Friday, 24 June 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #26, The Graduate

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Has anyone ever told you that the thing about the Beatles is, they still sound so fresh and new today? So modern? (Maybe it was someone closer to first-time-around age, maybe someone young enough to know better, but either way, I reckon it’s pretty likely you’ve had this experience.) If you’re the kind of person for whom that truism ruined your enjoyment next time you put some Beatles on, then I apologise. I may be about to ruin a great film for you.

I’ve never really agreed about the Beatles thing, in case you couldn’t guess. The Graduate, at forty-four years of age (the same vintage as Sgt Pepper’s, if we’re holding onto that) is the oldest film on this entire list. Still, to me, it feels like it could have been made days ago. It feels positively modern.

This is partly down to how surprisingly well the film has held onto its looks. The camera patiently waits, for characters to re-enter the frame, or for a light to come on. There’s something in me that can’t get enough of the way, in long shots, the camera lays still, letting the action play out in the distance. It won’t move for minutes, and then it will do something clever to segue to the next scene. It picks its angles – often framed through a narrow gap, or the filter of water – carefully, but dismissively, like an experienced woman takes a cigarette from an offered packet.

It’s got the absolute spirit of a modern indie film (which is probably no coincidence, if we wanted to draw a family tree of inspirations and illegitimate progeny) despite being one of the highest-earning films ever. The clever-clever way it uses the camera carries over into the sound. Sure, there’s all that Simon & Garfunkel stuff we’ve come to associate with the film (and it’s probably the thing which ages it the most). But much of the film is soundtracked by just-audible background noise: the sound of rattling floors and walls, planes going overhead, the noise of other people going about their business. The ambient music of suburbia – as a decision, it still feels boldly futuristic.

But the most modern bit is what The Graduate is actually about. The film’s first half is more or less a series of vignettes, loosely tied together, about the embarrassing awkwardness of being a half-grownup boy/man. Screw that: it’s about the humiliating awkwardness of trying to live as a human being. Benjamin’s seduction process is marked with difficult conversations, knees scraped against tables and heads banged in embarrassed frustration against the wall.

You might’ve noticed that I don’t often talk about story in this posts, and when The Graduate tries to cohere into an actual narrative later on, it’s slightly weaker for it. At its best, it’s not about which woman he’ll choose or what’s going to happen next; The Graduate is just about Benjamin navigating the alien, familiar environment around his family home.

Cinema has the power to create an atmosphere, feelings entirely new to you or perfectly familiar, and most of the time, it’s that which interests me more than stories. The moment where Benjamin waits for Mrs Robinson in the hotel - telling awkward lies, wandering back and forth, trying to work out how this strange new world works – captures perfectly the complex sensation of being simultaneously bored and uncomfortable in a public place. It’s a feeling I know well, one that feels particularly modern, and it’s nice to know that it bothered people fifty years ago too.

There’s no word for that feeling, so why not capture it on film?

FFoF26Graduate

Friday, 17 June 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #27, Terminator 2

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The thing about Judgment Day is that, on paper, it does absolutely everything right. The ambiguous introduction of the two Terminators, playing off of Schwarzenegger’s physical appearance – and his previous appearance. Having the most important character in a film about robotic super-badasses be a vulnerable child, and giving him just enough personality to transcend being a plot McGuffin. Rooting a time-travelling science fiction story film in the everyday of Now, with trucks, policemen and arcades.

It occasionally falls into cliché – hell, this is a film which has the baddie kill the kid’s dog just to show us how evil he is – but the clichés are never lingered on, they just use an understanding of cinematic convention to boost the plot along. With complete economy, it takes something simple – two men, fighting - and sharpens it into an art form.

And, having built a solid foundation, it just layers everything that makes it shine on top, as a bonus: the way Arnie reloads his shotgun by swinging it around. A man speared right through his half-drunk milk carton and pinned to the fridge like a mediocre school report. That shimmering surface of liquid metal.

That shimmering metal… You could accuse Judgment Day – and people have – of just being an effects movie. But it’s how those effects are used. With a simple contemporary (to the early ‘90s) setting, and by giving the super-robots human form, effects can be tucked away so they rarely stand out as too artificial. But they never fail to stand out.

I’ve still never seen Avatar (and writing this is one of the occasions that makes me regret that) but the way James Cameron pushes plasticky CG to the forefront of every moment betrays how sneakily integrated they are here. It’s as if T2 understands that the future is coming, and these sparkly new effects won’t stay beautiful for very long.

And then those effects are used to create stunning moments of purest, undistilled cool. You know the ones I’m talking about. Some film critics and assorted snobs – and I am of course including myself here - criticise the blockbuster’s fireworks display as being simply something to gape at. But when it works this well, when I have to physically put my jaw back in place, who cares?

Even now, in 2011, nearly half a year after the proposed titular End of Days, some of the set-pieces are enough to do that to me. It reverts my mind to the state of ten years ago, when I watched a copied VHS in this very same bedroom, and hits all the same buttons that impressed me as a child. Oh, it’s so awesome!

