August 2, 2015

Philosophy blues

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015). As underplayed and casually assembled as most recent Woody Allen, with unusually lacklustre acting by Joaquin Phoenix as the drunken, dark, seductive philosophy professor suffering the existential blues (does the world need another book on Heidegger and the Nazis, he sighs), this at least hits a couple of familiar points for long-term Allen watchers: what is the role of chance? And what is the perfect murder? The thing only really comes alive, oddly enough, when Phoenix’s Abe Lucas wrestles with the second question. 

August 1, 2015

Citizen Kane and journalism

Citizen Kane was an entirely predictable and completely necessary choice in a list of 10 greatfilms about journalism that I posted a little while ago, but the short summary was a little shallow: Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane as an ink-stained monster from the golden age of newspapers, waging wars, settling grudges and scoring political points through his mastheads, much like an early 20th century Rupert Murdoch. Of course, the film is entertaining on the shameless lies, agendas and inventions of yellow journalism and “dirty politics” (as in the front page pictured above, in which a rival paper finds a way to attack Kane’s political campaign, and famous lines like “You write the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”, straight out of the Hearst back catalogue), but there is much more to its struggle with journalism. I watched it a couple of times this week, after not seeing it for more than 15 years, once with Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary and once without, and became more aware of the obvious: it’s framed as journalism about journalism. The almost faceless reporter Thompson is sent to find the missing detail in a newsreel obituary: what did “rosebud”, Kane’s last word, mean? The film is unusually literary, for its time and for now, and the bulk of it is presented as his interviews with people who knew Kane, unspooling as long flashbacks; we only see Kane “objectively” in the opening moments, before the newsreel comes on.   
Of course, Thompson never finds out what rosebud means, but we do. There is a secret complicity between film-makers and audience, who are in possession of information that is not shared with any living character on screen. It’s easy to forget that no one within the film’s present ever knows why rosebud is significant. In that sense, the journalist has failed – his investigation has turned up nothing and it is likely that no one will ever be any the wiser about what made Kane tick. But does that matter? Welles went on to dismiss the idea of rosebud as cheap Freudianism and Bogdanovich explains that Welles introduced the dialogue preceding the revelation, about no word ever being able to explain one man, for that very reason (similarly, at the end of
Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”). Welles seems to have believed there was no great secret, there was no one great truth to be found out about anybody – the film opens and closes with “no trespassing” signs – but audiences have disagreed and the idea that one word, deeply connected to childhood memory and loss, can unlock everything has become almost metaphysical. People want to believe in the explanation and see it as tragic that the evidence is destroyed.

July 27, 2015

Going undercover

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). Magnificent and sensitive work from Benedict Cumberbatch, playing code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing as though he had Asperger’s Syndrome, suggesting that the human social code is tougher to crack and that much more cruelly enforced, and casting an ambivalent light on the title. Everything else is the routine simplifications, convenient fictions and prestigious production values of the historic biopic. The impersonation game. 

July 20, 2015

Passed upon the stair

Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015). It’s a pity Nick Broomfield used Kurt and Courtney as the title of his notorious conspiracy doco because it would have been a perfect fit for this mess, which is voyeuristic when it shows us its big prize, Cobain and Love’s junkie home movies, with the obnoxious Love already acting for posterity, always conscious of her legendary status, and merely exploitative when it shows us touching Super 8 footage and drawings from Cobain’s childhood, presumably stored for all those years by the family who didn’t want to know him when he was a teenager. Music comes a distant third, which is a problem because it was only within music that Cobain’s sense of humour and subversiveness were really on show (we’ve seen and heard enough of the Sid-and-Nancy doom stuff to last any number of lifetimes, and the punk rock notebook doodles and animations add little). Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic talks far too briefly and, amazingly, Brett Morgen passed on including Dave Grohl. Buzz Osbourne has already talked about what he sees as the errors (“Cobain was a master of jerking your chain,” he says here) and other important contemporaries, such as Dylan Carlson, are missing. We’re at the 20-years-on phase of the myth-and-afterlife now, almost exactly the same point in the cycle that the Doors were at when Oliver Stone made his Jim Morrison movie. And that’s a sobering thought. 

July 18, 2015

Hippies, whales, epiphanies

On the Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, directed by Jerry Rothwell. Pictured: Walrus Oakenbough. 

July 17, 2015

Dreamed streets

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). Empty, dreamed streets in London. Vertigo’s green light (it meant death) seen on the porch of a hotel in Marrakech. Dream scene: a small group watches you as you make an important telephone call. Doubles, mistaken identity, repeats. The ghoulish assassin with a mummified face. The sense that being abroad could easily slip into some kind of terror.  

