30 June 2012

THE PATSY (Dir. Jerry Lewis, 1964, US) - Comical Histrionics

Jerry Lewis as Stanley Belt.
Jerry Lewis was postmodern before the term came to dominate the discourse of modern comedy. BBC2 had a good habit of regularly screening Jerry Lewis classics but it would usually be in the afternoon so naturally one got the impression that this was disposable and escapist comedy churned out by the Hollywood studios on a constant basis. I did recognise the hilarity of Jerry Lewis as a comedian, much of it non verbal and slapstick led, but it’s only recently that I have started to revisit much of his work. Oddly enough I thought I would have remembered The Patsy but watching it again made me realise how my youthful viewings of Jerry Lewis have all merged into a YouTube like mash up. The two I do remember most vividly is The Nutty Professor and The Ladies Man – largely because one was remade by Eddie Murphy and the latter for that extraordinary transparent set. The Patsy which Jerry Lewis co-wrote and directed in 1964 is one of his most accomplished films. It is a studio film but Jerry Lewis plays with this very notion by offering what is a satirical look at the artifice of cinema such as stardom, the illusionary nature of the culture industry and filmmaking. The narrative is quite simple. A group of money hungry showbiz types have their livelihoods threatened when a star that they rely upon dies. They concoct a plan to find a replacement. The patsy they settle upon is a neurotic bell boy Stanley Belt. Stanley is a man child, a shy and bumbling fool who is manipulated by the creative types and manufactured to become the next big thing – a star. Nothing goes according to plan and they soon discover that Stanley is a walking disaster. However, when they abandon Stanley he finally proves his worth by appearing on the Ed Sullivan show delivering a star making performance. And just as we think a star has been born, Jerry Lewis pulls the rug from under us by breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience and showing to us the crew and set. The film ends with Jerry Lewis and the love interest literally walking off the film set with the crew and heading for lunch. The Patsy is a sophisticated work that operates on a number of levels but I feel it is one of those films which can be easily overlooked and dismissed as simply a good comedy. One of the more obvious points about the film is its postmodern status positioning it as a work of innovation that was unique for the 1960s and American film comedies. A key moment in terms of postmodern discourse occurs with a terrific intertextual gag with actor/star George Raft who appears as a reflection in a dressing mirror being used by Stanley/Lewis as he tries on a jacket as part of his new star look. Such postmodern attitudes are reflected in the ending which strips away the illusion of film but also undercuts the very idea that we are going to be given a happy ending so in effect closure is interrupted by mischief – a key trait of the slapstick comedian. The Patsy was released in an era in which success of bands like The Beatles illustrated the way our fixation with the culture industry and celebrities was emerging as a potentially unhealthy aspiration. The way in which the creative showbiz types attempt to manufacture stardom from virtually nothing is strangely prescient today given the way new stars are replicated and sold on an image rather than a talent. Such manufactured and artificial stardom can be seen in its extreme form in grotesque reality TV shows like The X Factor. Another easily seen and often discussed dimension of Jerry Lewis is his destructive nature as a slapstick comic. Wherever Stanley goes or meets, chaos ensues. His histrionics cannot be contained and this comes largely from Laurel & Hardy especially the slow burn antics of Stan Laurel whose childish innocence produces a wave of physical destruction. A similar vein of anarchy exists in the hysterical mannerisms of Jerry Lewis. This is best exemplified in the classic sequence in which Stanley goes for singing lessons and ends up destroying the prized antiques of the singing teacher. Perhaps what is most influential today is the way in which Jerry Lewis was one of the first filmmakers to represent the nerd as a transformative figure and thus celebrate his idiosyncrasies as something affirmative. A strong fairy tale aspect in terms of narrative runs throughout many of his most popular comedies – both this and The Nutty Professor sees the nerd/geek/misfit transform into a supercool icon of male sexuality. Aside from the points I have outlined, what really impresses the most about Jerry Lewis is his capacity to star, write and direct many of his films. The nearest parallel in American cinema would be both Keaton and Chaplin. However, unlike the work of Chaplin and most recently Keaton, which has been reappraised, the films of Jerry Lewis are still gathering momentum in terms of critical stature. The Patsy is one of the great American comedies of the 1960s. 

