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MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #12 – STANLEY KUBRICK – incorporating a visit to THE KUBRICK EXHIBITION, COPENHAGEN

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #12 – STANLEY KUBRICK – incorporating a visit to THE KUBRICK EXHIBITION, COPENHAGEN

Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.

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I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.

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I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.

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As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!

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So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.

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With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.

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One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable.  Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.

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Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.

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While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film  A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.

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Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.

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Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.

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Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.

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Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.

Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.

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Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.

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FLATMATES (2018): A SHORT HORROR FILM PRODUCTION UPDATE #2

FLATMATES (2018): A SHORT HORROR FILM PRODUCTION UPDATE #2

Just a quick update on my short film production FLATMATES (2018), which has now entered the the final stages of post-production with editor Gary O’Brien.

I have a teaser POSTER:

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And a TRAILER online for viewing too:

I will be entering the films for screenings and festivals throughout the year and will release it online in the next few months once the editing is done. Cheers for reading.

THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) – MOVIE REVIEW

THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) – MOVIE REVIEW

“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.”

DIRECTOR(S): James Franco / Tommy Wiseau 

WRITERS: Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (Based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

CAST: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jackie Weaver, Alison Brie, Hannibal Buress etc.

**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**

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I’d never seen the cult “bad” movie, The Room (2003). I’d seen clips on YouTube of actor, producer and director, Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus drama, and not only found it excruciatingly painful to watch but, like a car crash I couldn’t take my eyes of it, transfixed at the creative carnage on show. From the initial limited release in 2003, The Room has subsequently become celebrated as a paean to bad filmmaking as armies of hipsters and millennials laugh and quote-along to agonising performances and dialogue on the silver screen. Even during the showing of The Disaster Artist (2017) I was at, a couple of audience members quoted along to some of fantastically simulated scenes from The Room.

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Films within films and the movie-making process have provided, down the years, a rich vein of comedic and dramatic output from: Singing in the Rain (1952), Living in Oblivion (1995), The Player (1992), State and Main (2000); plus, the film The Disaster Artist most reminds me of, Tim Burton’s glorious tribute to the hopeless, yet determined, director called Ed Wood (1994).  Structured around two struggling actors in Tommy Wiseau and Gregg Sestero this hilariously skewed yet somehow likeable buddy movie is propelled by the Franco brothers’ brilliant performances as European eccentric Wiseau and the younger, naïve, and ever-smiling Sestero.

Wiseau’s character is an actors’ gift as he exists in some delusional yet over-confident Neverland. We do not know Wiseau’s age, background and how he managed to become so wealthy, yet Sestero is drawn to his outrageously up-to-eleven acting performance during a class, and the two soon become inseparable. Moving to Hollywood they valiantly try to make it as actors and the film lurches from one desperately funny scene to another. Despite their apparent lack of ability they won’t be deterred and decide if Hollywood won’t come to them then they will come to Hollywood. They will make their own movie!

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Here The Disaster Artist really becomes a wonderful comedy of filmmaking flaws as we get scene after scene where all manner of rookie errors are committed by Wiseau. James Franco really excels as Wiseau; as the production is clearly beyond him his deluded power and determination will not yield, despite run-ins with the script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and various cast members who have no idea what the hell The Room is about. Here the story becomes compelling as Wiseau’s mania and lack of discipline flies in the face of established filmmaking conventions. During the making of the The Room, Wiseau is genuinely funny, monstrous, and yet somehow sympathetic. He is a true outsider’s outsider; he is a bona fide Hollywood version of Frankenstein’s monster.

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James Franco has an odd career trajectory and has kind of stamped himself as a scattergun jack-of-all-trades, giving impressive performances in such films as: Spiderman (2002), 127 Hours (2010) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011); but also starring in some haphazard comedies of which the hilarious This is the End (2013) was the best. Amidst his prodigious work ethic he has also produced some turkeys (i.e. Your Highness (2011); as well as pretentious adaptations of literary classics by William Faulkner. If pushed I would say that his faithful recreation of the cult of Wiseau is his greatest performance to date. The fact he directed the film too is also remarkable as he got the pitch of parody and drama just perfectly.

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Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. As the credits roll the sequence which compares scenes from The Room and Franco’s faithful simulacrum is a joy to behold. I can certainly recommend The Disaster Artist to anyone who enjoys seeing massive fails in the creative process of filmmaking. Having said that though this is a film which also pays tribute to the deluded fools trying to make it in Hollywood. I mean, however impossible it may seem Wiseau and Sestero, refuse to buckle in light of insurmountable odds. Their reward is one of the worst films ever made in The Room; but paradoxically it is a success as it has given so much joy to people at the same time. It’s this joie de vivre that the Franco’s bring forth and the underlying message is that without friendship, dreams and hopes you are nothing in Hollywood or life.

