July 20, 2017

Lingering intellectual distrust

“It is perhaps the lingering intellectual distrust of the horror genre that has prevented George Romero’s ‘living dead’ trilogy from receiving full recognition for what it undoubtedly is: one of the most remarkable and audacious achievements of modern American cinema, and the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a ‘popular entertainment’ medium.”
Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. 2003 edition. 

July 19, 2017

Gun crazy

“One of the points of George Romero’s zombie films is to show how easily America slips into a state of gun-crazed fascism – those rednecks with firearms are ideal citizens. In one of the most shocking moments of the 1978 entry Dawn of the Dead, heavily armed law enforcers storm a public housing building and wipe out some poor immigrant families under the martial-law-like pretext of zombie hunting.” From a review of Zack Snyder’s lesser Dawn of the Dead remake, 2004. None of the late reboots (Land of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, Land of the Dead) added anything to a scene already cluttered with films and series inspired by Romero’s 60s/70s example – by the time we reached Land, the dead were nearly incidental – but they will never detract from the early achievements either. 

July 9, 2017


Loving (Jeff Nichols, 2016). When so much is at stake, how can everyone remain so placid? Part of it, I suspect, is the hindsight perspective of civil rights movies and their inevitable journeys towards the better present we know and inhabit, and partly, it is a decision that to represent decency we must show calm, quiet patience. 

July 6, 2017

She remembers how hot the sun was

Jackie (Pablo Larrain, 2016). “She remembers how hot the sun was in Dallas, and the crowds.” To read the Life magazine feature depicted in Jackie, as the grave journalist meets the newly widowed subject, soon after seeing the film itself, is to recognise that the film has caught the tone perfectly – the same sadness, obviously, but also the same reach towards a possible future, the same slim sense of hope, while a new myth of the past is constructed in front of us, to stop time from destroying everything. You could argue that this alone makes Jackie one of the great films about journalism. Beyond that, it is a great work of art. There is Natalie Portman’s commitment to the part of Jackie, with the anxious, grieving energy that accompanies the emergency. There is the surprising poignancy of John Hurt in an apt role as a priest. There is the alienating power of Mica Levi’s score. And there is the rare artistry of Pablo Larrain’s directorial methods. He makes the film a visionary biopic that has unexpected topicality.

July 4, 2017

Los Angeles plays itself

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). The cleverness is limited to the title, thank goodness. This musical for a time without musicals is less about smart-alec post-modernism (worst offender: Moulin Rouge) than trying to recover some old innocence. Who wouldn’t fall for its LA dream vistas, its sense of the movie city as a museum of itself? By the end, the songs hardly matter – if you even really noticed them to start with. 

June 24, 2017

Problem with the past

The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990). “That’s the problem with the past. There’s always plenty more where that came from.” A failure as a sequel to Chinatown, this is still interesting as both a study of and exercise in nostalgia at its most morbid and debilitating. It suffers from the condition it describes. Nicholson’s Jake can’t shake it: there are doubles and impostors, missing people, voices on tapes edited to revise history, earthquakes that feel strangely personal. He goes through the photos and clippings, he hears her voice. But the person we miss most in this unusually gloomy story is Polanski. 

June 23, 2017

Notes on brightness

Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog, 2016). The bright light off the salt flats, it will do your head in. That or the volcano or the aliens. This Herzog feature isn’t quite as bad as some of the press has suggested (or as bad as the truly awful Queen of the Desert) because it still has his eccentric, questing spirit and his sense of imminent planetary disaster. He is still the great pessimist of the natural world. But as far as storytelling is concerned, perhaps it is best to think of this as a documentary that doesn’t have a subject to attach itself to – Herzog and regular cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger feel cooped up and uninspired during the absurd, thriller-like sections that open the film and are happier in the wild without a script. Of the actors, only Michael Shannon doesn’t embarrass himself.

