In this first of our two-part discussion of the Rocky films, we look at the film that began the series almost 50 years ago. There’s a lot about 1976’s Rocky that… isn’t that good. John G. Avildsen’s direction is drab, the story basic, the themes rudimentary – but with that comes a roughness and a sincerity to the whole affair that might be just what makes it work after all. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a physical brute, softened by his unusual – and unusually pretty – features, his inability to avoid trying to befriend any animal that crosses his path, his demeanour that’s at once confident and shy, and his intellectual simplicity. José argues that the boxing is a diversion, a Trojan horse within which to sneak Rocky and Adrian’s love story. And we think about the character of Apollo Creed, his use as a substitute for Muhammad Ali, and why he couldn’t have been white.
Rocky was a phenomenon upon its release, an immediate cultural touchstone that contains images and scenes so iconic that, five decades on, we continue to attach the same emotions to them and draw the same pleasure from recalling them. Well, we say “we”, but, as is typical, Mike has never seen it before. So while José revisits, Mike joins the party for the first time, and we discuss the quality, significance and impact of this iconic film.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
From a central focus on two aspiring young basketball hopefuls from Chicago, Hoop Dreams weaves an incredible tapestry of race and class in America, without once explaining itself to the audience, without once winking and imploring us to notice something. William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black boys of about 14 or 15 years old, are plucked from their neighbourhoods by a scout for St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, a white suburban private school that dips into the inner city looking for talent to boost its basketball team, chucking back any kid that doesn’t show enough promise. Over the course of several years, we follow William and Arthur’s development.
William and Arthur don’t start in the same place – William is touted as the next Isiah Thomas, a former St. Joseph’s alumnus who reached the NBA, and receives as an individual gift a personally guaranteed scholarship to St. Joseph’s from a wealthy benefactor. Arthur is labelled with no particular expectation beyond that he shows the potential to go pro, and whose partial scholarship becomes a financial burden once the school decides they’ve had enough of him – they want tuition fees from him now. The stresses put on these boys come from all angles – their school demands they perform for the team while keeping their grades up, their parents and communities put all their hopes into their success, and achieving stardom, a vanishingly unlikely prospect, feels like the only hope for a life free of minimum wage jobs and the power being cut off because of unpaid bills. Over the course of three hours, we understand intimately who William and Arthur are, the familial and socioeconomic circumstances that shape them, and follow them as they grow, learn, and encounter hurdles throughout their time at St. Joseph’s.
Hoop Dreams is an all-time great documentary, a portrait of life in early Nineties America that is both a state-of-the-nation declaration for its time and effortlessly legible and relevant today.
We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)
We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.
Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.
We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.
And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and Moonlight. Beale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.
A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking films.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Achingly romantic and visually rapturous, If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, utterly bowls Mike over, while José expresses some reservations about it, despite also finding it enormously impressive. A love story set in New York City in the late 60s/early 70s, the film follows Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as they fall in love, begin to build a life together, but are threatened with its destruction by a racist cop and a false accusation of rape.
The title refers to a street in New Orleans that Baldwin, and subsequently Jenkins, use as a metaphor for the black experience across America, and arguably this is overambitious (if not simply impossible). The universality implied by the title is dissonant with what the film offers, which is much more personal and idiosyncratic. José points out the lack of anger in the film, anger that would be absolutely justified to express given both the general institutional racism the characters face in their place and time, and the specific instance of racist behaviour to which they are subjected: the rape accusation. Instead of fury, we see coping, survival, sadness, resistance and love, all communicated with an extraordinary depth of feeling and a camera that finds the beauty and subtlety in everyone’s face. And ultimately this is wonderful, it’s just that the title and opening intertitle that explains it somehow don’t seem to quite understand their own story.
There’s a huge amount we discuss, including the narration; the film’s excursion to Puerto Rico and how its depiction of the experience of Latinx people might or might not offer an interesting comparison to its central interest, the African-American community; how Brian Tyree Henry shows up for a scene and steals the entire film; how the film aims for visual poetry; how Jenkins conveys rich sense of different people’s lives and environments with just a few shots; and how the film chokes you up with its incredibly tactile depth of feeling that is sustained more or less throughout. We also bring up comparisons to Green Book, Get Out, and in particular, Moonlight, Jenkins’ previous film – José has issues with how he copped out of giving his story of a gay black boy’s difficulties growing up an honest ending, and takes issue with how viscerally one feels Tish’s desire for Fonny due to the way he’s shot, finding it even more disappointing than before that Jenkins didn’t do the same in Moonlight.
It’s a film we want to see again, infectious and emotionally rich, and if you don’t see it in a cinema you’re missing out. It’s great.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
It’s already being portrayed as the film that will undeservedly win Best Picture for its cuddly, comfortable, comedy-drama version of American racism in the Sixties, but do we dissent from that view? Green Book tells the true story of a road trip through the Deep South shared by jazz pianist Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony (Viggo Mortensen).
Mike immediately seizes upon Tony’s inconsistent characterisation, the film using other characters to describe him as deeply racist, but his actual interactions with Shirley consisting of essentially polite microaggressions rather than real malevolence and anger. José also takes issue with the revelation that Shirley is gay, Tony having no problem with it, saying that in his regular job as a bouncer he sees it all the time – the film makes no attempt to explain how he can be entirely understanding and accepting of sexuality while intolerant of skin colour. Mortensen, though, is very characterful, imbuing Tony with entertaining irreverence, and the love Tony displays for his wife, writing her letters every day, is very sweet.
