Friday, 26 August 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #19, Let The Right One In

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As befits a film about vampires, there’re a lot of dark corners in Let The Right One In. Yes, real, danger-concealing ones too, but metaphorically speaking. Something will be alluded to, but never explained. It’s full of empty spaces for your imagination to fill, as it inevitably dominates your thoughts over the next few days.

This vacuum sucks up everything nearby – the other version of the film, the little I know about the original book, the speculative conversations – so that going back and actually watching it, it’s strange to be reminded no, that’s not in this film or that never gets explained. By not explaining, or even dropping bigger clues, to some of the ideas it flirts with, Let The Right One In holds its mystery. And as Edward Cullen taught a generation of teen girls, being mysterious makes you cooler and more attractive to everyone. Plus it speaks with a Swedish accent and in subtitles. That wobbly sensation is your knees going weak.

It’s a good looking bit of cinema, too, every bit the equal of RPats’ goth-pale chiseled features. Almost every shot feels considered, making the most of its setting- 1980s suburban Sweden in the snow, which feels as exotic and, yes, mysterious as any location ever committed to celluloid. Everything is beautiful, but just a little ugly at the same time. The two children at the centre of the story are perfectly chosen, treading that same line. There’s something repellent in the fragile porcelain features of Kåre Hedebrant’s Oskar which helps sell the character as well as being simply fascinating to look at.

At the heart of all this is a very simple story, of Oskar and Eli, two children – just on the cusp of that word still being an acceptable description – meeting and bonding. A coming of age story, with some very sinister additions, as is only right for that vulnerable confused time. Girl meets boy, but girl is actually vampire and boy is slightly emotionally disturbed.

And so, under and around this relationship, other things happen: some of them clear, some of them obfuscated. Serial killings, bullying, a man losing his best friend and telling his wife he now has nothing. These events all cast shadows, to be probed lying in bed awake after the DVD is safely back in its box.

Shadows like: “I’m not a girl.” This is the biggest cause of speculation and if you haven’t seen it, skip this paragraph please. The whole film has sexual overtones, undertones and run-clean-through-tones (and the novel allegedly much more so) and so the gender confusion fits right. The glimpse of Eli’s crotch is the moment that stuck in the collective memory when I first saw Let The Right One In. It’s an example of that ugliness, of the sex-horror, and one of the rare times I’ve been genuinely shocked by a film. And, again, memory plays tricks. Rewatching it, the moment having built to infamy, its momentariness and simplicity was shocking.

All these little mysteries and questions aren’t really important. It doesn’t matter whether Oskar’s father is gay, or an alcoholic. It’s all just an implied history that lends weight to the film’s world; fodder to keep the film alive in your memory after the credits roll. It’s refusal to answer the question just keep all the mythology stripped back, so the central relationships at the centre can shine more cleanly. Everything else is just shadows.

FFoF19LetTheRightOneIn

Friday, 19 August 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #20, Reservoir Dogs

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I don't like crime films. Seriously, I can't even make it past the first 30 minutes of The Godfather. Scarface, Goodfellas, The Departed? Fuhgeddaboudit. Any film which features tough gangstery guys doing tough gangstery things and saying tough gangstery stuff, I'm just not interested.

Reservoir Dogs is, of course, a crime film.

So, as the only representative of that particular genre on this list (considering it separate to the detective side of it which, as we all know, I love deeply), let's ask: Why? I think it's list-within-a-list-time.

A) It's how you tell 'em
After all, looking at it Reservoir Dogs has a pretty grim plotline (spoilers follow, obviously). A gang of (tough, gangstery) guys are brought together for a heist. It goes violently wrong, leading to the deaths of a number of them, a much higher number of policemen and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. The remainder of the film plays out as one of them coughs out, in bloody chunks, his last few hours. The survivors argue over who ratted them out to the police, point guns at one another, torture (famously) a policeman, and eventually all get shot by each other.

