Give Us Moor

 

‘Get Out’ stormed to the top of the box office upon release and proved/disproved many conceptions/misconceptions about what makes a popular movie, from a film whose plot is built largely on race and social issues. Most notably it, along with films like Moonlight, Rogue One and Hidden Figures proves inclusion, diversity and representation sells or at the very least does absolutely no harm to ticket sales. A bad film effects ticket sales. And Get Out is most definitely a good film. As a fan of Key & Peele I had no doubt about the kind of quality Jordan Peele could muster but the viewing public and certainly THE MARKET was rather surprised by its success. Garnering near universal praise it is a standout horror/thriller classic already and hopefully marks a watershed moment for racial attitudes within Hollywood. And it is that last point that is so interesting to me. Plenty of films have been made that discuss similar themes and even have a similar story (Peele himself calls it ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ vs ‘The Stepford Wives’) so what about Get Out really captured the imagination? There are a lot of answers to this, the most important being the racial tensions at play in societies across the globe right now, but also the idea of gentrification taken to its absurd extreme. For me, it’s all about the last 20 minutes or so.

Much was made of the opening 3rd of the film that displays not just the pernicious effects of negative racism but equally the troubling effects of “positive” racism i.e. delight at a relative losing to Jesse Owens, wanting to vote Obama for a 3rd term, generally over praising the main character and his culture and so on thus excluding as exceptional Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris rather than including him. But I found the thing that made me most uncomfortable as the credits rolled was my feeling and assumptions as to how the film would end which I discovered were… actually pretty racist. This is 100% because of the way Hollywood portrays POC in movies and as a film fan these assumptions were built into me so I made assumptions as to a twist. What do I mean by this?

At the end, after the family’s plot for Chris is revealed he begins his escape and this is where my ‘I know how films work, me’ assumptions kicked in. Chris flat out murders the entire family in various gruesome ways and you are WITH him the whole way, an excellent display of how Peele has got you rooting for these odious monsters to die despite the fact, as a majority white audience, they – sadly – represent us, but at every turn I constantly was waiting for the about face. “There’s no way he’s gonna make it” I thought, waiting for the rug to be pulled from under me. But he doesn’t. Through wily cunning and determination Chris ploughs on, even trying to help the maid who we know to be with the family as he makes good his escape and destroys the house in his departure. Even up to the last minute I was internally begging for Chris to make it, to survive, to Get Out, but knew, because I know how films work, that wasn’t going to happen. Chris was doomed. The whole finale was a dream, I thought, a hallucination brought on by the hypnosis, or the police car was a real police car and Chris was about to become another young black police statistic, or Rod was in on the whole thing or had been hypnotised too etc. But when the credits finally rolled and Chris Got Out I was left with a horrible sense of guilt at how I had spent the whole film waiting for the black guy to get caught or fail or die, i.e. my own racism. The opening 3rd hadn’t affected me that much, I’m sure I have acted questionably around BAME people but never that bad and was brought up well enough to be polite and genial to everyone whatever their race, gender or creed, but my instant assumption that the black guy couldn’t win, that he could not succeed where so many other white protagonists did (particularly white female protagonists), that the black character could not triumph, made me very ashamed. And that is what is most incredible about the film.

As well as being a tour de force of small scale but big idea filmmaking, with a faultless ensemble cast, a near total lack of CGI, minimal gore but used to wince-inducing effect, pitch-perfect tone and a lean yet well paced script, what amazed me the most is how the very structure of the film itself asks you to question racial assumptions. The very existence of the film in the mainstream demands discussion as to why we expect it shouldn’t be there. For me this is the absolute triumph of this movie. In an interview Jordan Peele expressed his dislike for the sledge-hammer politics that surround the race debate in America, saying that the “conversation is broken” around race, by which I think he means the topic is continually brought up but either side continues to be combative and no ground is made. The miraculous thing about this film is that, on every level, it offers up a question to a white audience and a white industry as to what our assumptions and prejudices about race are. From the surface to the very meta notion of a movie about a black man getting revenge with no comeuppance (just like every white protagonist in cinematic history) being such an alien and revolutionary thing, Get Out asks ‘why do people of colour get treated differently?’ This was brought shattering to the foreground when Moonlight was robbed of its moment at the Oscars by the false announcement of La La Land as winner of Best Picture. An all black cast and crew forced to share their win with an almost all white cast and crew and – most uncomfortably – every pundit who immediately heaped praise on La La Land as a deserving win having to then instantly back track and say exactly the same about Moonlight, quickly proving how hollow that praise really is. Not to insult La La Land at all as I have not seen it yet and heard nothing but good things about it but the response to the screw up was most revealing.

Race and nationality is the topic of our time. As every country closes its borders in support of the fringe voices demanding a backwards step to nationalism and exclusion in its political policy, it is culture that needs to open its borders and be more inclusive and open up the dialogue, something the powers that be are insistent on shutting down. Support for films that are inclusive and take risks (so long as the film is actually good) and condemnation for films that whitewash (I’m looking at you Gods of Egypt) are what shift industry standards and most importantly move the fucking MARKET away from the homogenous white mess we’ve been fed from a shit coated trough for the last few decades. If you’re at the cinema and have a choice between another white populated blockbuster and a film with even just one POC or non-binary character go and see the latter. Its a small start but we can already see the positive results.