Ali doesn’t match Mortensen’s level of performance, though he is perhaps asked less of, largely remaining aloof throughout the film. Again, we find problems in Shirley’s characterisation. The film sets him up as a fish out of water, not just as a gay, black man in the Deep South, but also amongst other black people – it’s a quirk too far to believe that he’s never heard a Chubby Checker or Little Richard record. And the movements made in the film’s final minutes to engineer a classic happy ending (at Christmas, no less) are as predictable and obvious as they come, but Mike is moved by the ending nonetheless, leaving the cinema with a smile on his face.
Despite the character issues, lack of subtlety (every aspect of the issues it depicts is explained in dialogue), weak visual storytelling (this film doesn’t appear to actually know that it’s being shown in cinemas, so fully does it lack any sense of cinematic nous or style), and project of delivering an unchallenging, white man’s version of racism in which everyone can learn to get along without having to face any hard truths, we found things to like in Green Book, and recommend it as long as you keep your expectations low.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Something a little different for us today, as we visit the Tate Modern to view Christian Marclay’s 24 hour long video art installation, The Clock. It’s a looping supercut of clips from film and television that involve clocks, watches, and people telling each other the time, synchronised to the real world. If you watch it at 8:10pm, it’s 8:10pm in the film too. Supported by London’s White Cube gallery, some 12,000 clips were assiduously located and assembled over three years by Marclay and his team of six researchers to create The Clock, and since its first exhibition in 2010 it’s been popping up every now and again. We jumped at the chance to see it.
The Clock‘s scarcity, ambition, and strength of concept have arguably been partially responsible for its uniformly positive reception since 2010. We, however, find plenty to criticise, including a certain imperial flavour to the overwhelmingly Anglo-American choices of source films, not to mention the whiteness that pervades the entire project and lack of imagination displayed by its reluctance to explore outside the canon. If one of the ideas behind the piece is to draw commonalities between cultures and eras, as Mike suggests, then this is a failure not just to please our sensibilities but to achieve its own purpose. The few non-English language clips that do intermittently show up serve only to highlight their own absence.
There’s also a discussion to be had about the piece’s presentation. On the one hand, housed in a vast, purpose-built room, entirely darkened, with sofas lined up in perfect geometric alignment, it’s an unadulterated joy to be in the room and let the time fly by, even when you know full well that you’ve been stood up for two hours because no seat is available and the specific time is right there mocking you. José decries the dismissive, contemptuous treatment cinema receives in art galleries, on which he has also recently written – https://notesonfilm1.com/2018/12/22/the-museums-disdain-for-cinema/ – but finds The Clock‘s presentation in this respect faultless. On the other, likely for the sake of a smooth viewing experience, the source clips have all been cropped (and in a few cases, stretched) to fit the same aspect ratio, a decision that we feel shows disrespect for the images and people behind them that far outweighs any benefit it has as to unifying them.
There are, though, ways in which Marclay manipulates the source material that we find valuable. Indeed, the entire piece assembles clips from thousands of films, and editing is what it’s all about. When The Clock edits clips together along thematic lines, such as when we see people in different films, places, and eras all taking their seats for concerts and plays at the same time, or formal exercises it plays in cutting together car doors slamming or people smoking, it qualitatively changes its source footage into something different, achieving interesting and sometimes simply swoony effects. At other times, a character in one film will pick up the phone and speak to a character in a different film (often in a different era), the piece using humorous juxtaposition to connect them. And the piece constantly edits and mixes its own soundtrack, using the source films as a basis and typically fading between them, again smoothing the viewing experience, and occasionally building a soundtrack that sits behind an entire section of clips, binding them and creating something new, such as the anticipation generated by Run Lola Run’s soundtrack at the film chases down noon. It’s at these times that Mike is most impressed, seeing a marked difference between when The Clock is a film and when it’s a film project, finding that too often is it the latter. But those moments of filmmaking are quite fantastic.
The Clock is a singular work and one we’d urge anybody to see given the chance, but with room for significant and fair criticism. Keep an eye out for it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
An extraordinary, near-Shakespearian meditation on misdirected rage, guilt and grief, deeply marred by clumsy lunging into a loud theme of racism and a strong sense that the film neither knows nor especially cares about the culture it’s portraying. Frances McDormand excels as the bullish, bellicose, foul-mouthed mother, but the film suffers as it shifts its focus to Sam Rockwell’s stereotypical racist hick. The central premise is brilliant; its treatment is ultimately uneven, and although there are elements we absolutely adore, we can’t get its lurches between tones out of our heads.
Do Americans have a case against the use of foreigners in their cinema? Language is one of the glories of this film yet we find there are considerable misjudgments with language in relation to gender and race. We can’t find enough superlatives for Frances McDormand yet we question why all the other women in the film seem to look 19, even when they’re meant to be married to Woody Harrelson. The film is very conscientious about its representation of race, yet comes across as rather racist. A tonally deaf film with some great moments.
Rewarding to watch, though, and it would benefit from a second viewing.
Recorded on 18th January 2018.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link
A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.
The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film, to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.
In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.
The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’
To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.
Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating? Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.
Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.
There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance. Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).
In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’
Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.
The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).
First meeting with Gloria
Earl’s a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.
In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.
Second Meeting with Gloria
One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.
There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky, my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.
In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.
The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:
Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.
The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”
It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.