June 18, 2017

A last glimpse of the land now being lost forever

Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton, 2016). “Do you remember the way the tide came in, right up the main street?” As we hear this Sebaldian sentence, we see actors playing the theologian John Hull and his wife Marilyn, gazing out of a window. It is a complicated moment: the audio comes from interviews with the Hulls before John’s death in 2015, recalling a memory from their honeymoon in 1979, which present-day actors re-enact in 70s period costume. Past and present, real and unreal, are mixed up. And of course, John could still see at that point. It is one of the few shots we have in Notes on Blindness of him (or someone playing him) looking out into the world.
Can you ever communicate the experience of someone losing their sight? Can film put itself into that subjectivity? (See Blue by Derek Jarman.) And if you are used to identifying the meaning of everything, what does going blind meanJohn Hull started to record thoughts on audio tapes; these notes became a book (Touching the Rock) and eventually formed the basis for a short film, in 2014, which was then expanded into a feature by the same directors. It is a work expressing intellectual enquiry as well as humility. 
There are ways in which I prefer the 12-minute short to the 90-minute feature. There is less emphasis in the short on building a narrative, sometimes too literally, and we see less of the lip-synching actors playing the Hulls and their children. Some key moments appear in both versions of Notes on Blindness – his terror at feeling enclosed by his growing and finally total blindness; his difficult question, “Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my children?”; and his sense that the sound of rain, which varied as it struck different surfaces in the garden, restored a moment of beauty to him, which extends to a fantasy that it is raining inside the house, Solaris-style – but the longer version inevitably brings in other memories that are crucial to his story. Two stand out. On a holiday to Australia, where his parents live, John is shocked to discover that Australia is no longer there for him, as though things he knew long before he went blind would somehow have remained visible. And the second important moment is a theological understanding: if this blindness is meant as a gift of some sort, don’t ask why but ask what.  
He comes to accept the blindness, finally. He begins to even find it stimulating in unexpected ways: “There is something so totally purging about blindness, that one either is destroyed or renewed. Your consciousness is evacuated. Your past memories, your interests, your perception of time, place itself, the world itself. One must recreate ones life. In my case, fortunately, I had a central core around which to recreate it. That was my good fortune.” 

June 13, 2017


The Visit (M Night Shyamalan, 2015) and Split (M Night Shyamalan, 2016). The cheaper and more generic, the better – the more chance there is for something personal to come through. But then, he finds it almost impossible to keep his preoccupations out. In most cases, the anxiety about difference, the childhood traumas that keep replaying (absent or abusive parents), the paranoid sense that the world you are in is not the real one and can not be trusted. The imperfections of these films only make them more endearing. 

June 10, 2017

Cars at night

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016). I don’t think it would be insulting to say that the aestheticisation – the style that Jenkins has borrowed from Claire Denis and Wong Kar Wai, that kind of sensuousness – is sometimes overdone, and that less could have been more, because the thing itself is still so affecting, so immensely sad, and provides an insight that is so out of the ordinary. All the comparisons with Killer of Sheep – as a singular expression, as a sociological document, as a counter to Hollywood representations of experience – are warranted. There is all the everyday pain and, in cars and at beaches and in water, some relief. 

June 7, 2017


The cosmic scale, the fears and responsibilities of fatherhood, the sick child, the dreams of leaving. I searched the internet in vain for a fan theory that linked It’s a Wonderful Life and Eraserhead (Lynch’s most spiritual film). The opening moments of both are pictured. 

May 31, 2017

May 30, 2017

City of dead gods

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017). “Mother.” I had thought of comparing and contrasting Alien: Covenant with Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, as both confront anxieties about hibernation and space travel as though they are inevitabilities we must adjust to, but Ridley Scott’s second Alien prequel made me think instead of Terrence Malick and The Voyage of Time. In Alien: Covenant, “mother” is the computer system that runs everything and maintains a commentary, like Hal in 2001, rather than Malick’s feminine deity, but this is still concerned with a lot of the same stuff. It’s about creation, the source of it, the scale of it and our place in it, but the view of Scott (and writers John Logan and Dante Harper) is much darker, closer to an epic pessimism or the Greek myths that the Prometheus title evoked rather than Malick’s Christian and Buddhist-leaning notions of a benign creation. Too much knowledge, it says, is a dangerous thing – embodied in a nuanced double performance by Michael Fassbender, playing two variations on being post-human. This is a grim and violent vision that reaches its peak in astonishing scenes set in the city of the dead gods. Prometheus was gesturing at some of this, but its screenplay was a problem – this is tighter, more focused and that much more profound. It’s also one of the most beautiful films you will see this year.  