June 26, 2015

Summer in the city

King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976). How strange that Peter Jackson’s version should be the most childish and innocent of the three Kongs. His is a world of oversized cartoon monsters. The 1930s original still has its crude nightmare-ish quality. The unfairly slammed second version is all bright 70s American excess: oil money and greed, the newly built World Trade Center as the obvious summit and an almost constantly ecstatic Jessica Lange as the prey. It’s superbly lurid, unpretentiously directed and never not entertaining. 

June 23, 2015

Moustache as weapon, symbol

Marshland (Alberto Rodriguez, 2014). Not a True Detective imitator, but made in parallel, stripped of occult complexity and carrying instead some dour weight about the years after Franco, but never quite as interested as you hope it might be in the actual details of its sordid crimes.  

June 13, 2015

New meat

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981). The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981). Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982). Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980). A short-lived but intense cultural moment if you were 13 or 14 until – this is a guess but also entirely plausible – the John Landis-directed clip for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” ruined it. Slasher movies, with little of the comedy and sexual vulnerability of metamorphosis horrors, were no real substitute. 

June 8, 2015

Shake appeal

Watching San Andreas as a quake survivor, online here

June 4, 2015

For a few years he thought he was God and a number of people agreed him

The Source Family (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, 2012). The fascinating story of Father Yod and the 1970s hippie health food cult that took care to document every move. A dream subject for any archivist, but what about the apostates? 

June 1, 2015

How to be a reporter

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). There was a social media uproar when I recently posted a list of the 10 “best” journalism films that did not include His Girl Friday. In my defence: the list was drawn up with journalism students in mind, so I thought it should lean towards the dramatisation of important historical moments and big stories as potential learning experiences (the major exception was the berserk but prescient satire of Network) rather than fun comedies and dramas that happen to be about the world of newspaper reporting. But while I still would not have it in my top 10, I can see why His Girl Friday has so many fans. This smart rewrite of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page as a romantic comedy has the fastest dialogue in the west, its implausible-but-who-cares? comic action is spread across several hours as two real-world deadlines approach – a remarriage and an execution – and in Cary Grant’s editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell’s reporter Hildy Johnson, there is a timeless vision of how journalists still like to see themselves and their profession: flawed, disreputable, fascinating, never bored or boring, untrustworthy but ultimately on the side of good. Probably useful for students, all that. 

May 31, 2015

Red light

Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979). Paul Schrader memorably described The Exorcist as God and Satan fighting over the body of a girl. Obvious Searchers parallels aside, that’s Hardcore too – but in Schrader’s account, the girl (Ilah Davis) barely has a word to say about it, as though Schrader is unintentionally reproducing the misogynist worlds on screen. George C Scott is the John Wayne-esque Calvinist father from the midwest descending into the 70s porn and peep show underworlds of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, looking for his vanished daughter, about whom we learn nothing, although Season Hubley has some energy and conviction as prostitute Niki – even if she is written largely as a continuation of Taxi Driver’s Iris. Further evidence that Schrader always talked a better movie than he wrote, and wrote a better movie than he directed. 

May 30, 2015

Dull west

Slow West (John Maclean, 2015). Barely qualifying as a footnote in the history of the revisionist western, debut film-maker John Maclean’s small and almost proudly unoriginal Scotland-to-America fable (filmed in Scotland and New Zealand) is really notable for one strange thing: it must take a special kind of skill to make even Michael Fassbender uninteresting. Deep into the third act, we realise who this film should have been about all along: not thin, pale, lovesick Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) but smart, independent Rose, played by New Zealander Caren Pistorius. 

May 29, 2015

Leaving Planet Earth and trying to get home

“These are the seasons of emotion / And like the winds they rise and fall / This is the wonder of devotion / I see the torch we all must hold.”

Led Zeppelin, “The Rain Song”.

“Finally, I would like to say that, if one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important, and he loved his native land passionately. I share his love for my land, which is why I feel him very close to me. I’ll add: he made his films as if they were vegetable gardens, as if they were gardens. He would water them himself, he would make everything grow with his own hands … His love of the land and of the people made his characters grow, as it were, from the earth itself. They were organic, complete. I would very much like to resemble him in this respect. If I didn’t succeed, I would feel mortified.” 

Andrei Tarkovsky, interviewed by Michel Ciment, Luda Schnitzer and Jean Schnitzer, in Positif, 1969. 

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972). The Song Remains the Same (Joe Massot and Peter Clifton, 1976). Outward and inner travel, a fear of going into space and of what memory will produce during the long stretches alone. A desire to be back home, on Earth, near grass and water and children. Space travel and reluctance to travel. 

