A Film Diary

05 November 2003

Human Nature

Charlie Kaufman is the only writer currently working in Hollywood who can “open” a film, the only one whose name alone attracts column inches. Nowadays we consider Kaufman, not pop-video director Spike Jonze, to be the brains behind the genre-busting Being John Malkovich; it was Kaufman who problematized his craft in Adaptation; and it was Kaufman, with his status as a star writer, who inspired the garlanded re-release of Human Nature.

Like both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Human Nature is about the paradox of self-consciousness. The paradox being that it takes self-consciousness to realize the joys of unconscious instinct. And, once you have self-consciousness, untrammelled instinct is impossible.

Unfortunately, Human Nature reads much better than it looks. Whether this is due to director, Michael Gondry’s inadequacies or the impossibility of cerebral cinema, I don’t know.

04 November 2003

Spider

Few modern directors have as strong a claim to auteur status as David Cronenberg. Spider is an interesting addition to the corpus and much time could be spent essaying what is reprised and echoed from his previous films. For instance, one realises that for all people’s talk of Cronenberg’s viscerality, his interest in it has always been in how it complicates the psychological picture. However, we should not let all talk of his canon distract us from the integrity of Spider, which concerns the imaginative webs created by Ralph Fiennes’ masterfully portrayed mental patient.

The opening of Spider has a Welsh choirboy singing about something ‘over the hills and under the graves.’ Then, London: we see commuters departing a train. Last off is the anxious, unkempt figure of Spider (Fiennes) muttering to himself like a Beckettian protagonist, Molloy perhaps. Indeed, Patrick McGrath’s novel is told first person via Spider’s journal. Cronenberg and McGrath (who wrote the screenplay) were wise enough to avoid such faux-pas as the first-person narration, retaining the priceless ambiguity of the visual image. And it is the captivating visual images that give this film it’s distinct, sensual brilliance.

02 November 2003

Mullholland Drive

Hollywood, which is supposedly known as “the dream factory”, has produced few films that fully exploit cinemas potential to be a vehicle for unconscious connections. Hitchcock is often unheimlich and the long tradition of horror-thrillers sometimes prod the limin, but oneiristic filmmaking has been neglected. The obvious reason for this is that most films follow the code of establishing normality before the descent to the depths, a structural principle inherited from literature, that is absent from our dreams. “Nightmarish” films like Lynch’s classic Blue Velvet empower the conscious mind through the straight line of reality, which is then looped and made jagged by oneiric endistancing. People have called Lynch’s latest film a return to the same territory as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, they have lazily categorized it in the same terms, universally failing to estimate its importance.

Mullholland Drive, like all great art, has opened eyes to a new form of cinematic structure, that of the dream. People, said Oscar Wilde, didn’t notice London’s fog or nature’s shimmers before the Impressionists. I confess, I have never understood so well the nature of the dream before this film. When I say dream, I do not mean the fragmented recollection that disperse amongst the day’s events. I mean the dream as it is actually experienced. Lynch’s miracle is to represent that experience faithfully.

09 September 2003

Mad Dogs

The recipe for making a truly bad film is simple. Take an unedited script which gives mediocre actors endless, artificial sentences to chew on, thus visibly embarrassing them. Chuck in some quite superfluous sub-plot about Mad Dogs Disease. Give the hero a goal which he flatly can’t be bothered to achieve. Add the Supreme Being, a denouement concerning final judgement and an ending completely unrelated to the rest of the narrative and you have Mad Dogs. Mad Dogs, a film so obscure it doesn’t even have an Internet Movie Database review, is the bottom of the barrel. No more. No more criminal films. I’ve had enough.

07 September 2003
Pusher

Ever since I gave up drugs for the sake of my neural health, I have been dismayed by drugs culture. Or rather, drugs in culture. E ‘n’ Spliff comedy, Human Traffic, left me yawning. Only films like Requiem for a Dream, which aren’t about drugs so much as their consequences, deliver a real hit. Pusher follows this latter route, by showing us Frankie, an unsympathetic hard drugs pusher, face a week of betrayal, violence, anger, danger, and decisions. Shot realistically, Pusher is a film whose effect is to give one an intense . . . sobriety.

05 September 2003
Legally Blonde

I had been warned against Legally Blonde in the strongest terms to the extent where I worried about what the person who warned me against it would think as I overrode them. There is no such thing as an off-limits film as far as I am concerned. Sure, I have a hierarchy about which films I am going to see first, but if the opportunity arises, and there’s nothing better to do, I will watch. People will say that life is supremely precious and that to squander it so frivolously is a crime. But bad films give the good ones definition. One understands after watching Bubble Boy that Godard’s Weekend has a valuable point. (Both are road movies, though only one of them has lectures on the vacuity of American culture). Also, feeling oneself being emotionally manipulated by American trash is rather like a massage, a mental massage.