Even with the playful Tarantino dialogue, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to play it grim 'n' gritty. There's a lot of shooting, blood, and hacked-off ears. But Reservoir Dogs is a film that understands that sustaining threat and keeping an emotional centre doesn't mean staying stony-faced for two hours. It's a genre piece, a knockabout caper not afraid to crack a smile; what Graham Greene would class as an 'Entertainment'. A long section of the film is given over to telling a long, jokey anecdote; another (again, famously) to a discussion of Madonna's Like A Virgin and the etiquette of tipping, rather than lingering on the ever-growing despair and pile of corpses.

B) It's not really about crime
Mostly, Reservoir Dogs is a story about relationships: Mr White and Mr Orange, Mr Blonde and the Cabot family. We're introduced to all the major players in the diner scene, leading into the title sequence. From there, the film immediately jumps to a painfully intimate scene between Orange and White. Orange is bleeding out in the back of a car, whimpering and inevitably going to die, and White is trying to comfort him. It closes on an even more painful mirror of the scene, with Orange now in White's lap, both covered in their own blood.

The whole central action of the film is driven by the push-and-pull between the two cliques. Yes, cliques. You could strip out all the genre tropes of Reservoir Dogs and play it is as something not far removed from Mean Girls. And Mr White is Lindsay Lohan, torn between two social groups - an old friendship with Joe Cabot, the crime boss planning the heist, and a paternal/ever-so-slightly-homoerotic relationship with the young Mr Orange. It's this divide that brings the film to its bloody conclusion: just like any teen drama, then.

C) It's not a conventional crime film
Much has been made, over the years, of how similar Reservoir Dogs is to a play. It has a small ensemble of well-developed characters, mostly takes place in one location, and is mostly made up of dialogue with no big action scenes. That's just another way of approaching the point that - for all Tarantino's knowledge and love of big crime films - it isn't like them, somehow. They'd suggest Mamet, I'd argue Fey; the point is, it's different.

D) It's just so beautifully dressed

Reservoir Dogs has something in its favour which even the stately elegance of Coppola's Godfather lacks: style. The first film both written and directed by Tarantino, it is stamped with his trademark cool, in everything from the dialogue - "You kill anybody?"/"A few cops"/"No real people?"/"Just cops" - to the cinematography - which manages to be both fluid in motion and pause-any-frame iconic - and the soundtrack - everyone remembers the Stuck in the Middle with You ear-cutting, but all the music, accompanied by Steven Wright's low radio DJ drawl, works perfectly. Given you can dig on Tarantino's particular groove, it's beautiful stuff.

E) It's well-structured
Because the film is non-linear, scenes are able to rub against one another in interesting ways, cutting from friendly banter to extreme violence. It lends an extra edge to both types of scene, something that has increasingly become the core of Tarantino's work. And the central 'who's the rat' conceit, which is played lightly enough that the mystery can be shattered early on, is a good hook to work the relationships around. It ties together the detective narrative of the kind of crime films I do like with the claustrophobic mistrust of something like The Thing. Perfect.

F) All of the above
FFoF20ReservoirDogs

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Call Your Girlfriend: The Dirty Mistress

So, for anyone that doesn't already know, I went and got a Tumblr over the weekend, and I'm starting to post stuff on it. And -- no, this doesn't mean -- look, I still love this here blog, okay? But I've got a world of half-finished stuff written, and things I couldn't quite fit into my 'vision' of what this site does (i.e., makes me look vaguely professional).

So now there's The Dirty Mistress, in which I widen my output to include all of my interests (i.e., pictures of puppies and stuff) and inane stuff about my life. It's like an overweight Twitter, perhaps. After Monday's wordfest on ...But That Was [Yesterday], I went and did something slightly more casual on Frozen Synapse, which I'll be following up with posts of more disorganised thoughts as I keep playing and then will probably hammer it into some neater review-type shape for this site. That kind of crossover will be reasonably typical, I suspect, as long as I have all this accursed spare time on my hands.

Anyway, it's there for you to use if you want an extra dose of me. You deeply troubled individual.