27 June 2012

OSLO, AUGUST 31ST (Dir. Joachim Trier, 2011, Norway)

Disllusioned Youth.
Oslo, 31 August is an exceptional film by emerging Norwegian director Joachim Trier. It is a character study of a recovering drug addict Anders who reflects on his life so far by visiting some of the friends he has known over the years. Anders also has a job interview which ends in self hate, paranoia and guilt. This seems to be the tipping point and leads to a transient mini odyssey through the streets of Oslo. Anders lack of direction as he navigates his way through his life offers what is an understated commentary on a lost youth generation who seem to be well educated, middle class but symptomatically disillusioned. On his odyssey, Anders pauses to take a breather in a coffee shop. In what is one of the best sequences, Trier turns Anders into a human surveillance machine with conversations around him becoming magnified to reveal a familiar humdrum and prosaic banter that reinforces his discontent. Before his job interview, Anders visits one of his closest friends who we discover has settled down into a conformist ‘normal’ life as a father. Their conversations trigger painful memories for Anders who realises his drug addiction has led him to wasting the best years of his life. The boring normality of his friend’s new life also reminds Anders of the contempt he harbours for mainstream Norwegian society is actually justified. Such cynicism of human behaviour is later reinforced when Anders goes to a dinner party hosted by an ex girlfriend and yet again witnesses the grotesque and superficial niceties of the middle class. Additionally, he seems lost in the urban milieu which he inhabits but at the same time revels in his status as a rebel by exploiting his edginess. This is a film about faith and death; two of the most significant themes in the work of Ingmar Bergman whose influence can be detected throughout the narrative. This is a complex and intelligent work; one of the films of the year.

19 June 2012

JAWS (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975, US) - Shark Tale

Jaws shaped much of my early experiences with mainstream American cinema. I remember watching the film religiously on a VHS copy recorded off air. Later I upgraded to a widescreen VHS version, which reminded me of how much I loathed the terms ‘pan and scan’. I guess certain films become attached to certain memories and the obvious problem with nostalgia is that emotions are inevitably hijacked, as is the case with Spielberg’s expertly directed Jaws. It does look magnificent on a new print and Bill Butler and Michael Chapman’s cinematography is stunning. Nowadays so much of the mise enscene can be easily manipulated in the postproduction process. Although Spielberg has kept up with changes in film technology, he is still one of the few filmmakers who continues to shoot on film. Yes, the sunsets are real in Jaws; they are not a CG construct. Jaws is a film that appeared before the consolidation of the term blockbuster but inadvertently gave birth to such aphenomenon. Back in the 1970s, Spielberg and co were simply setting out to make a good film. Unfortunately this is not the case today with so many filmmakers proclaiming before they have even shoot a single frame that they are settingout to make a contemporary blockbuster. How ridiculous and absurd do they sound? Of course, Jaws is very much a companion piece to Spielberg’s earlier cat and mouse thriller Duel, one of the great directorial debuts. However, the difference in terms of genre was clear. Unlike Duel’s clear grasp of the action/thriller conventions, Jaws saw Spielberg take on the most maligned of Hollywood film genres – the horror film. Those who prefer not to see Jaws as a horror film but as a film by Steven Spielberg seem to overlook how indebted the film is to the idioms of horror. I guess what makes Jaws much more than a film by Spielberg is the contribution of the talented cast and crew including most notably JohnWilliams as composer, Robert Shaw as Quint, Verna Fields as editor and a terrific script by Carl Gottlieb. Another noteworthy aspect of Jaws is the economy on display; both in terms of editing and narrative storytelling. Utilising a classical Hollywood narrative, the film is structured brilliantly and succeeds in developing the characters but also offering some terrifically executed set pieces. Like all great movie monsters the killer shark could stand in for endless anxieties, fears and allegorical interpretations from the political (Vietnam) to the personal (masculinity in crisis). Jaws is undoubtedly aclassic 1970s American (Hollywood) film and still remains one of Spielberg’s best loved and accomplished films.

8 June 2012

PAAN SINGH TOMAR (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2010, India) - From Hero to Bandit

Irfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar.
Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens - namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit. 

The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia's The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.

2 June 2012

PROMETHEUS (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, US) - Tales of the Future

The origins of the Alien films.

‘Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. Thus, the science fiction film is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction.’  - Imagination of Disaster, Susan Sontag (1994)