Get Out’s budget was a paltry $4.5million (that sounds a lot but it really ain’t. That wouldn’t even cover a Marvel movie’s food budget), it has so far made $160million at the Box Office and it’s still going. The studio that sponsored the project, Blumhouse, have a track record for sniffing out a success. Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Purge are all multi-sequel box office smashes from that same studio which indicates they understand audiences and Get Out is no exception. Film studios realised recently (prior to the Marvel boom) audience numbers were slipping again thanks to streaming services and 3D being the giant pile of dogshit that it is wasn’t helping, so they very sensibly attempted to diversify and take a few risks. Pleasingly this paid off and over the last few years we’ve seen the biggest studios go out on much greater limbs and surprise, surprise it has paid off. It is laughable that making a film with two female leads or with non-white or non-English speaking actors should be considered ‘Risky’ but that’s the kind of dumbass hacks we have in charge, be it a film studio or a country. What Get Out is the poster boy for is that inclusion matters, representation is beneficial to everyone and most importantly don’t patronise your audience. Get Out is a multi-layered GEM of a movie that doesn’t talk down to its audience whilst confronting a large part of it with a very real, very horrific issues that is quite literally killing people. Now if we could just get just one film, just ONE, with the positive portrayal of a Muslim man or woman then we might really be cooking with gas. With films like Black Panther from Marvel on the way though and I don’t doubt Jordan Peele’s ascension to the Hollywood director A-list the future is looking a lot darker. But, like, in a good way.

Post Script: So chuffed to see British actors like Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba being the leading men in all the modern cinema classics as an antidote to white guys named Chris. If you haven’t watched Daniel Kaluuya’s episode of Black Mirror do so now. It’s a pip.

Some Unseen Censor

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I went to see the modern remake of RoboCop on Monday as I had some cash to spare for a change and treated myself to a day out. My favourite nerdy film site Den of Geek gave it a thumbs up so was willing to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by a rather nuanced and intelligent film with a very interesting argument at its core with some of the trademark satire that made the original so great. Sadly the original hangs over it like a big black cloud. Verhoven’s masterpiece cannot be bettered purely because of its context and impact at the time. It is a razor sharp parody of 80s culture, a comic book action story par exellence, a cops and robbers thriller, a pitch black comedy and quiet meditation on humanity all in one bombastic package. The new incarnation is actually much slower paced and is much more interested in the human argument, something it argues very well. The satire is funny and occasionally bold (Samuel L Jackson’s expletive deleted and the so-near-the-knuckle-its-practically-touching-skin opening act are good examples) but in general its slightly toothless. The reason for Verhoven’s original having such punch is its excess – like the 80s itself. Excessive sex, excessive money, excessive drugs and, most importantly for this post, excessive violence.

The modern remake has a lot of “action” but no real violence. The most it offers is some robot shooting and wrestling but few humans are killed and the one scene where there are is enacted in the pitch dark. Verhoven’s on the other hand (pun for fans there) is out and out gore start to finish with a wonderfully satirical take on the “cut throat” business world and board rooms in the first scene, to the sadistic torture of Murphy himself. And yet. I watched the original LONG before I was eighteen and by-and-large was unaffected by it, it was and is a brash hell-for-leather action movie with a lot of gore similar to the comics I read. For me it swam by in a haze of tongue in cheek silliness and exciting explosions and gunfights, the latest incarnation cannot be said to do the same. Its strength is also peculiarly what makes it feel it should have been rated higher than its 12a rating. The human element of Murphy’s story, well portrayed by Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish as his wife, is affecting and is the focus of the film. The psychology of Murphy being put into an armoured and walking iron lung is investigated well and for me was horribly sad and quite affecting, something a younger audience (12 or under) would either not understand or not care about. Additional to this is the numerous scenes in which Murphy’s remaining organic parts are revealed without the suit. In these scenes he is shown as a pair of lungs, a throat and spine and a head with the skull removed exposing his brain. I am not shy to say this made me wince and suck my teeth at the reveal, making me more and more uncomfortable as the scenes lengthened and the disembodied biological matter talked, argued and wept. To my mind this is not material aimed at 12 or under. Not because it is too grisly or frightening but it is confronting a child with stuff it perhaps would find difficult to understand or at the very least not want to know. So why is it a 12a?

I have ruminated a lot over the last few years over the classification system. I am not a prude by any stretch and believe overt censorship is (like that being practiced by our own government on our very existence these days) reprehensible and, frankly, evil. However, censorship is necessary. The word derives from the latin ‘Censere’ meaning ‘to assess’, critical thought is the foundation for human evolution. Without assessing and revising our stance on everything we would still be monkeys in the trees, so censorship and self-censorship is – I believe – necessary when it comes to such mass consumed entertainment as cinema. Yet who dares be the one to censor these films and what gives them the right? In this country we have the British Board of Film Classification who explain themselves jolly well on their website. In fact there is a page that gives a breakdown of the original RoboCop’s film classification on there which is worth the read.