This post brought to you by Robyn:

Monday, 15 August 2011

For Tomorrow: '...But That Was [Yesterday]'

You probably already know this but: I spend a lot of time thinking about how games. A lot of that is why games are great, and how they could be better: intelligent, emotional, stretching the form. And when I'm doing this, I'm pretty much always reaching for examples, pinnacles of what I'm talking about, without falling back on the clichéd 'games are so art' examples. Passage (of which I'm not a huge huge fan, being honest with everyone, and which one commenter rightly called me out for using, in my Disney/Death Escapist article) and Braid (which is a wonderful game, but mostly for the mind-bending nature of the thing rather than any emotional response it provokes) and all that.
The Ascent of Squidgy Pixellated Man
'Literary' is the word we're going to use here, if that's okay with you. I'm forever drumming my fingers on a desk and trying to summon the name of some game that does the whole literary thing. By which I mean: the fluent expression of real, muted human emotions which catch you and knock you over a bit so you have to take a minute to think. Books are best at it, in my experience, but it's a response I always associate with games as well. Only, y'know, not any specific ones, because I'm rubbish.

So this is a mental note: ...But That Was [Yesterday] is the example I want to use from now on.

Go and play it for yourself, I beg you, and then come back and tell me how silly I was to waste your time. Because I admit, [Yesterday] is a very particular pleasure. It draws pretty directly from Passage, being a game where you can only walk in one direction (and using that as a metaphor for time) but its closest relative, returning to the literature idea, is probably Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity.

It's similar to Eggers' novel thematically: being about memories, and grieving and healing, and the relationship between the two and physical movement. Its flaws are familiar too: it's showy, quite 'difficult', and exactly as pretentious-intellectual as the title suggests. But most importantly, it's similar in the ways it transcends those flaws: a fragile beauty that summons those moments we were talking about earlier.
Hip to be [square]
The thing is that, most of the time, the game only requires you to press a single button (→), with little challenge to reflex or mental agility. Frankly, it drags a little at times. A typical 30 seconds goes like this: follow a prompt to press ←, stop pressing → or any other key for 5 seconds, wait for the obstacle to roll back, and then press → again for another 25 seconds. Boring, right?

But two other things are going on in that half-minute. First, the game is so nicely presented that you can swallow doing nothing for a few seconds to take in the cartoon minimalism and listen to the breathy score.

Second, the subtext. To take another look at that 30 seconds: a bark from your doggy companion brings you back into the moment, and while you're catching your breath and remembering for just five seconds that life can be good, the black cloud of all those bad memories rolls back for a while and you can go on again.Just for me an' mah dawg
This is [Yesterday]'s main trick, this single game mechanic turned into a big fat metaphor. And as it explores those memories, shows you just the slightest edge of them, it quivers with real human emotion. And if the art and the music have got you attuned properly, you might quiver too, a bit. And because it's understated, because it's a little bit clever and artsy like that girl you fancy from the coffeeshop, it might just tickle the right part of your brain and your senses and those pesky feelings.

It worked for me. Finally, one of the clever little variations it pulls on that single-mechanic theme caught me just right and it managed to pull the breath from my lungs for a single, long moment. That literary sensation. And afterwards, I felt just a little bit clever and pleased with myself, like I was someone from a book or a good film or something. Maybe, if I wasn't such a carved-out-of-rock troll of a human being, it might even have brought a tear or two.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #21, Raiders of The Lost Ark

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You know Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s full of those famous cinematic moments.

The bit where Peter Griffin fights a giant chicken as a the propeller of a biplane swings lethally round. The bit where Bart Simpsons oh-so-carefully grabs the money jar, then flees a rolling Homer boulder. Where Bart/Puss-in-Boots/JD from Scrubs just about grabs his hat in time as the door comes down. And who could forget that famous last shot, of the endless warehouse – a lot like that other one full of hula hoops, or that older one full of Charles Kane’s stuff - where Paul gave Steven Spielberg pointers about making a film about an alien?

You know, all those classic moments.

…It’s an understatement to say Raiders has settled into the vocabulary of pop culture. It’s practically a part of our collective unconscious now. Most people could explain the film without having seen a single frame.

It’s the most natural fate, perhaps, for a film which eats up as much film history as Raiders does. The opening moment melts from a vintage Paramount logo to a mountainous backdrop. It steals itsshots wholesale. Indy himself is an amalgam of a thousand pulp heroes, gruff, sexy, hard-edged .