May 26, 2017

For Denis Johnson

Sad news about the death of Denis Johnson, a wonderful writer still best known for Jesus’ Son. I talked to Alison Maclean, who adapted it, in 2001. The story ran in the Listener exactly as it does below. The top picture is of Billy Crudup as Fuckhead. The second picture is of Maclean directing James Rolleston in The Rehearsal (2016). The third is of Johnson himself, and I have no idea where or when it was taken.

Hollywood: the place where nothing happens. John Gregory Dunne’s book Monster is ­a funny, insightful, sometimes frightening account of Dunne and his wife Joan Didion’s trials and nightmares getting a screenplay into production – specifically, the true, nasty story of crash-and-burn newsreader Jessica Savitch that, over eight years, became the Michelle Pfeiffer/Robert Redford soft-soaper Up Close & Personal. A defining moment? In an early meeting, former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg asks Dunne and Didion if Savitch really needs to die at the end.
In passing, Dunne mentions taking a meeting with an unnamed woman director from New Zealand who was briefly attached to the project. And, assuming that it wasn’t Jane Campion? Yes, that director was Alison Maclean who was then learning the ins and outs of development hell. “When I came on board, there had been something like eight drafts,” Maclean says. “It was absurdity, a real horror story.”
A tranquil weekday afternoon at the Ponsonby headquarters of the New Zealand Writers’ Guild – Maclean is back in town to inaugurate a “screenwriter’s laboratory” ­– feels like a long way from all the industry gameplaying. Maclean has a stillness and reticence that lets her relate these Hollywood war stories with a kind of lofty, amused stoicism. But you might still wonder what the auteur of two solid art features – the New Zealand-made Crush (1992) and the US-made Jesus’ Son (2000) ­– was doing with stuff like this?
“I love Joan Didion’s writing and I thought there was some very sharp writing within the script. I also read the original biography of Jessica Savitch [Golden Girl]. I thought it was interesting, a tough story. She was wildly self-destructive and an addict and had a very messy life, and was an unusually ambitious, driven woman, but obviously a successful, charismatic anchorwoman. But they kept wanting to turn it into A Star is Born and her into this fluffy, airhead protégé.”
In the end, the film was directed by the undistinguished Jon Avnet and the wider lesson meant more than the product. “I saw it and I thought it was junk, really,” Maclean says. “You hear so many stories like that, of a story or an idea being so hugely compromised that nothing good can come from it, and having so many writers involved rewriting each other. It makes me very nervous about making a film in the studio system. Unless you have the clout of someone like Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) ­– ie your last film made a lot of money – then it’s something to be avoided.”
Again and again, the system lets you down, even if you are at the Martin Scorsese level. Another project that came and went over two years without ever going into production was a remake of the 1946 asylum film Bedlam. This looked good: Scorsese as director with Maclean as writer. “That was a sad story. I had a disagreement with Scorsese about casting and we parted company. Then, ultimately, it didn’t get made anyway because the company that owns the rights was obstructive and not really serious about making films.
“There was more than six years between Crush and Jesus’ Son. There were a number of projects, but there were three scripts that I wrote and spent two years each on. That’s more than meetings, that’s hard work. Casting them and finding locations and putting all that burning drive into something that doesn’t happen. It’s made me a bit more cautious in the sense of only taking on something that has a pretty real chance of happening. As much as you can ever know.”
Canadian-born, a New Zealand resident from the age of 14, Maclean left for good after the Cannes success of Crush. At times, though, it must have seemed like it was easier to make films even in cash-strapped New Zealand than the US. “In certain ways,” she says. “It seems like it’s easier to make a first film here. I’m not sure about beyond that. The problem with the US is that it feels like there are so many opportunities – suitors, in a way – that ultimately may not be very real.”