The BBFC separate films into the following age restricted classifications depending on their content: U for Universal, PG for Parental Guidance, 12a for cinema release and 12 for home/DVD release, 15, 18 and R18. U and PG are accessible by anyone of any age and are merely guides for parents or guardians so they might ascertain the content of the film before allowing their charge to go and see said film, 12, 15 and 18 are legally enforced classifications that prohibit anyone below that age seeing the film. I recall most of these being on VHS cases and cinema posters my whole life apart from 12. I was very young when Tim Burton’s Batman came out but I do remember being pissed I couldn’t see it because it was a 15 rated film. I loved Batman (as I still do) and wanted to see the film. A year later when the film was available to rent (yes kids that’s how long it took in those days) it had been changed to the bizarre new rating of ’12’. I wasn’t 12 so still couldn’t see it but it was a new certificate which was interesting. How did this happen? Well like PG and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before it, 12 was invented to appease both the censor and the studio/director. You see a film will be made based on the story (as it should) and then it will be put up for classification, the BBFC in this case will view it and give it their rating and their explanation for it. Then the problems start. You see Indiana Jones and Batman are undeniably characters for younger people to watch; a man with a bullwhip and fedora and one who dresses as a bat are hardly Hamlet and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately artistic integrity on the filmmakers part meant in those cases making Temple of Doom a lot darker than its predecessor and similarly the same with Batman. In doing so the censor wanted to rate them higher as they were deemed unsuitable for children but if they did that the film loses half its audience and largely its key ‘demographic’ i.e. Young Children. That means losing a lot of money. So the filmmakers and studios fought the MPAA in Temple of Doom’s case and the BBFC in Batman’s case for a new rating that would not ostracise their key ‘market’ but allay fears to parents and warn of the stronger content. More recently this happened with Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman for which the 12a rating was invented so that children younger than 12 could see the film if accompanied by an adult.

Lately though I have noticed this swing in a reverse direction. With film studio’s desire for larger audiences and therefore more money they are essentially trying to manipulate the system so a film can be made adhering to the strict Classification rules and therefore be able to be sold to children of 12 or younger but also be broad enough to speak to adults. This designed by committee mentality has ruined a lot of films to my mind and feels like a return to the old days of the studio system. But what I find most strange is the BBFC’s classification for films that are, to my mind, not for children at all. Most of the time this is not because of horror, strong language or violence but purely because the film itself is not made to cater to children. The most recent film to garner complaints for too low a rating was The Woman in Black which the BBFC upheld their classification of, admirably. Films such as The Dark Knight, Skyfall, Iron Man 3 and yes, Robocop all have got 12a ratings at the cinema but perplexingly are barely tailored for younger viewers. The properties they represent may have an appeal to children but the tone of the above listed films at no point approaches ‘light hearted’ or ‘fun action’. The Joker is a homicidal psychopath, Bond goes through Oedipal torture, Stark suffers PTSD and kills a lot of people and cracks wise about more adult stuff throughout and Robocop pensively ruminates on the meaning of free will and human nature and its desire to play god. Yes there are bangs and whistles throughout each but the overall piece is solely aimed at a mature audience. For me this raises the question of why mitigate your work purely for a larger audience share? If the new Robocop had the balls to put a decapitated head and independent lungs on display why not just go all out and have Samuel L Jackson say “Mother Fucker” and have Murphy cruelly shot to pieces for the same inherent shock value and thus deepen the argument for maintaining our humanity?

The BBFC are (as a friend put it) “sophisticated readers”, contrary to popular belief they do not have a tick list of how many F words, sexual thrusts or pints of blood are used and certify accordingly, they approach each film autonomously and judge it in isolation. Their guidelines state they classify a film based on: Context, Theme, Tone and Impact, Discrimination, Drug Use, Imitable behaviour, Language, Sex, Threat and Violence. To this end a thorough reading of the film is not just what you see or hear in the film but what is implied by it and what its intent is. This requires a serious engagement with the source. A prime example of this is in 1979 the BBFC returned Ridley Scott’s fantastic space horror ‘Alien’ with an “X” certificate (equivalent to an 18cert now). This upset Scott and the studio apparently so they asked for an explanation, the letter was available online at some point but I can no longer find it (if you can please do put the link in the comments or tweet it to me). It was a rather fascinating read as it explains its reasons thoroughly. The chest burster itself was not their cause for concern, nor the jumps, the decapitated robot or scary pitch black corridors all of which they said would have put it in the “AA” category (equivalent of 15 cert today), no their distinction was its overriding sexuality and sexual violence subtext. Giger’s drawings are and have always been phallic or related to genitalia, the alien is no exception and amounts to little more than a giant Penis stalking the ship and murdering people. Not to mention the Vagina like face-hugger that impregnates poor John Hurt which as Mark Kermode accurately pointed out is building on the mass hardwired fear among men of male rape (something commentators/psychologists have said is one of the reasons the reverse is so hauntingly prevalent in society). This sexual imagery combined with the violent context is genuinely unsettling and psychologically disturbing making for a much more affecting and thrilling film but one which can be perceived as being rather damaging to someone too young to perhaps discriminate these processes brought about by the film. For me this shows how well the BBFC viewers do their job. A sophisticated appraisal of the content and most importantly its message – be it overt or covert – is necessary but this returns me to the rather bizarre recent trend for hovering around the 12a mark for almost ALL modern blockbusters.

The film Hanna was the decider for me. It is an excellent, almost arthouse, hitman chase thriller starring a young Saorise Ronan in a fearless performance as an ass-kicking young assassin. This film included a strange sadistic pimp, a climactic, murderous battle in an abandoned fun fair, a worrying parent/child relationship, sexual awakenings from two central teenage characters, a 12 year old breaking men’s necks and a man murdered, hung upside down, pierced by arrows and bled like a pig. It was rated 12a. I mention nothing of the slow pace, pitch black tone, sophisticated terminology and complicated espionage plot. To this day I honestly don’t understand that certification. As stated I do not wish to censor another’s voice but I feel this film was not only too strong in its content but just simply not for children. Its a complicated and subtle film for adults. Its only appeal to children would be the fact the lead is young herself but equally the Shining has a young lead and no one would ever class that as being for children.