Like Star Wars, the film is a product of Lucas’ fascination with old-school pulp. And like those films, its brilliance seems to be at least half by accident (Ford was a reluctant bit of casting, some of its best moments and lines weren’t in the script, which starred one ‘Indiana Smith’). But all that trivia, all that marginal stuff, the shadow of the legacy it left and the legacy it tipped a fedora to… it doesn’t matter when you’re watching Raiders.

The film itself is more than that: it's elegant, well-paced, thrilling, knowing but never self-conscious, not afraid to be a little silly, pretty just often enough and more commonly handsome. Just watching it cuts through all that effortlessly, like an overly elaborate sword display brought to an end by the punchline of a single gunshot.

You know, that classic moment.

FFoF21Raiders

Friday, 5 August 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #22, Blue Velvet

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“I don’t know if you’re a detective, or a pervert” – Sandy Williams

It’s probably about time we talked about curiosity.

I’d forgotten how much of a ripping yarn there was at the centre of Blue Velvet. I remembered all the oddities, all the weird and disturbing moments, the brilliant use of music - but not the mystery story that drives it. That is to say, a story about being curious.

Being curious is what makes narratives work: often in terms of moving characters around so they can create ‘plot’, but pretty much always in terms of the reader/viewer/player/listener/audience. Detective stories especially push this right close to the surface. The audience are closely aligned with the detective, their motivation united: discover the answers. (There’s a whole essay in me somewhere on how detective stories are the ultimate story; no doubt it’d feature phrases like ‘fiction suits’ and ‘cogs and gears of narrative’ so it’s probably best I’m writing this instead.)

But if you’re willing to stretch the parameters of how you define curiosity, most stories work along the same lines: what would that be like? what’s over there? what if I…? And, the basic engine of Story: what happens next? And characters do your work for you, answering your questions by satiating their curiosity.

So, in the case of Blue Velvet: there’s an ear. (“Yes, that’s a human ear all right” a police detective cheerfully says of the thing, crawling with ants and starting to go mouldy.) And so the question is set: where did the ear come from? It’s not too overwhelming a mystery, and the story could trail off in another direction. But Jeffrey, coming home from college to his boring hometown of Lumberton, gets curious. And, as he sneaks into a woman’s apartment and hides in a cupboard and watches through the slits to satisfy his curiosity, the question the audience is asking themselves changes: what will he find out? and, more immediately thanks to the carefully measured pace and the stabs of thriller music, is he going to make it out alive?

You know all those times someone tells you there are only this many stories, really, seven or four or one? It’s silly, really, and incredibly reductive. But I have to throw my hat in this point, I’d say there are two types. Stories about curiosity being rewarded, and stories about curiosity being punished. Detective stories tend to be about curiosity rewarded, for example. Horror stories are about curiosity punished. (No, don’t just go and see what’s in the—OHGODOHGODYOURFACE!)

Jeffrey witnesses atrocities, is threatened and beaten. His initial curiosity is certainly punished. But even fearing for his life, he can’t help himself: someone mutters something and there’s that little ping of a clue and Jeffrey pokes his nose in once more. He’s more addicted to answers and plot than someone two books into a Stieg Larsson bender.

Blue Velvet combines the pleasure of discovery – of all the strange images the film has to offer – with the stomach-churning desire for this to go no further. That little voice that says: if I eject the disc now, everything will stay at least this okay.

And that’s the, er, curious thing about curiosity: we need it for the story, we crave it, but if it’s pitched just right, something in you doesn’t want to find out. Or least, doesn’t want to pay the cost of knowing.

And that feeling wins out in Jeffrey, about three-quarters of the way through the film. He doesn’t want to be curious anymore; he wants off this narrative and into a story where the only curiosities are about a girl, what lies beneath, and what they feel like. And it looks like maybe sks and costs are going to be the ones that story has to offer – jealous ex-boyfriends and sneaking around... But it’s not done with him yet.

The thing about Blue Velvet is, it’s not quite a detective story, or a horror story. So in the end which will it be: the kind of story where Jeffrey’s curiosity goes rewarded? Or punished?

…Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn’t it?

FFoF22BlueVelvet

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London, United Kingdom
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.