May 20, 2015

Desert stormed

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). A pagan city built on slavery (Vehicular Valhalla, Temple of Vroom), Jawas on motorbikes and a motorcycle matriarchy, spiky cars that ate Paris (homage to Peter Weir), slave wives who could be in beer or burger commercials, armies that travel with their own heavy-metal guitarist and grotesque old Australian men still running the world, or what’s left of it. After a gap of more than 30 years, George Miller locates the very same exciting, funny and lurid Mad Max sensibility, just bigger, louder, faster, wilder – in every sense, better. Max (now Tom Hardy, more sidelined in his own story than he ever was before) is still nearly mute and the entire thing is told almost without dialogue, such is the elemental nature of it (part-western, part-sci fi). The desert is brighter and wider. If anything, Miller’s original scenario has become even more topical and plausible since the 1980s: these are myths of the near to immediate salvage-punk future. Ridiculously great, either way. Who would want to bother with the heavily-CGI’d and intellectually vacant Marvel blockbusters after catching a whiff of this? 

May 18, 2015

Top 10 films about journalism

Last year one of the country’s leading journalism educators asked me to compile a top 10 of the best films about journalism. It didn’t run – long story – so here it is. One little update since late 2014: George Clooney’s Hack Attack movie might be a contender in the future, if they can get around the problem of not upsetting Rupert …

Until someone makes a movie out of Dirty Politics (working title: The Rawshark Redemption), this list will have to stand as one possible selection of the 10 best films about journalism. Is it noteworthy that the majority of these dramas are based on fact, and only a couple could be said to be entirely fictional? Yet there are no documentaries in the line-up. Also, every journalism film has a moral to impart, or maybe just conveys a depressing reality about the business. 

All the Presidents Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976). This list is alphabetical but even if it were not, this would probably still be at the top. The 1970s was the heyday of the disenchanted paranoia thriller – Pakula also gave us Klute and The Parallax View – and All the President’s Men is all about what Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) do in the shadows. Nixon is the monster. Journalism gets results.

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000). Seventies debauchery has never looked as squeaky clean as it does in Crowe’s fictionalised account of his life as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. The band he is tracking is a blend of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, the groupies have hearts of gold and the drugs aren’t killing anyone yet. But will the kid get his cover story? Actual rock journalism legend Lester Bangs (who later died of an overdose) is impersonated by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (who later died of an overdose). Journalism can ruin your life.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This is partly an epic in-joke at the expense of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, himself a tyrannical and charismatic ink-stained giant from the golden age of newspapers. In this account as well as in real life, he provided the war. Journalism is an egomaniacal pursuit. One egomaniac recognised another.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). This classic gave us the paparazzi, both as a word and as an idea. Marcello Mastroianni is the handsome, jaded reporter in Rome as the 1950s give way to the 1960s. His beat is celebrity (Anita Ekberg at the airport and splashing in the fountain) and superstition (the kids with their Madonna sighting). We learn that journalism is a job for cynics,  hedonists and depressives. See also: Antonioni’s The Passenger, which you forget is sort of about journalism until you remember its other title, Professione: Reporter.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998). The drugs do work. Do people still want to be Hunter S Thompson? Both a drug-addled genius and a libertarian blowhard, Thompson is played by Johnny Depp, who does the voice and the walk as a kind of Gonzo cartoon. Gilliam doesn’t stint on the hallucinations and even manages to get some end-of-the-counterculture poignancy into this long weekend bender. Journalism can ruin your life but never really feels like work. For best results, watch with The Rum Diary (2011), in which a younger, straighter Hunter S Thompson, again played by Depp, is working on a chaotic newspaper in Puerto Rico. It’s like a square prequel.

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999). Al Pacino should be in more films about journalism. He plays real-life investigative reporter Lowell Bergman in a dramatisation of how 60 Minutes persuaded a whistle-blower to tell all about big tobacco. That whistle-blower is played by Russell Crowe in what is still the best acting of his film career. Like Pakula in the 70s, Mann turns shadow-chasing editorial legwork into the stuff of a gripping paranoid thriller. Journalism gets results and can even change the world.

The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984). An important film for what it told us about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and so on, but there is also a glamour and seductiveness about its sweat-soaked images of foreign correspondents, played here by Sam Waterston, John Malkovich (almost never better) and Julian Sands. See also: Salvador, The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously. Journalism takes you (dangerous) places.

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). One of the great media catchphrases – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – came out of this hysterical 70s satire of the TV business, which seemed ridiculously prescient simply by imagining the worst. What would happen if a news anchor suddenly flipped out and told the truth? See also: Broadcast News. Journalism? It’s just a branch of entertainment.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander McKendrick, 1957). There is a vicious and amoral gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and there is the shameless lackey and gossip peddler who hangs off him (Tony Curtis). Some stories never get old and there are few depictions of the news machine that are less virtuous than this black comedy. It’s overdone but it also has a horrible exactness. Journalism can be a filthy business.

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Two San Francisco newspaper men become obsessed with finding the Zodiac Killer, long after he stops being a story. One is an alcoholic crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) and the other is an earnest cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film is itself obsessive; Fincher is hung up on detail and relates to their doggedness. Journalism is sometimes about failure.