But it’s time to be a grown-up, and put more respectable terms to that feeling. To tell you about its influence, and its influence, and throw overused superlatives like ‘Iconic’ around. But T2 really understands what iconography means, especially in movies. It takes from the existing, from life and films and its own predecessor, while creating its own. Iconic.

Admittedly, I have a tendency to just throw adjectives around when I’m writing these entries. Part of this yearlong exercise is about freeing myself from clichés, or at least weaving them in as well as Judgment Day does. Just in these few hundred words, we’ve had iconic, stunning, beautiful. Just for good measure, here’re a few more: clever, sharp, mind-bending. Really, though, everything T2 is and everything that makes watching it such a pleasure is one adjective. It could serve as the film’s epigraph. It could maybe replace this entire review. Above all else, T2 is:

Cool.

And sometimes, when you’re this cool, that’s all you need to be.

FFoF27Terminator2

Friday, 10 June 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #28, Ratatouille

Okay, a rare bit of cheating here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk today. Today is Ratatouille's turn at FFoF, and I wrote a piece on it just over a year ago. I've not got much more to say, and I was quite pleased with it, so here's a slightly edited version of that:
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In many ways, Ratatouille is the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film's confused aims and mixed success. It's not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up.

Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood.

Even in my own memory - having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist - the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance.

And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in Great Art. I'll break this down....

Remy - the film's hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat - is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion.

Yet, he remains tied down by his roots. Remy is of course a rat: the natural enemy of the cooking industry. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn't help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and 'us vs them' has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that's the one that - significantly, perhaps - stood out to me.

Though, as Remy's hero proclaims throughout: "anyone can cook", regardless of who they are.

But Remy's family don't understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy's interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him. Early on, by shooting a shotgun at him.

So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol' Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.

Our secondary hero, the gangly ginger human Linguini, is just a proxy for Remy's ability. For the purposes of the film's metaphor, he is just another part of the artist: the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental.

In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau's successful recipes. It is for this that Anton Ego, secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant as "tourist fare."

Ego vs. Remy is the film's great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, "thin for someone who likes food." There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?

The moment of Ego's rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic's roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille: "a peasant's dish". The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always a handy piece of short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed.

And, of course the world can't take the revelation that this is a kitchen run by rats. After all, there is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder...

Ahahaha.

Maybe I am putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids' film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions: I'm Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven't even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with... well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station.

Good.

At least I'm not the embittered critic. I'm a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego.
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...A full year closer than when I originally wrote this, though.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Favourite Films on Fridays: #29, Brick

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Noir detective films are never far from this list, it seems. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has come and gone, and there’s more yet, but let’s talk Brick. It takes the language of that hard-boiled world – fast-talking dialogue that tends a little towards the purple, a determined private eye chasing down a case whatever it takes, dames and femme fatales – and plasters it over a high-school setting.

Once you’ve started noticing the links, they’re suddenly everywhere. That teen-noir combination reminds me of Veronica Mars. And if we’re throwing in TV, it’s worth mentioning my blossoming interest in HBO’s Bored to Death. Books, you can include Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the list too.

If you’ve got an eye for it, you might notice a pattern, here. These are all one step removed from the actual noir genre itself. I’ve talked about how Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a twisty post-modern parody/homage, a category which Bored to Death and the remaining noir detective film on this list both fall into too.

The pure stuff does less for me. Going back and reading Chandler, there’s something missing. Films I know I would enjoy – from Miller’s Crossing to Chinatown – go untouched. I need my noir cut with something else. And fortunately for me, Brick has teen drama muddled right up in its jet-black DNA.

Is the film a mash-up? That’s certainly what the description I’ve given sounds like: Clueless + Raymond Chandler. Coming out right at the zenith of mash-up culture, is it a product of its time?

Well, not exactly. Like Buffy before it, it identifies that being at school feels like something more than most films set there ever try to capture, and the genre stuff slides in totally naturally. But it never takes the route – like, say, 500 Days of Summer or Submarine – of suggesting that it's the fantasy of one kid who's seen too many films.

It’s all played straight, straight as the bullet to your heart that’ll one day kill you. As it should be. It’s no joke, just like your girl leaving you and landing you on the outs with everyone you both knew is no joke. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly how the film starts. Except that when we meet the girl, she’s already dead.

It works on two levels. It’s a good metaphor for how that stuff feels as a teenager, but it’s also a lot more no-nonsense than that. It’s just how things happen in Brick’s world. It’s not all about lining things up neatly, it’s about thrilling stuff happening and keeping you guessing, in a way that pops and fizzles stylishly. It’s about the kinetic feeling of a fist in a face. It’s about how good a fist looks flying towards camera, and cutting sharply away at the last split-second. It’s just plain film noir. I think. I should probably actually see some first.

FFoF29Brick

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.