This raises a point that really sticks in my crotch over the certification “Game” film studios play: Horror. A lot of horror films are now purely toothless monsters that rely on startling jumps, murky instagram filters and clown make up to make them scary. Or purely gore and nudity. Sex and violence seem to be what people get most up in arms about censorship wise (especially when combined) but something as a subtle as ‘Alien’ in its combination of the two as opposed to the trashy, obvious and pointless ‘Hostel’ films it is far more affecting and horrific. A lot of horror films are being passed as 12a or a very light 15 which is indicitive of the fact the studio demands as big an audience as possible so robs it of any weight or depth. Films like The Exorcist, The Ring, The Descent, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Psycho are inherently terrifying not because they are gory or make you jump but because they deal with child possession, distrust of technology and fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and claustrophobia, fear of one another, fear of our nightmares, deep-seated parental abuse and in the case of the Shining – our own minds. They are justifiably all 15 or above and don’t pull their punches as horror should not. Horror in context should allow us to question ourselves and the world around us as it preys on basic fears like I said waaaay back in my werewolf post. If they were to self-expurgate you would have nothing of any great worth or interest so by lessening the certificate you are lessening its impact and to my mind, its purpose.

Blockbusters are going through something of a renaissance of late. Some of my favourite films have been the biggest grossing in the last 5 or 6 years: Christopher Nolan’s output, The Marvel Films, Skyfall, The Hunger Games yet all of these have “played the game” of cutting the bare minimum that allows it to pass with a 12a rating. A good point to be made here is I don’t remember the last time I saw a PG certificate on ANYTHING. Its either U or 12a at the cinema. What I find interesting is the certifications themselves. U, PG and 12 use the traffic like psychographics of Green, Amber and Red as progressive signals for warning. 12 and 15 share exactly the same colour scheme in their ident whereas 18 is a much deeper hue of red to relate a more aggressive warning. Between the ages of 12 and 15 there is only 3 years, so why the distinction of two separate certificates that don’t actually look any different? Why indeed? The desire for a wider audience against artistic expression and a questioning mind has boiled down to a 3 year age gap. Yet the same is true for 15 to 18 but 18 is the national age of adulthood. You are officially an adult at 18 and as the BBFC’s guidelines themselves state: Adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. Anyone below that age and it becomes a very careful game of “Simon Says” with the industry and nannying to the audience and a 15 year old requires less “Nannying” than a 12 year old but this does not mean a 12 year old is the same as, say, a six year old which is what the 12a certificate implies.

Ultimately for me I feel this means we have lost the meaning of the an age restriction and considered censorship. Filmmakers and studios simply see them as irritating restrictions to be loopholed out of or worked around and this is very much to cinema’s detriment. Risks aren’t being taken and as such films aren’t allowed to experiment and less is actually being said in cinema. For the reasons of certification films that are rated higher tend not to get seen or buried beneath the mass consumer friendly entities. As I say some of my favourites have been rated 12a but they tend to be based on existing properties and therefore require a certain element of experimentation so as not to repeat themselves with existing depictions/adaptations. Case in point: RoboCop whose meditative tone and graphic depiction of biology, medicine and psychology would have been far more impactful and would have made a more noteworthy film had they pushed the content over the 15 certificate mark. It would then be more likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original as opposed to in its shadow. Ultimately it bears little resemblance to Verhoven’s classic and to be frank would have probably just been a better film if it had dropped the moniker altogether. But that’s another massive audience share you’ve just lost…

My favourite current director is Ben Wheatley whose still relatively slim output has been of a staggeringly high quality and extremely experimental within cinematic confines. And they have almost ALL been massively violent, obscene, unsettling, unhinged and affecting. His forthcoming adaptation of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ looks set to be no different and I’m hoping will gain nothing less than a heavy 15 but more likely an 18 as it will mean he has taken the source material seriously and is making progress which if you recall is what I said censorship was all about. Critically analysing ourselves and the world and voicing the wrongs so they may be changed. This is what art does to us and that is what a censor will do and should do to art.

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Post Script: The BBFC website will be launching its new revised guidelines on February 24th and you can look at the specifics here (pdf alert!). I have emailed them directly with a link to this article and a query regarding my concerns. Whether they will reply or not remains to be seen but if they do I will add that to this post. They do a tough but necessary job that we all pay attention to but rarely acknowledge, cinema and all art would be a very unpleasant minefield to negotiate without some form of censorship. This article does not seek to criticise their work or necessity, simply to wearily reflect on the fact that yet again “MARKETING” is ruining great art. Or even its mere possibility. Please check out their website and continue to view with discretion.

The Field is England

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Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump are my current favourite people in the British film industry. For one they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British Cinema, for two they maintain an independent budget/ethos despite clear signs of public awareness and probable desire to expand and for three they are some of the only handful of filmmakers who actually believe in a progression of the medium. Of their films, Down Terrace was a no-budget, mob film/family drama hybrid, Kill List was a kitchen sink Hitman Horror and A Field in England is a 70’s hammer horror period drama. You begin to see why I like them…

I will leave aside the strides, leaps and bounds the first two took and the fact Kill List is pretty high up my own list of favourite films ever and focus on the freshly released A Field in England:

Before having even seen a frame it has broken new ground. It is the first ever UK film to be released cross format. DVD, Cinema, TV and On Demand all showed AFIE on the same day, this was ideal for me as I was nowhere near a cinema showing it and I could not afford the DVD or the On Demand download either so I recorded it on Film Four and watched it that way. Twice. This style of release is a long way from going mainstream as it does not suit the studio system and its desire to make fuck loads of money over an extended period of time. But I think that will change. Maybe not soon but eventually. The current model is no longer structurally sound and definitely not future proof, so I think in maybe ten years this will be becoming more the norm for a lot of films, certainly smaller independent films such as this. These points aside, innovation is on display throughout this film.