Mark: 9 out of 11

FILMWORKER (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW

FILMWORKER (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW

Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. That is a fact.  He made films in all genres but indelibly stamped his own genius on the war, comedy, thriller, horror, satire, crime, science-fiction, historical and drama films he adapted and created for the big screen. His work contains a litany of iconic images, searing soundtracks, stupendous performances, great intelligence and provocative thought which ensures his films linger in the memory of those who have witnessed them. All hail a true cinematic master.

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But, while Kubrick is famous – or infamous depending on your point-of-view – for his meticulous perfection and incredible cinematic vision he did not work alone. He had an array of film technicians, cinematographers, designers, researchers, editors and assistants who slaved for him on his various projects. One such individual was self-confessed ‘filmworker’ Leon Vitali. He was a rising star in the acting profession and subsequently cast in Kubrick’s classic period drama Barry Lyndon (1975). Yet, having seemingly fallen under the spell of Kubrick’s omnipotent charisma and incredible vision he offered his assistance on Kubrick’s next production. So taken was he with the great man he was prepared to take any role available. Turning his back on acting – save for the occasional supporting role in the director’s work – Leon would become a faithful servant to the all-powerful Master.

Director, Tony Zierra, has crafted a very insightful, informative and touching documentary about both Leon Vitali and the filmmaking process. It reaches beyond the lights, camera and action of movie-making to dig deep into the dark recesses of Kubrick’s creative work which involved, for many: long sleepless nights, obsessive attention to detail, Sisyphean research and the occasional nervous breakdown. Vitali, himself, lived on the edge of insomnia while contributing to such film classics as: The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

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Vitali proves a fascinating character who, during his interviews, reveals a dedication, poignancy, love and sense of grief in regard to his working relationship with Kubrick. Indeed, Vitali seems to not have recovered from Kubrick’s passing following the completion of Eyes Wide Shut (1999); due to a seeming lack of recognition for Vitali’s contribution from Warner Brothers and the Kubrick Estate. Overall, I was completely drawn into this sensitive soul’s story of a man who seemed lost without his Master.

But this is not a negative or tragic documentary. It is instead a celebration of creative arts and the Vitali’s contribution to Kubrick’s life-work. His tasks were legion and included assisting with: casting, print transference, overseeing artwork, Film Festival releases, pre-production, stills photography; and acting as Kubrick’s studio conduit when he wanted to lambast someone. The film features many interviews, notably from Vitali but also: Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Phil Rosenthal, Pernilla August, Stellan Skarsgard, Danny Lloyd (all grown-up) and many, many more interesting people. They provide rounded commentary to Vitali’s contribution and their experience within the film industry; and more importantly the working process of Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, many of these anecdotes were very humorous and provided a real insight into the director’s way of working.

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Filmworker’s director Tony Zierra spoke eruditely after the screening too revealing his desire to represent the unheralded under-dogs within the film industry. He is very successful in doing so as he presents a touching tribute to one such under-dog in Leon Vitali. Ultimately, Filmworker is a documentary about filmmaking, obsession and the lesser known people working behind the camera.  It is highly recommended for fans of Stanley Kubrick and people who are intrigued by the filmmaking process. Most of all it stands as a fine tribute to the dedication of Leon Vitali; bringing him out of the shadows and into the light, giving him the credit he deserves for his excellent film work.

(MARK: 8.5 out of 11)

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – BEST OF BRITISH SHORTS SCREENING

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – BEST OF BRITISH SHORTS SCREENING

Just a quick heads up or shout out to the brilliant independent film festival that occurs in the UK every year called the Raindance Film Festival. Raindance are a terrific organisation who run film courses and support filmmakers from all backgrounds, as well as running their annual film festival – now in its 25th year!

If you are seriously interested in filmmaking and have no clue where to start you should definitely check out their website here. Filmmaking is bloody hard work and having made a number of short films myself — which can be viewed at my website here — I can safely say it is easier to review them than make a good one.

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Anyway, given my love of cinema and short films I checked out the ‘Best of British’ short film programme at the Raindance Film Festival this weekend. There were eight original productions, all of which were very well produced, written and acted. The programme included: low, middle and upper budgeted productions ranging from purely independent filmmakers to films backed by the BBC, BFI, National Film and Television School and Film 4.

Short films are a fascinating format and can be very challenging to make. They can encompass traditional linear and genre narratives but can also present character pieces dependent on a mood or a theme. Short films can of course experiment with form and be represented as documentaries as well as narratives. They can also act as calling cards for filmmakers cutting their teeth before they move onto feature or TV productions.

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Making films or, short or otherwise, is nowhere near as romantic as one would think. They are bloody hard work. So, I have much respect for anyone embarking on short film productions. Often, you will have NO money as funding is limited in the UK, but that should not stop you if you have an idea you are passionate about. Film on your phone if you have or if you need help get in touch with an organisation such as Raindance.