But the genesis of Jesus’ Son was something else. This was “a strange, charmed convergence,” she says. It felt fated, inevitable, meant to be. The film is adapted from a book by US writer Denis Johnson, a loosely connected, semi-autobiographical series of short stories, with the title taken from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin”. Johnson’s narrator, known as Fuckhead, is a hipster saint slouching towards some form of redemption through a midwestern 1970s of cheap hotels, dives and drug abuse.
The book first appeared in 1992 and Maclean read it not long after. “I loved the book, it’s one of my favourites. It’s so compressed, it does so much with so little, a perfect book in a way. But I probably considered making it a film for five minutes and didn’t go any further.”
Equally, though, she was inspired enough to track the author down in remote northern Idaho, phone him to congratulate him on his terrific book and pursue him to collaborate on another script. Even later, she was involved in an unproduced script adapted from another Johnson book, The Stars at Noon, set in Nicaragua.
Through this period, there was all the other shadowboxing, the grappling with illusion: meetings and proposals, living off development money, writing in her apartment in New York’s East Village. She directed some TV, including Homicide and the first two episodes of Sex and the City, which is not considered slumming: Kathryn Bigelow, John McNaughton, Steve Buscemi and others have directed Homicide. She also shot the video clip for Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”, and got a memorably emotional performance from the singer.
But that’s all just business. Some time later, she got a call out of the blue from producers/writers Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, who had seen Crush and figured that Maclean would be perfect for a property that they had recently acquired: Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. They even had an idea for the script.
But even with this beautiful fluke, it was a hard project to get moving. The thing was budgeted for a tiny US $2.5 million and had a solid cast signed up  Holly Hunter, Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary and then unknowns Jack Black (High Fidelity) and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous). The package should have been a dead cert.
“We sent that script out to everyone, to all the usual distributors and companies in the US and Europe that might be interested in that kind of slightly offbeat drama, and we got turned down by everybody. Even with the actors we had. It seemed shocking and disturbing to me. The only reason that film got made is because the producers had access to private money.”
Still, what really matters is what’s on the screen and that is the best work that Maclean has ever done  simultaneously downbeat and rapturous, sharp and soulful. In the lead, Crudup has a soft, crumpled, easy charm. The film’s mordant humour is typically Maclean, and a great example is the scene in which Crudup and Black’s characters, who are pill-popping hospital orderlies, receive a man who has a knife lodged in his eye. “Patient complains of knife in head,” writes Black. The scene is as blasé and low-key as his reaction, and is all the better for it.

If Jesus’ Son belongs anywhere, it is with films by Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Mystery Train) – both in the reluctance to accept Hollywood sentiment and convention, and in the deglamorised tone, the washed-out ambience, which makes its odd sense of the miraculous even more striking and unusual. The drug thing was the red herring that the studios couldn’t move past, Maclean says. It took the Catholic Church to see what studios couldn’t – the church gave it an award at the Venice Film Festival. “That was interesting and surprising. They said it was a film about healing. They got it.”
More than a year after a limited release – it did well in US metropolitan centres, ran for more than two months in New York – Jesus’ Son has paid back the initial investment, “which is respectable, but not great”. It may make the next feature easier to fund, though, and that looks like being a thriller about false memory from Maclean’s own script. There is also another, strictly bottom-drawer idea – a meditation on Moby Dick from the perspective of a woman posing as a man – which has kicked around ever since Maclean moved to New York.
It’s possible, too, that the newfound celebrity of Billy Crudup could lend Jesus’ Son a second life on video and DVD. Alison Maclean, talent scout: the recent Oscar won by the extraordinary Marcia Gay Harden (for her work as Lee Krasner against Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock in Pollock) might equally boost the fortunes of the only other movie to really use Harden well – Maclean’s Crush. There, she played the vampish antagonist Lane to Donogh Rees’ helpless, bed-ridden Christina. The mere mention of Harden’s Oscar win puts a wide smile on Maclean’s face. “I just think she’s brilliant,” she says, with characteristic economy.