First and foremost the film is Black and White. The singularly brilliant Director of Photography Laurie Rose whose excellent work I lauded to all and sundry after seeing Kill List, is on the top of toppest form from the first frame of this movie. Shot largely on a RED Epic camera with the odd Canon SLR shots this is fully digital and at no point felt it. A lot of this film could have felt like an extended BBC Play for Today but largely down to its aesthetic choices it far surpasses any expectations someone may have of a TV movie/TV Drama. With botched together lenses and a handheld approach, Rose has a cinematic eye tht is as at home with the sweeping field and surrounding landscapes as it is with the landscapes of human features it continually locks into. Use of digital slo-mo is also the best I have seen in its format (no digital blur or speckling). The palate of B&W is much more engaging also. The eye, being lazy, is drawn to white space within a frame and so much is normally done (in colour) to keep the colours bright but equally quite uniform (how often do you see orange and blue on poster/screen these days?), black and white forces darkness onto the screen and is therefore much more visually arresting. It also means your eye is drawn to shadow creating more dramatic possibilities within the frame. By extension this raises the immersion significantly. For a more visually complex film this would be very very tricky and off putting, for a single location film with a cast of six this makes it infinitely more involving than the constant distraction of the shifting British skies and the possibly altering British landscape. In short, far from being a gimmick, this is a functional and tonally significant first blow.

Much is made of the so called “Trip” sequence at the end which for me is the least ‘weird’ part of the film but certainly the most arresting. The frame splicing, match cutting to faces, cross-cutting, reverses and slow downs/speed ups are all pretty demanding on the eye but not actually as innovative as has perhaps been made out. Similar has been done before (they loved weird, ‘trippy’ shit like this in the 70s) but never to this extent and it is pleasing to see modern digital editing actually being used to its full potential in modern cinema. I’ve said this in analysis before but for all the abilities we now have in cinema there still seems to be a distinctly shallow tool set filmmakers draw from. With a nearly total lack of computer imaging AFIE is still stretching the bounds of technology and audience acceptance thereof with it all being on screen yet without the “a real actor interacting with digital one” bollocks so often touted as being innovation which really isn’t because we perfected it in the 60s with Mary Fucking Poppins. Needless to say whilst the techniques have been there they have never been used to this extent and, in my opinion, to this level of success.

Now to the knottiest question. The criticism continually aimed at the film: “I don’t get it”.

My biggest problem with this argument is it propogates the myth of the ‘Passive Viewer’, i.e. that a film should wash over you to be later dissected (if at all). This is nonsense. No matter how facile the material it will actively engage the viewer even if it is to express contempt. AFIE requires, nay demands, attention to detail and similarly rewards repeated watching. The dialogue is knotty and classical, the editing gets harder and harder to absorb, the plot is incredibly simple, the context is alien to modern audiences, imagery is used in place of explanatory dialogue (due to no explanation being necessary) and, most significantly, narrative is not treated as linear. This, understandably, is confusing but by no means illegible. Its deconstruction for assessment requires an attentiveness and probably a repeated viewing or two. Many films that had similarly hard to follow structures that are now the norm suffered with the same problem. AFIE requires you have information from all points in the film to piece together its (and I’m not being a hipster prick who claims to know better than you) YES simple narrative. We are used to a standard arc and plot progression yet the plot is so simple its almost unnecessary: Deserters from the field of battle are led to a Magician who thinks there is treasure in the field. They dig for it. They find it. Most die. One leaves. End. That’s the plot. The real thing that has thrown so many off is what the IT is. Further compounded by the editing and so on. To be fair it is such an alien landscape it is hard to decipher at first but after another viewing the narrative becomes much clearer, it is the imagery and the subtext that is confrontational and tricky. But I’m going to give it a go.

The Field is England.

Many see the Civil War in England as being the initial birth of modern British society and (I’ll be blunt) the world’s. Constant reference (through imagery and occasional poetical allusion through dialogue) is made to the ideology that Britain is dying and a new one forming in its stead. Whitehead, talking of his prophetic ‘master’ even says of Hell: “We have it”. Characters are riddled with sicknesses, there are class struggles, racial struggles and metaphysical/scientific questions raised by the film through its various imagery. Time loses its straight trajectory as Whitehead is ‘birthed’ through the briar patch at the films opening (first exposure to oxygen as a new born is often described hypothetically as like being stabbed all over with little knives), Whitehead is later seen being ‘birthed’ still attached to the umbilical of an old world magician from a tent. Tableauxs (much vaunted as being the “maddest” part of the film) are used to signify structural imagery at significant points THE WAY THEY DID IT IN THEATRE AT THE TIME OF THE CIVIL WAR (why was that so hard to grasp?). Cinematic tropes appear referencing the future, the camera work of war and western films, modern and traditional folk music is used to further muddy the water. Everything is happening at once.

Look at the black scrying glass. It is explained that using this you can see into the past, present and the future, it is also dropped and cracked thus blurring the three. As when dreaming, everything happens in a rush it is only after we wake we try to piece it together as a narrative. Wounds sustained at the beginning of a dream will often be sustained again later whereas in the dream the likelihood is they happened as part of the same mental process but this is not how we perceive time so we separate them. By the ‘end’ of AFIE old beliefs and ideologies are dead, the future of England/Britain is personified in those three striking figures stood in the field at the very end. There is no real mystery to this plot or its intended message its just the method of delivery has changed and Wheatley and Jump are trying to push out old narrative conventions. In doing so telling a very contemporary modern parable of our times that will hopefully be seen by future viewers as a corner stone of experimental and art-house meeting a mass consumer audience.