I watched eight films of varying length at the Vue Cinema on Saturday and they included: a brilliant comedy thriller about the threat of gentrification called CLA’AM directed by Nathaniel Martello-White. The hilarious horror short SMEAR  had me chuckling, while the harsh drama 46.0about a friendship that goes awry, unsettled me greatly. The short dramas CLEARED, WORK and SKIPPED presented fascinating short journeys from diverse perspectives.

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Meanwhile, WILD HORSES presented an off-centre mix of live action and animation concerning a young girl suffering fatigue-inducing condition M.E. Finally, the film DIAGNOSIS  arguably featured (along with Joel Fry in CLA’AM) the finest performance of the night from actress Charlotte Spencer.  In the film she brilliant portrayed an actor working on medical role-play whose emotions are slowly coming apart from the inside.

Overall, it was a short film programme of the highest quality and I can certainly recommend taking a break from the Hollywood productions and supporting independent filmmaking. Many well-known writers and directors today cut their teeth making short films, using the terrific resources places like Raindance offer. So, if you get a chance do check out such nights as they are very much worth your while.

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KILLING ME SOFTLY: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HOLLYWOOD THRILLER!

KILLING ME SOFTLY: THE EVOLUTION OF THE HOLLYWOOD THRILLER!

“It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death. Whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” Sigmund Freud

Here’s a re-blog of an article I wrote for www.sothetheorygoes.com – you can read here or below:

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Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.

The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.

But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.

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These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.

One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.

Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).

What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.

Film Title: No Country for Old Men

While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.

The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean.  While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.

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Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.

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Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience.  Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.

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What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death.  Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.

 

FIX FILMS RETROSPECTIVE #5 – ELEPHANT TRUNK (2008)

FIX FILMS RETROSPECTIVE #5 – ELEPHANT TRUNK (2008)

“Matt’s about to have a night he wishes he could forget!”

TITLE:                         ELEPHANT TRUNK (2008) – short film (15 mins)

DIRECTOR:                 GARY O’BRIEN

PRODUCERS:             ROBERT WARD, PAUL LAIGHT, GARY O’BRIEN

WRITER:                     PAUL LAIGHT

CAST:                          TOM FREDERIC, LUCIA GIANNECHINI, CHRIS CROCKER, MIA AUSTEN, HARRIET JEFFREY

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If you didn’t know, as well as writing reviews of films, TV, Tottenham Hotspur FC, South Park and Doctor Who, I also write and produce short films that will one day be watched by at least sixty-four people on YouTube! Hopefully anyway! Although having said that my last Star Trek fan film called Chance Encounter has over 30,000 views and counting! Not quite that cat playing Gangnam Style on a piano but not too bad. Anyhow, the 5th film I wrote and produced was a dark, romantic comedy called Elephant Trunk.

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Elephant Trunk – which if you didn’t know is cockney rhyming slang for drunk – came into production before The Hangover (2009) was released in the cinemas the following year. While not precisely the same story it still involves varieties of drunken mishaps as all manner of chaos ensues that destroys our hero Matt Sherry’s life as he attempts to get home while pissed. It’s a work of fiction but grounded in the many drunken nights I attempted to get home while hammered and follows the basic comedy rule that what can go wrong – WILL GO WRONG!!

I, and director Gary, could not have made this film without the help of my very good school friend Robert Ward, who for some kind reason, offered to put up the budget for the film; which as I recall was around £1000. As is usually the case myself and Gary smashed the script around building the protagonists’ journey as he lurches from one disaster to another; and looking back it remains a fun film to watch. We were also assisted by friends and family who got involved in the production and lent their time, bodies and properties throughout.

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Again, we cast the film very well with some excellent talent and much praise to everyone involved. I think Tom Frederic in the lead was absolutely brilliant! His young executive “everyman” has a simple arc in terms of the story. Tom brings a fantastic bemusement and physical commitment to the role, as his character falls, flails and fails over the course of the night. Amidst the slapstick there is some romance too as this story was an attempt to demonstrate our range in terms of writing and directing. Indeed, much of the production was shot guerrilla style (without permission) on the streets of London and on public transport. The urgency in the handheld camerawork and fast paced editing really enhances the “drunken” state of the hero during his plight.

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My two major regrets for this very entertaining short film was we had to cut (due to budget constraints) one very strange and creepy scene where Matt found his way into a house where a “sex party” was taking place involving a Gimp-like character. Also, that my distribution skills were absolutely terrible and, asides from one riotous screening night back in 2008 at the Exhibit Bar in Balham, I did not get Elephant Trunk the festival screenings I think it deserved. Anyway, maybe you think differently – here’s the film: