Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Who doesn’t envy young couples these days who dream of having a nice 3-bedroom house or apartment in the city close to work, shops and various cultural attractions, and of being able to rely on one or two incomes with steady and reliable weekly pay-packets that can cope with paying off a mortgage on low interest rates over 25 years and accommodate a major holiday every year and unforeseen expenses? Unfortunately too many such couples are being squeezed by some combination of miserly employers, governments hacking into health, education and social services to pay for expensive overseas wars, and greedy unforgiving banks wanting to maintain their profits in a depressed economy, among other things. Understandable then that some people might be willing to sell their souls or their first-born kids to the Devil or, in the case of this movie, hire out the missus as surrogate mum to the Anti-Christ if they thought such sacrifices were necessary to achieve their goals and dreams. Put yourselves in the shoes of Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), husband of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and ask yourselves: if I’d been a struggling actor for several years and now my one big chance of getting a career break and going to Hollywood depends on one actor, to whom I’m understudy, not being able to perform his role in a play, and that chance will never come again, wouldn’t I want to sell my wife to Satan if he agreed to toss that chance to me?
Over forty years ago when the movie was first released, the premise of a woman impregnated with the seed of Satan was so scary to many people that they spoke of the movie in hushed tones. Since then, the “horror”, which was probably talked up and exaggerated by the media at the time, has dissipated and what we have is a clever movie that starts out as a soap opera and turns into psychological thriller in which naivety, gender politics and isolation combine with fear of the unknown as a young woman experiences a major life transition (becoming pregnant, being a first-time mother) into paranoia and potential mental breakdown, and this is where much of the film’s “horror” actually derives. The fact that Rosemary’s fears and beliefs about her baby’s conception and identity come true is really neither here nor there; the baby, once born, is not so horrible after Rosemary has seen him and her memory of her difficult and painful pregnancy and the frustrations that came with it fades away.
Employing actors with proven track records on stage and screen in carefully selected or recreated urban settings and following the original novel closely result in a polished and carefully crafted film for the horror genre in which cheap sets, inexperienced starlets, hackneyed and melodramatic plots and sometimes slapdash direction used to be the norm in those days. In common with many of Polanski’s movies, a strange sense of humour is always present and this movie could be viewed as a black comedy. That perhaps is an injustice to Rosemary who is a naive though intelligent young woman whose fault is to have been born and brought up in a world where a married woman’s place is in the home tending to her babies and trusting in her husband, doctor and neighbours to look out for her safety. As Rosemary fears, these are the very people who give her up to Satan and endanger her health and life. (Interesting therefore, that the movie is based on the novel of the same name written by the same fellow, Ira Levin, who wrote “The Stepford Wives” which itself has been made into two movies. Levin obviously hit onto something about women’s oppression by modern life that university academics took up later.)
As investigations into being an outsider, paranoia, isolation and mental breakdown go, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not nearly as good or intense as some other movies Polanski made in the 1960’s and 1970’s – “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” spring to mind – but this is still a good movie about how even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of life that people take for granted can harbour evil. In a time when marriage and community still counted for something and kids were free to ride their bikes on the streets from sunrise to sundown and only show up for dinner and bed-time, the notion that your spouse and neighbours, and even the building you live in, could be part of an evil conspiracy must have been breathtaking. Unless you happen to be US-Japanese artist Yoko Ono whose husband John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 in front of the building, the Dakota Hotel, that appears in the opening and closing shots of “Rosemary’s Baby” and which viewers may assume is the building where the Woodhouses own their apartment. The apartment itself though consists of recreated sets as filming has never been allowed inside the hotel.
It’s perhaps also significant that at the time “Rosemary’s Baby” was first released, the civil rights movement in the US was on the rise and receiving much media publicity. The Black Panthers movement was also in the spotlight. The more governments granted equal rights to racial and other minorities, the more emboldened people became to raise issues of past discrimination and correcting history about how people had been treated in the past. With equal rights and the breakdown of racial barriers come racial inter-mixing and the possibility of white women having children with … non-white men? EEEEE-AAAAHHH-OOOHHH!!! … racial miscegenation, maybe that’s the real horror “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at!
Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut”, (1999)
I saw this movie ten years ago as there’d been a lot of hype about it featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who were the Brangelina hit couple in the late 1990’s. From what I can remember, there’d been numerous hitches and delays in filming and post-production and then Kubrick died suddenly so it became his swansong in a small legacy of 13 films, each very different from the others and many of them quite significant at the time of their original release to the extent that people still remember them, though the ideas and themes expressed may no longer be relevant in popular culture at large. Myself, I’ve only seen “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” and in their own way they can be disturbing as well as entertaining, mixing comedy and serious issues together.
Compared to these films at least, not to mention other Kubrick efforts I’ve heard about but have never seen, “Eyes Wide Shut” seems an insubstantial effort. Kubrick may have been aiming for something akin to the films that the Spanish director Luis Bunuel made in the 1950’s and 1960’s about the foibles and hypocrisies of upper middle class people who have more money than they know what to do with: films like “The Exterminating Angel” in which a group of dinner guests find they are unable to go home and have to stay at their host’s place in conditions that become ever more filthy; and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, a series of dream sketches about seven people who try to organise a dinner occasion several times but always fail. There are scenes in “Eyes …” that are very surreal and dream-like with often very lurid shades of red, and the line between reality and fantasy, comedy and drama is deliberately blurred. Into many of these scenes blunders main character Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who as the movie progresses takes on the air of a stunned tourist in a Locus Solus amusement park. There may be no complicated machines creating mosaic artworks with coloured teeth or dioramas of animated corpses performing the same actions over and over but many of the sexual activities Bill observes have a similar mechanical or ritualistic aspect and turn out as either comical or asexual. Bunuel himself might have approved of “Eyes Wide Shut” as a worthy movie project but not necessarily of the way Kubrick has done it.
Initially we meet Bill Harford and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as a middle class couple, married for some years now and living in a plush apartment in a wealthy neighbourhood with a young daughter on whom they perhaps lavish piano and horse-riding lessons, and a private school education. Bill is a medical practitioner with a wealthy clientele while Alice is a stay-at-home mum, though she used to have a busy and creative job, and maybe there are times when she feels being a wife and mother just isn’t enough fulfilment. In other words, they’re comfortable, too comfortable, and their marriage has got a bit stodgy. Bill and Alice go to a party hosted by a businessman, Ziegler (Sidney Pollack), where Bill drifts off with a couple of female guests and Alice starts guzzling champagne. During the party, Bill is called to attend to a female guest who has overdosed on cocaine and passed out; an elderly stranger finds Alice, alone and drunk, and chats her up. Next evening when Bill and Alice are both at home, they quarrel over their flirtations at the party and Alice boasts about making eyes at a sailor she saw a year or so ago. At that moment Bill is called out to another medical emergency; while he tends to the sick man, the man’s daughter blurts out her love for him. King-hit by his wife’s apparent willingness to be unfaithful to him and the woman’s confessions, Bill leaves for home but is side-tracked by a prostitute and this encounter is the start of his bizarre adventures in a sexual underworld where everything and everyone he thinks he knows and understands is turned on its head. The apparent climax occurs when Bill gatecrashes a bizarre Hellfire Club sex party at a mansion with hints of conspiracy and danger: he is exposed as an intruder and is about to be punished but a masked woman he has met earlier offers to sacrifice herself instead. Next day when Bill is back home safely, he discovers this particular woman – the guest he treated at Ziegler’s party – has died.
The whole movie plays out like a comedy of manners: the sex party and the supposed conspiratorial elements circling it turn out to be unconnected to the woman’s banal death, and Alice’s confessions of sexual infidelity turn out to be fantasies on her part. Bill gives little indication that he learns anything much about himself, his sexual needs or those of his wife during his journey, and though he and Alice reconcile, I have the feeling that they’ll be going through their sexual jealousy routine again and again throughout their marriage. If Bill has learnt anything at all from his odyssey, it’s likely to be the lesson that no matter how hard he works, how much money he makes or how good his reputation is, he and Alice will never be accepted as equals by the wealthy people who come to them for medical advice and help: Ziegler makes that quite clear to Bill while explaining the events of the sex party and warns him not to investigate it further. Now that’s a worthwhile lesson both Bill and Alice could take to heart: they will always only be seen as providing support to the elite society they aspire to be part of and nothing more.