In poetry, the form of the poem and its metre should reflect the goings on of the poem itself. AFIE does the same. Its form reflects its message and like poetry it requires more than one reading to really unlock. Also like poetry this meaning comes later, it communicates before it is understood. The initial telling is strange and off putting but like most things worth having, if you can be bothered to persevere and take an active role in the storytelling it is much more rewarding and a much more immersive and expressive method of telling the story and that is A Field in England’s truest innovation and something I hope will catch on.

The Field is England.

The Man of Tomorrow

Curt-Swan

Last year I did a post appraising my love for Bond prior to seeing Skyfall. Now another blockbuster has just come based on another hero of mine so thought I might indulge in the same thing. I have tickets for an IMAX showing on Thursday so have not seen it yet and would like it to remain unspoiled so please don’t comment/tweet anything about the plot to me. Thanks!

First thing’s first, Background: I’ve always been a DC man more than Marvel. DC are not doing very well at the moment however and Marvel are steam rolling over the whole of the comic book industry at the moment so this is a poor place to sit really. I am also a big Nolan fan and loved the Dark Knight trilogy. I also grew up (and I mean ‘grew-up’ I watched them as a toddler) on the Richard Donner/Richard Lester movies. Superman 1 & 2 are immovable favourites that I love dearly, and I even have a soft spot for 3 due to the Clark vs Superman-in-a-tip duel. Superman’s comics I run hot and cold with, Curt Swan’s depiction is my touchstone for his image and I prefer the early comics but there are several of the slightly more esoteric and more recent stories I do rather like. Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee’s ‘For Tomorrow’ is a favourite and the Super Star tag team of Loeb and Sale’s ‘A Superman for All Seasons’ is an absolute classic of any comic book. I never read any of the Grant Morrison thread which leaves me at a disadvantage as this is apparently Goyer and Nolan’s source material. I have nothing but undisguised contempt for Superman Returns however, which was the last attempted cinematic ‘reboot’. I got incredibly excited about that film and was utterly crushed by it in a similar way to when I saw that pile of … whatever it was they had the audacity to call Indiana Jones 4. Returns ‘should’ work – Routh, Beckinsale and Spacey are great casting, it had John Williams’ theme, that title sequence, etc but it was its god-awful script that ruined it for me. The screenplay golden rule should forever and ever be “DO NOT INTRODUCE A CHILD”.

As such my relationship to this current film is already pretty complex.

Make no mistake I love Superman – I went to school dressed as him as a 6 year old – but due to the tidal wave of confusion that has greeted Man of Steel on opening day I am initially reticent. I am keeping an open mind and being very careful about whose opinion I look too. Many, many, many people are out for this film’s blood. There are those people (like my brother and a few nameless friends) who are classicists who will not have a modern retelling of their tried and trusted favourites, who fear change and attack rabidly all that comes to ‘reboot’ – see Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones, etc. By and large I can understand. I love Burton’s Batman, but equally love Nolan’s, Star Wars is a knottier one but I tackled that elsewhere, Indy 4 was just a plain badly made film. As such I can understand people’s pre-judging of this film. Other people are of the ‘Fanboy’ nature, something I describe as the Vacuum of Reasoned Debate where they hate it because ITS SUPERMAN, HOW STUPID?! or MARVEL IS WAY BETTERZ! etc. Be careful this bias will come very well disguised by mountains of convincing looking ‘evidence’ and technical stats and data. It does just boil down to prejudice ultimately. My prejudice is, I want to like this film. Snyder isn’t a favourite director but Nolan and Goyer’s Batman is and I want to be excited by a man flying around in a cape and pounding superhero bad guys again. So what’s my problem?

Superman is a God. The word continually being dropped around this film is ‘Jesus’. A lot of preliminary criticisms that seem worth a damn and aren’t from those prejudiced parties mentioned are bemoaning something of a christian rhetoric within the film (some have voiced Scientology could be in the mix as well but I’m very sceptical about that POV) so it seems like this maybe a genuine concern. In the trailer Clark is dragged into a pile of skulls, I have no context for that shot but it seems heavily laden in imagery (perhaps deliberately), someone also commented he holds a christ-on-the-cross pose at one point, not to mention the fairly overwhelming parallells of the Superman’s story anyway: son of a carpenter, coming to terms with his gifts, saviour of mankind, blah blah blah.

There is also the criticism of a lack of humour. Apparently laughs are few on the ground and the, ironically rather pompous, criticism that it takes itself to seriously. Both sighted as problems with recent Batman and Bond films. So the evidence against it begins to mount.