May 21, 2017

Religious art, teenage grief, secret weapons

Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016). In which Mel Gibson proves, once and for all, that his religious art is every bit as distinctive and personal as that of Malick, Tarkovsky or Scorsese. Even if you don’t warm to it – it’s earnest, defensive and repellent, bold, violent and anti-modern (his art, his thinking as well as this film) – you have to give him that. But his “realistic war scenes depend on horror movie tropes. 
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980). “I’m not part of history. I’m part of mystery, which is my story.” Space-jazz aphorisms in museums and on rooftops and ecstatic sax freak-outs. I don’t think I got it before.
The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, 2014). Other kinds of excursions. A key moment comes when the young Weir finds his psychedelic family, with Neal Cassady as his telepathic uncle (he teaches Weir to drive) and Jerry Garcia as his musical brother. When Cassady and Garcia died, about 30 years apart, Weir dreamed about or sensed their passing. There is a kind of intuition (not just musical) that comes as naturally as breathing.  
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016). Teenage angst, grief and some kind of realisation. See it for Woody Harrelson, but not only that. See also: Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick and even Blake Jenner, reprising the likeable athlete from Everybody Wants Some!! (in both films, likeable athlete seems at first to be a contradiction). 
Zero Days (Alex Gibney, 2016). Invisible wars with weapons so secret that when they hit us, we didn’t even know they were ours. Equally, it is about billions devoted to the industrial-scale production of paranoia. 

May 15, 2017

Life actually

Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2016). A prayer disguised as a nature documentary or the reverse. In this visually stunning film, the mother that Malick addresses, via the medium of narrator Cate Blanchett (earlier versions proposed Brad Pitt and Emma Thompson), could be nature or could be God, assuming there is any difference. The question that has clearly bothered Malick since at least the 1970s, when this project started, is how Creation can be so beautiful and also permit suffering and death. If you assume this grew out of the central, meditative, creation section of The Tree of Life, it seems small, like a footnote to the recent features, but when you learn that The Tree of Life and, probably, The New World grew from this source, Voyage of Time seems as vast as Malick intended. Even a shopping mall rooftop car park seemed like a Malick setting afterwards. 

May 14, 2017

That song

Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980). I like to imagine the moment Hopper heard the Neil Young song and thought, thats the story. And the insight that told him that these two useless criminal wash-outs were the Easy Rider pair 10 years later. The idea that punk rock is a rumour or an idea that has already been and gone, and eventually reaches teenage Cebe as stances or postures or a way of describing an opposition to everything you encounter, is appealing as well.  
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Welles at his most pitiless and mature, and, at only 27, somehow drenched in nostalgia he may have never escaped. The legend is that this was his childhood too but the charismatic exuberance of Charles Foster Kane has already become the idiocy and arrogance of George Amberson Minafer. As has been said many times, everything else Welles did was somehow contained in Citizen Kane.
Mr Arkadin (Orson Welles, 1955). More of a mess than Ambersons ever was. Forget, from the distance, the politics of studio interference and grudges and assess what you see on screen. Is there a chance that Ambersons was better for not having Welles in it? And that, cornball happy ending aside, some of the edits were not so terrible? We will never know. But Arkadin is incoherent, all bluster and restlessness that spills over from a Welles performance that already feels like the worst of his caricatures.

Conquest of the useless

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982). Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism.” (Herzog in Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass, by Alan Greenberg). 

May 5, 2017

Meet the parents

Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). Are we seeing a new golden age of smaller, more intelligent and still highly entertaining horror movies? It Follows, The Witch, Under the Skin, Don’t Breathe, Under the Shadow and now this, which may not be quite as impressive a horror as all the hype suggests it could be gorier, I think, and the third act seems rushed but it is based on an ingenious and absurdly topical idea and Peele parcels out the twists and surprises with a rare precision (it is a very good story). As noted elsewhere, it really owes more to Twilight Zone-style social satire and speculation than slasher movie or walking dead conventions.

April 30, 2017

The bears

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog, 2010). If this feels uncharacteristic of Herzog, it’s because he came to it late: Vasyukov had made a series of four one-hour docos tracking four seasons in a remote part of Siberia before Herzog saw it and offered to recut it, narrate it and re-release it as a feature. Not only does it not look Herzogian, but the narration is unusually straight and subdued, free of both philosophical speculation and the occasional sideways mockery of subjects. But in another important way, it feels like a response to Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell was a deluded sentimentalist who paid with his life, the Russian hunters in Happy People share Herzog’s wary respect for nature. These bears are mindless vandals and killers, and a hunter knows to keep his distance. A black bear is only seen once but their presence is sensed throughout and a story told about a bear attack is the only truly harrowing moment in the film. Nature, for Herzog, is always unsentimental.