Yes, this is what Legally Blonde is, a mental massage. I had been told that it was predictable and so it was, but then so is life. Although, life isn’t usually predictable in a good way: Legally Blonde is.

04 September 2003

My Little Eye

Whilst My Little Eye is nowhere near as disturbing as Requiem for a Dream, it does seem to have been made with the intention of creating the most desolate vision of humanity possible. Five Big Brother contestant-types have to spend six months living in a deserted house with their every move watched on the internet, as a reward they will get $1m. The catch is that no one can leave.

Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to know what happens!

It starts whimsically, leaving one expecting a Scream-esque slasher movie. Some of you may even start picking out who you think is going to survive. But you are wrong, no matter what. All of them die. It is so incredibly bleak. They weren’t really on a Big Brother-esque webcast, they weren’t famous. Only a few rich people watched as they were killed: it was a snuff webcast. Can you imagine? Even the baddie who killed all the others in order to get the money himself, he was killed. The heroine, the one everyone is rooting for, she ends up writhing around in a white room, slowly bleeding to death for the webcams.

The worst thing is that you can see it being possible. In America.*

*It is well known that if you want someone to believe something, anything, all you need to do is say that it happened in America. All urban myths start: There was this guy in America who . . .

03 September 2003

I-Spy

Starring Owen Wilson as the hapless agent, Alex Scott, I-Spy is ostensibly a parody of the Bond films. In fact, it merely runs through the same pre-self-parodied cliches of 007, to the extent of starring Goldeneye baddie Famke Jannsen. The only completely new addition is Eddie Murphy’s smartarse boxer, Kelly Robinson, an arrogant man surrounded by sycophants, who is bizarrely enlisted by George W. Bush to assist America in recovering its latest jet (which can be invisible).

I admit to laughing occasionally, but only very occasionally. The ideology of such films is fast becoming insufferable for me. America as a virtuous technological, military megapower versus a group of shady, terrorist-Arabs is not only sickening propaganda but also incredibly thick.

02 August 2003

Ali G in Da House

From Citizen Kane to Ali G in Da House: surely rising so quickly from profound depths to this shitty puddle would give a person the filmic bends? However, I survived. With suitably low expectations, so could you; but I recommend against it. I know it is paradoxically enticing when you hear those damning words ¯ puerile, gross, adolescent, dumb, etc. ¯ but in this case you must resist. Far from laughing ironically at the bad taste and prejudicial jokes, I found myself embarrassed for the makers as their turkey refuses to stop squawking. Yet the original and much praised Ali G creation is intact, he is still the same dumb mirror that reflects the ignobility of the ruling classes. If only, as on the 11 O’Clock Show, it were not fiction, if only the writers could have had a greater insight into the venality of politicians. Instead, Charles Dance (Deputy PM and Chancellor) and Michael Gambon (PM) are one-dimensional and implausible. I suggest that next time, if there is a next time, Sacha Baron-Cohen leaves the script to someone like Simon Hoggart, someone with the intellectual strength to make an impact on our supposed representatives.

01 August 2003

Citizen Kane

Truly, Citizen Kane is a film that ages well; I have seen it about five times now and can honestly say that it gets better each time. Moreover, how could it not? Film, television and now music (since The White Stripes extensively quoted it on Union Forever) evoke it consciously and unconsciously all the time. The camera tricks and the narrative condensations are all-but archetypal; the Simpsons has helped to reinvigorate it as a myth for our times, via Charles Montgomery Burns.

Nevertheless, Charles Foster Kane, the man, is still a mystery. There is something hollow about the characterisation, which the whole Rosebud theme shows as essential to the film. I ask you though, is disappointment, Kane’s overreaching disappointment, really so simple? The trajectory one’s life takes, when viewed by others, does tend to be smooth, no matter what you said when the camera was off.

25 July 2003

Insomnia

I used to think that insomnia was a cool thing to have and that only people without thoughts could go straight to sleep. This was until I realised that the people who get insomnia are always the ones who smoke, drink coffee and tell lies. No wonder they can’t sleep! This intimation was borne out by Insomnia the film, wherein a rodentine Al Pacino battles with truth and sleep, whilst drinking coffee all day.

Pacino plays Detective Dorner, a good LA cop in the process of being ruined by his partner and internal affairs. They are sent to Alaska, where endless days play havoc with sleeping patterns, to investigate the beating to death of a teenaged girl. So far, so good. The first third of the film rises smoothly to a great crescendo in which Dorner accidentally kills his partner in the fog.

The ensuing self-questioning is counterpointed by the introduction of the teenager’s murderer, a more Mork-ish than usual Robin Williams, whose character torments Dorner knowingly. This part of the film drags slightly, as it must after so much action. Too much action, maybe. But what really lets the film down is its cosiness.

Christopher Nolan’s previous films ¯ Following and Memento ¯ showed its protagonists confronting existential crises, which were left tragically unresolved, like they are in real life. Hollywood endings do not follow this pattern usually ¯ resolution is key ¯ and, alas, normal service is resumed in Insomnia.

22 July 2003

Possession

Despite having supposedly renounced film, I sat through Possession as I consumed a particularly tasty vegetable risotto. I come from a family who rarely ate around the table. We had a selection of incredibly slippery plastic trays that supported our plates whilst we watched Neighbours. Nowadays, I eat with the plate on my thighs and, since I don’t have a TV, we watch films on the laptop DVD player. I mean, if you don’t watch something you’d be stuck: music clashes with food, the Archers is vile . . . next thing you know I might actually talk to my girlfriend? No, I must submit to the screen . . .

Which brings me onto to Possession. When I say I watched it, I am being slightly disingenuous. I let it babble away as I prepared peppermint tea and cleared the plates. I admit to having reread Charlie Brooker’s Guardian guide column. I rearranged the magazines. Nevertheless, I watched enough to know that Aaron Eckhart, the cruel one from LaBute’s debut, In the Company of Men, is even more vulgar than Americans usually are English films. I saw that Gwyneth Paltrow is unconvincing as the right-on feminist at the former poly: trust me, they don’t look like that. Moreover, I noted the general BBC comedy drama mood, which I think sealed my disapproval. TV, really, is not for me.

16 July 2003

The Transporter

My taste in films is sometimes shockingly lowbrow. Aside from the buddy-comedy of my all-time favourite ¯ Planes, Trains and Automobiles ¯ I have a penchant for spectacular action movies. I must have seen Van Damme’s Double Team (featuring the immortal Dennis Rodman) at least four times. This is not half as many times as I’ve seen the magniloquent Die Hard. I even found merit in Vin Diesel’s xXx. So when I saw The Transporter, despite the awful title, lauded as even better than xXx, I knew I had to see it.

The star of the film is Jason Statham, a British actor who rose to his current precarious fame on the back of Guy Ritchie’s gangster flicks. Statham is low-rent Bruce Willis crossed with the iciness of the assassin in The Day of the Jackal (a role reprised by Willis in Jackal). This ice quickly melts with the introduction of Shu Qi’s damsel in distress, as she enlists Statham’s character in the fight to free Chinese slaves. It is in rather poor taste that these slaves are held in a container akin to the one where so many Chinese illegal immigrants died coming to Britain.

Implausibility follows implausibility; the viewer becomes numb. Continuity is ignored; all the action movie cliches are rigidly applied. One can guess the reply to virtually every line, so predictable is it all. One cannot even enjoy its badness. Watching it evokes a feeling explained by the Lee Krasner character in Updike’s Seek My Face. I paraphrase: whatever you have achieved in your life, even if you’ve been a busy writer, the author of over 50 books, like Updike, what remains most in your mind is all the time that you have squandered. Watching The Transporter is to watch one’s life slipping away.

03 July 2003

28 Days Later

I watched this film principally because reports told of stunning scenes of a London empty, car-less, and quiet. And it is true that there are some nice scenes, but for me they just weren’t desolate enough. The same applies to the rest of the film. The reason for this is that the comatose protagonist (who wakes 28 days later) is only given the most colourless descriptions of what it was like when the rage virus swept over the country. What I would really like to see ¯ and what was probably beyond the small budget the film was made on ¯ are scenes of anarchy breaking loose; of politicians chewing people’s faces off, of mass looting, of babies attacking their parents, but we get nothing of this.

I was frequently reminded of the BBC’s chilling version of The Day of the Triffids, even down to the identical soldiers’ encampment with its testosterone and rape. What made that series so much more desolating was the sense of utter insanity, as when the blind people loot a shop and one starts swallowing Ariel thinking it is food. I blame our easygoing society: too nice, too safe.

01 July 2003

Bubble Boy

The fact that Bubble Boy stars Donnie Darko himself, Jake Gyllenhaal, escaped my attention until after the film was finished and I sampled the DVD extras. There he was, Donnie Darko, intense and serious (as much as he could be with his absurd Bubble Boy haircut) being instructed by the director about how to play the next scene. That the next scene was as inane as everything else in this barrel scraping, gross-out comedy didn’t seem to matter. Gyllenhaal is a consummate professional, all he seemed to want to do was to give it everything he had. Hollywood films, I realised, are a clinical matter: no japes, please! This is business.

The film itself is fascinatingly bad. Extreme anti-religious sentiment mixes with average stupidity. It is not as dumb as, say, Rat Race, with which it shares the theme of the pan-American journey. These modern road movies make up a kind of ideological Bildungsroman where freaks and weirdoes are laughed at but accepted. True American values which are, on the evidence of this film, rotten to the core.