I have a problem with all these criticisms and the people who make them however and this is without having seen the film, might I add. Change and experimentation does not seem to be valued by any of them. This does not dismiss  christian imagery or a dour tone which are decidedly negative points against a film if true but it does dismiss people criticising on past merits. I find it amusing that no one criticised Iron Man 3 for its INCREDIBLY heavy handed political themes yet ripped the Dark Knight films to shreds for its own deliberately disparate ones. Whether you loved or loathed them Nolan’s Batman films were Art House films with a blockbuster budget. Many would say a man in tights and a cape has no place in that genre. You might be right. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried and I think it takes a very backwards mind to say they weren’t at least technically successful films (they’re structurally cohesive – just -, entertaining and made a lot of money). Same with the Star Wars prequels. Agreed they weren’t as good as the originals, they were certainly different. My problems with Indy 4 and Superman Returns is fundamentally that they were too reverential of their source material. The Marvel Universe on screen as it has become, is very adherent to its canon (obviously) and the comics (particularly Hawkeye) are making a great investment in a sort of retro chic in their design and execution. Man of Steel, from what I hear and the clips I have caught seems very much an experiment. It seems a long and elegiac tale of a hero trying to find a place in a world suddenly swamped by alien technology and where, in an age of social media and the internetz, identity is mandatory yet he is unable to acquire one. Seems like a pertinent little parable to me. An alien appraising our bizarre little race is always a fun thing to consider whether its done with a tongue in its cheek or not, so to my mind Man of Steel holds all the promise of the comics and the original films I loved so much. They are set in the moment with themes that carry across more than one nation. Superman will always be divisive, particularly to foreign audiences due to the near jingoism of his iconography, but the prospect of something actually challenging from such an innocuous and belittled genre is why I like comics in the first place. Computer games and comic books have been making bold and strong commentary on our modern world easily comparable to much lauded (and over hyped) output from cinema and literature.

In this way you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You make a slavishly reverential remake and people will hate it, make a massive departure in tone and appearance people will hate it. Superman comes burdened with three quarters of a century of baggage that it cannot escape. Throwing that history at it to weaken it is a sad and unnecessary gesture. What this should say is that maybe now is the time to put a bolt gun through the heads of the sacred cows and move on. Wipe out all the current superheros and comics and start new ones, give up on computer game and movie franchises, endless sequels, rip offs and wank and actually stretch ourselves into new and innovative areas where creators are not weighed down by our Bibliographic society of trial by comparison and maybe, just maybe the audience will rise to the challenge and accept and adore and mature with such interesting and original developments in culture and the arts.

And while I’m dreaming I’d like 10 million pounds and a girlfriend that works for Cadburys please…

Whatever. I for one shall hold my breath. I am incredibly intrigued by the prospect of an honestly challenging film utilising modern myth – modern myth that can easily be pressed together with classical myth incedentally to all the “ITS CHRISTIAN!” naysayers. I am also prepared for it to suck out loud, naturally, but there’s always the possibility it could be good which for some people seems REALLY hard to consider. In our post modern world in which we live where EVERYTHING has twenty meanings and is only ever judged on its comparison to a previous incarnation, it delights me that something so high profile and mainstream seems to have really quite confused people. I am trying to maintain an open mind for now and look forward to my seat in the cinema in a week’s time. But what do I know, I’m a DC/Nolan fanboy with his head in the sand, right?

Give me strength.

Incidentally, Man of Steel can never be as good as Donner’s epoch-making, superhero franchise progenitor because it doesn’t have this:

#metalols

Cabin in the Woods

So, I must confess to not quite getting Joss Wheedon. Certainly not any more. I loved Buffy when it first came on the TV. Dad and I, then latterly Mum and I, were big fans. But whilst he’s still clearly good  he made a trademark out of being very post modern in his writing and very referential in his genre pieces. Now, however, it is turning out to be almost self-referential and being post modernist now and very self aware, whilst original when Buffy first emerged, that was 15 years ago. ‘Modernism’ has moved on. This brings me to Cabin in the Woods…

Cabin in the Woods is what nerds like to call a ‘Meta-Narrative’ on a specific type of genre, namely horror/slasher films. The characters are stock (deliberately), the set up is predictable (deliberately) and the actual initial ‘Horror’ element is paint by numbers (deliberately), to stop this disappearing up its own arse this is pointed out by the fact –

oh yeah *SPOILERS!*

-There is a shady government initiative setting all this up and putting them in this scenario. The reasons for this become apparent later. The REAL reason for this was that it is an excuse for a cold, exterior eye to dispassionately appraise the goings on. Cue every bit of Wheedon based wise-cracking you can muster: Oh so referential, oh so post-modernist, lots of fourth wall breaking, pompous bubble bursting, if you have seen Buffy or any Wheedon written/created fare you know the drill. As such, whilst this produces some funny lines, this wears thin about an hour or so in when it actually just becomes the very horror movie it is attempting to parody, cynical wise cracking suits notwithstanding.

AND THEN

They seem to get bored of that and go “Anyway, here’s what I REALLY wanted to show you!” The last half an hour of this film is a blast, all restraint goes out of the window and the premise they spent at length setting up is delivered in as over the top way as possible. And that is why I recommend going to see this film. The third act is highly rewarding and well worth the price of admission. I don’t want to spoil it and to be honest I guessed (it isn’t difficult) what was coming about a 3rd of the way in but when it comes you really get a buzz out of it. However… I do have my gripes.

