on the largest screen you can.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

This entry was posted in Podcasts and tagged Ad Astra, Brad Pitt, epic, James Gray, loneliness, space, Tommy Lee Jones on .

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 172 – Hustlers

J-Lo runs the show and steals every scene in Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s crime flick about a team of strippers who run a scam to steal from Wall Street traders and CEOs. Its style, energy and representational strategies impress us, it drew an audience to Cineworld that we aren’t used to seeing, and we discuss how it fits into what we decide to call “state of the nation cinema”, films that brazenly and deliberately depict, condemn and critique the institutions and power structures of modern America.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, USA, 1985)

My original review, which appeared in the very first issue of The Montreal Mirror, on 20th of June 1985, and which indicates the film showing in various cinemas which no longer function as such.


Frisk (Todd Verow, USA, 1995)


Dennis Cooper’s quasi-experimental novel Frisk is now considered a classic examination of sado-masochistic fantasy. Todd Verow’s film of the book, though intelligent and daring in its own right, does little to disprove the old adage that great novels rarely make great films. The comparison is generally invidious and is only worth making here because Frisk raises interesting questions about the limits of what is represen table even in independent cinema.

The film, like the novel, courageously tries to represent a murderous sexuality, one that verges on sensual cannibalism. The loved one is reduced to a thing that seen, felt, smelled, licked, sucked and tasted. The violent transformation of humans into corpses is depicted as a compulsive romantic gesture. The power over another’s life (in all the pleasure of its horrors and the horror of its pleasures) is shown with a detachment that precludes guilt or remorse. That the film attempts to wrestle morally with these taboos is to its credit.

Challenging and imaginative in its complexity, Frisk’s narrative structure is still lucid. The story is framed by Julian and Kevin reading Dennis’ letters as they journey to meet him. However, Dennis also describes writing to Uhrs the porn star and his memories of Henry, so the impression is made of the film’s narration passing on to other characters who take over particular scenes, enabling the audience to see both their views of Dennis’ desires and their own. This complex narration mobilises different audio-visual media (Super-8 film, video) and a wide array of filmic devices (jarring montages, elliptical editing, episodic fades to black) to suggest, texture and delimit memory. Frisk is also fascinating in its manipulation of time. For example, in the scene where Dennis has rough sex with Henry, we first see Henry opening the door for Dennis. After a close-up of Dennis’ face, a flash-forward shows a close-up of Henry’s arse being punched. The next shot returns to the ‘present’ as Dennis and Henry move into the room before the same close-up of Henry’s arse being punched is repeated, now in the present. The whole sequence illustrates how, in consciousness, the present, future and past all coexist, and how fantasy and truth blur.

That Frisk doesn’t quite succeed is not entirely the film-makers’ fault. To work, it would have had to create sublime imagery that could simultaneously make viewers understand such murderous sexuality, but also evoke dread and disgust at the notion that their own desires might be complicit with the protagonist’s. Frisk cannot do this: under the present system of censorship much of what is most disturbing in the book (the sexual murder of a young Dutch boy, for example) is unfilmable. The film tries to get around this problem by a voiceover narration that tells us what can’t be shown (“I made a long, straight, slit from his throat to his stomach and licked all the inside”).

Words are a weak substitute for images in the cinema, yet this strategy is typical of a film which aims to represent the unrepresentable by not showing it. And the film makers have put a great deal of imagination into the effort. For example, in the scene where Dennis tortures the addict played by Alexis Arquette, he moves a knife to kill the addict but the next shot shows the knife cutting the rope from which the addict is hanging. The transformation of a person into a corpse is made in a cut, bypassing the murder itself.

This is clever, but not powerful. In spite of its qualities, Frisk doesn’t live up to its own ambitions. The low budget shows in the long takes and the poor quality of the cinematography. A kinder person would say the acting is Brechtian, but with the notable exception of Alexis Arquette, it is merely amateurish. The heterosexuals, women and black people here are tokens, queer cinema reincarnations of the spectres of “positive images” that have traditionally haunted lesbian and gay cinema. More damagingly, the film fails to evoke the necessary combination of dread and desire. Nonetheless, it is this failure in the light of its ambitions that makes Frisk so interesting to watch.

José Arroyo

Originally published in Sight and Sound:

Arroyo, José.Sight and Sound; London Vol. 8, Iss. 1,  (Jan 1998): 40-41,3