If science fiction and the horror film are genres continually maligned by critics then the current critical reception to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus should be looked upon cautiously. Prometheus sees Ridley Scott return to the science fiction genre since Blade Runner. Both Alien and Blade Runner are considered to be classics of the science fiction genre and thus expectations for Prometheus have been extraordinarily high. Intertwined with the hype from an expensive and sophisticated marketing campaign, Prometheus is another summer tent pole film that has suffered from a franchise heritage especially given the shadow cast by the first three Alien films. Unlike Alien, which successfully blends science fiction and horror, Prometheus is far removed from such a hybrid particularly the slasher sub genre. In many ways, Prometheus is a science fiction that follows in the existential footsteps of Scott’s Blade Runner, posing a plethora of metaphysical questions. As a visual spectacle, Prometheus doesn’t disappoint and deploys visual effects to produce a classical dystopian reality in which corporate power is represented as a familiar site of hegemonic corruption whereas the workers are monstrously expendable. Such a conflict between the most intelligent and physical member of the crew (Ripley) and the Weyland corporation thankfully remains intact. Writer Susan Sontag says that, ‘Science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings. We are merely spectators; we watch.’ Such an observation underlines the different spectator positions we take up when watching genre films. In the case of science fiction, we first judge the film on the world it offers us and how plausible or imaginative such a world is when compared to our own reality. Undoubtedly, if we see Prometheus as foremost a spectacle then on such initial criteria, the film succeeds in offering moments of awe and wonder. Just like the musical in which we lose ourselves in the escapist nature of song and dance, science fiction offers us similar gratifications by predicting future worlds in which science and technology dominate. Ridley Scott has been careful not to saturate and dilute the construction of the world on LV-223 with CGI. In fact, Scott’s decision to embrace physical sets constructed in the traditional cinematic sense offers greater visual credibility while maintaining the roots of the early Alien films. Although it is probably best not to compare Prometheus to Alien, given the way they depart from one another, they are still linked by the same universe and the same set of conventions. Prometheus is part of a much bigger franchise about the Alien creature that by the fourth film the franchise had developed its own set of genre conventions such as gender tropes, ideological debates and narrative situations. Such a firm genre context means Prometheus has to adhere to the traditions, rules and conventions of the Alien film genre, thus to expect the film to depart radically from an established formula would have been unlikely. However, this is the exact problem of genre films - anything too radical, too unexpected can result in audiences openly rejecting innovation or reinvention as a betrayal of the origins. Additionally, a franchise or saga brings with it the added problems of a fan base. The Internet and regular conventions have not only made fans more influential than ever before but the studios actively seek out their approval in a bid to build trust and credibility. 

Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw - a mirror image of Ripley?

In essence, the four key ingredients or staples of the Alien films have been gender politics in the shape of Ripley as a female heroine, the duplicitous android, the insidious corporation and of course, the alien creature or monster. Prometheus reworks all four of these key ingredients. Firstly, the presence of a strong willed female heroine, who in the case of the first film can clearly be interpreted as the final girl, is re imagined in the character of scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Similarly, like Ripley, Shaw’s attempts to question corporate ethics are met with open resistance by the corporation, which predictably resorts to violence. However, a difference between Ripley and Shaw is perhaps the issue of class. Shaw appears to be well educated and commands a superior intellectual position than the rest of the crew members. Unlike Ripley who gradually emerges as the unlikeliest of hero’s, it is clear from the outset of Prometheus that Shaw’s intelligence reflects the way gender representations have evolved in line with changes in society since the 1970s and the first Alien film. Secondly, Ripley’s distrust of the corporation was repeatedly manifested in her conflict with the android. In Alien, the android, which remains a secret from the outset, is pathological and has been programmed by the corporation to protect the alien creatures. In Prometheus, the android re-emerges this time as more of a central figure in the shape of David 8 (Michael Fassbender), a chilling creation. David who slowly questions his own mortality and emotional capacity is indicative of science fiction’s on going fascinations with artificial intelligence. Thirdly, when Alien was released in 1979, corporate power had emerged as a popular 1970s ideological current in mainstream American cinema. Since 1979, corporations have become even more powerful and so the representation of Weyland Industries as a singular corporation in the film logically reflects current anxieties. Weyland’s desire for immortality echoes the empathetic plea of Roy Batty in Blade Runner who is searching for more time and inevitably the chance to live forever. The eternal quest for immortality crosses over into the territory of traditional horror literature, suggesting Prometheus also blends science fiction with horror. The fourth and final ingredient and on which the Alien films is largely hinged is the presence of the alien creature/monster. Giger’s monstrous and nightmarish creation is one of modern cinema’s most enduring and iconic monsters – an alien creature that is ruthlessly determined in its own self-preservation. Although we don’t get to see the alien creature in its most recognisable cinematic form until the final frames, the film does offer us a fascinating origins story in which the aliens are regarded as weapons of mass destruction, as a military tool. This is in keeping with the rest of the films that continually saw Weyland corporation trying to protect the creature so they could use it as a weapon. 

Fassbender as David, a duplicitous android.

So, in terms of conventions, Prometheus repeats the familiar but does so by offering us some noteworthy ideological variations. Prometheus is largely successful as an intelligent science fiction film but it does have some flaws. The first half is far superior to the second; the final third of the film scrambles to establish multiple narrative strands and inadvertently reveals a studio bound cynicism to do with commercial prospects for a sequel. The script is populated with too many characters and so repeatedly falls back on stereotyping. Additionally, the score by German composer Marc Streitenfeld, a regular Scott collaborator, is somewhat underwhelming when compared to the memorable contribution of previous composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Elliot Goldenthal. Another element, which is just as significant as the four I have outlined, is that of body horror which was first established in Alien (1979). The fear of alien impregnation would develop over the Alien films into one of the most politically charged areas for debates to do with gender politics. The human body being taken over by an unknown hostile force is a thematic shared by science fiction and horror. It is an image of destruction, and that of disaster, which Susan Sontag argues defines the best science fiction films. If this is the case, then the science of Prometheus is eclipsed in the film’s finale by images of destruction, thus returning to the allure of the spectacle that makes science fiction cinema such an a sensory one for the spectator.