  • Wheedon Dialogue
    As I said it was funny and clever 15 years ago, not as much now. Wheedon fans clearly still love it as whenever it was mentioned by various friends (all Wheedon fanatics who hadn’t even seen it yet) it came with a free coating of fan saliva. Sure enough, 10 seconds in a bunch of scantily clad, irredeemably beautiful 20 somethings are exchanging snarky quick fire “ironic” witticisms and we’ve already had one cheap scare. Please change the record Joss.
  • Fan Wank
    I am completely confounded by the 5 star ratings and breathlessly superlative language used to describe this film. “Game-Changer” and “Ground breaking” seemed to sum up the way people referred to this film. WHAT?! If you refer to the fact it is a slightly snooty, superior-minded, genre flick supposedly pardoying other films of the genre, might I remind you that this was done Sixteen Chuffing Years Ago? Methods have changed but not only is it that specific type of parody that just points at the thing it parodies and laughs hoping others will too, it is even doing it to the the same genre. It is not as clever as people are saying it is. The supposed “neck cracking twists” are not that alarming once you get about halfway and, having seen the trailer, I wasn’t all that taken aback by a lot of them anyway. If Joss Wheedon and Drew Goddard (the Director and fellow Mutant Enemy/Buffy alumnus) really think they were deconstructing the genre narrative to totally change the way we see the genre, they are WRONG. If you’ve read any books and seen any of Wheedon or Goddard’s work you can figure it all out. It bugs me that so many people elevated this film to God-like status but I suppose the foetuses that are the teenagers watching it never saw Scream the 1st time round so a recap was due. If Wheedon and Goddard simply wanted to use the tropes and idiom of Horror for a bit of a nerd-gasm then good on ’em. They succeeded. That is all this is though. Don’t act like its some angelic, Hollywood changing bible. At least I bloody HOPE it isn’t…
  • CGI
    I used to be such an advocate of this… This film has THE worst CGI I have seen in a movie to date and considering we are nearly two decades in since its inception that is saying something. The nadir of which is in fact the last shot of the film which was a massive let down and reminded me of that cop out shot in Cloverfield (another Goddard project) where they show you the whole of the monster. Either way, I don’t know if we have reached the bottom of the uncanny valley now but there is an almost audible and certainly visual clunk when any CG appears on screen. There’s a CG bird at the beginning (and in the trailer too. Go watch!) that on the big screen looks worse than a sodding puppet. Even the CG blood is pathetic. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they ran out of budget (doubtful) or time (even less likely) or maybe it’s deliberately satirising it. I can’t tell quite how many litres of piss this film is taking at any one time. Either way, everytime it appears I’m hoisted out of the film like Keanu Reeves doing Wire-Fu.

On the flip side, there are pros –

  • Wheedon Dialogue
    Loathe as I am to admit it, the occasional funny line did make me chuckle and at least two of the characters are well drawn but they have the least time spent on them. It is definitely time to move on from this approach to dialogue but it still makes for the odd good laugh and enjoyable skewering of certain cinematic cliches which I heartily endorse. Zombie hands are, yet again, made creepy and funny.
  • Fan Wank
    Whilst Wheedon fans can Fuck Right Off ™ the film is especially rewarding if you know and enjoy horror films. The trailers are wrong by telling us how presumptuous we are to assume we know the story but right in assuming you’ll be pleased if you do know the genre. Again, without wishing to spoil anything, it does a great job satiating most desires whatever your taste in horror by the end and is really quite satisfying in that regard.
  • CGI
    It is still shit BUT there is hardly any of it! YAY! FOR ONCE a director has seen the merits of CGI and only used it as an enhancement not a crutch. Hot tip for directors: Practical effects are cheaper, look better and are more convincing.  70% of the visual effects are done ‘in camera’ I’d say and are all the better for it. A CG monster you can show from any angle in any light and that reduces its effect. A man in a suit needs to be shot and lit in a certain way for it to look convincing, a good cinematographer knows this and uses it to his own advantages. Not only that but the leaps in technology of the suits the people wear is vastly improved. So the ‘things’ that are after our protagonists are actually pretty convincing and creepy and altogether more Monstrous.
  • Drew Goddard
    Despite having had a hand in the brilliant but flawed Lost and Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods is sterling stuff for a directorial debut. It helped he had a lot of money behind him and Joss “I am my own cliche” Wheedon as a producer/co-writer but whilst Wheedon’s presence is felt in the story and narrative structure it is the adornments that could only have been performed by Goddard that makes the film so much fun, especially towards the end. Again, his approach to the CG is evidently one of wariness so he sticks to a more practical approach which is much more enjoyable. The timing, the key to those scares and funny lines, is perfect, the sign of a good director. In general it is taught, well paced and builds very well to the climax (apart from that stupid last shot). In Baseball they use a phrase which has been purloined by the film industry: Set up, pitch and pay off. The set up is deliberately formulaic, the pitch is well balanced to the point it just is what it is parodying but the pay off, like a good batsman, uses these two things and knocks it out of the park. Whilst not particularly ‘scary’ per se, it is thrilling and a real popcorn movie. A damn fine debut. Sincerely hope his fellow Lost writer Damon Lindelof will pull it out of the bag for Prometheus and not a dud like Cowboys & Aliens.

Basically my two biggest problems are the CG and whether or not Wheedon thinks he’s being clever because ‘clever’ this film ain’t. Knowledgeable of its audience and genre? Yes. Clever enough to redefine it? No. It is, at its best, a great big bag of popcorn fun and at its worst a formulaic slasher, somewhat ironically it would seem. What I find weird is the people who are throwing perfect ratings at this film’s feet are probably Wheedon/Goddard fans anyway so I assume are familiar with their well established resume of referential and deliberately self-aware productions (Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, Buffy, Firefly etc). As such, even I, someone who likes a lot of those but does not obsess over them, could see where things were going just from the trailer. But as I say, I can’t tell if this is parody or pontification. But my argument is that if you can’t tell whether Wheedon/Goddard are taking the piss – sorry, satirising through a Meta-Narrative – then I don’t care how clever it is trying to be, you are so far up your own arse you’re coming out of your mouth again. IF however, they aren’t making any bones about it and just used the premise as a frame for the best bit of cinematic fan fiction in the last half hour, I praise them to high and mighty. Kudos.

In short, if you like horror films you’ll love it. If you want to be entertained you will be. If you like Joss Wheedon, you’re already spamming me with hate mail…

 

P.S. Plot hole: HOW DO THEY COLLECT THE BLOOD THAT GOES ON THOSE GLASS PLATES?! I DEMAND ANSWERS!