I remember “Eyes …” being rather insular and sterile with unattractive, selfish and hollow characters. Kidman does rather better acting work than Cruise but one has to remember they’re playing recognisable stock characters: the husband absorbed in his work, not given to thinking or reflecting on other matters, and assuming all the world is in order; the wife with all she wants and desires yet lacking excitement and an outlet for her energy. Both have lived sheltered lives and so far have seen no reason to break out and live otherwise. If Cruise seems unable to muster anything more than a shell-shocked reaction to the things happening around him, to me that’s being in character for Bill. Having seen other films by Kubrick, I don’t think he was a great director of actors, he was more concerned about the technical aspects of the film – lighting, sets, production – and though “Eyes …” looks good, it turns out in its own way to privilege style over substance.
If there’s irony at all, it is that while Alice fantasises about having a sexual adventure, the real sexual adventures Bill encounters are as bland and stodgy as what Alice might imagine their life currently is. A bigger irony is the couple is in a rut because they aspired to have the kind of ultimately self-absorbed and morally empty lifestyle personified by Ziegler and in a way, already achieved it.
Tony Scott, “The Hunger” (1983)
One of a number of 1980s-made movies in the remake production line, this glossy flick was Tony Scott’s directorial debut about a love triangle of two vampires searching for immortality and a mortal human who originally was part of the search. Miriam and John (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are two lovers who have been together for a couple of centuries now, subsisting on human blood and presumably moving long distances from time to time to avoid suspicion and detection, ending up in New York City in the late twentieth century; but John finds old age rapidly encroaching on him and they both hear of medical specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who has done research with monkeys on sleep disorders and ageing, so they seek her advice and help. Unfortunately the doctor fails to respond at first and is too late to prevent John’s rapid deterioration – an early scene in the consultation room perhaps should be required viewing for those doctors and other professionals who keep clients waiting – and she ends up falling under Miriam’s seductive spell and being primed to replace John as lover. John himself ends up trapped in a coffin shoved into an attic room along with the coffins of Miriam’s previous lovers, all of them victims of her lie that she can give them eternal life.
When first released, the movie garnered negative reviews and it’s easy to see why: the very sketchy plot moves very glacially for most of the film’s running time and only towards the end does the pace pick up and the tone changes from subdued to melodramatic. Much of the movie is dominated by long camera shots dwelling on background details, ostensibly for the sake of mood and atmosphere and to establish Miriam and John as refined sophisticates who inherit and pass on the best of European high culture to the people they live among in New York City. Before he became a film director, Scott’s background was in advertising – he ran an agency together with older brother Ridley who also became a film director, only more famous – and the influence certainly shows in the glamorous, glossy style of the movie which these days looks rather twee and not a little ridiculous. I would rather have seen a movie that spent less time lovingly dwelling on transparent white curtains swaying near windows and more on the history of Miriam and John, and how it is that while Miriam can remain youthful and vital indefinitely, her lovers decline after two centuries and end up trapped in shrivelled bodies in coffins, hidden out of sight. More time should have been spent on some character development, just enough to make Miriam’s seduction of Sarah credible and for the audience to feel some sympathy for the three main characters, however repellent their behaviour. The actors have little to do and I have the sneaking suspicion that Deneuve and Bowie were hired more for their ethereal beauty than for any acting ability. Bowie especially just walks on and off but his problem may be due to the way the original eponymous novel by Whitley Strieber, who incidentally wrote the screenplay for the remake commissioned by Warner Bros, ended up translated to the screen; I understand much of it fell by the wayside and the bits that did involved John’s character seeking vengeance on Miriam. The film compensates for the loss by tacking on a very flimsy and undeveloped sub-plot about a police search for a missing teenage girl but this has the nature of being an afterthought and just doesn’t tie into the main plot or provide any tension or direction to the movie at all.
The best part of the film is in its opening scenes where Miriam and John prey for victims in a Goth-themed nightclub to the tune of 1980s UK band Bauhaus’s song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”: a hard edge to the movie is established with sharp lighting and the actors in shiny black leather and dark glasses glide through the crowds, pick their victims and take them home for dinner. It’s all action with just two or three words spoken and just a few quick but effective camera shots are needed for the audience to see how the vampires dispatch their victims. In a movie where the “v” word is never mentioned, Miriam and John enjoy no physical advantages over ordinary mortals: they need knives to kill, they must dispose of the bodies themselves, they have to hide evidence that points to them as killers. If the whole movie had been more like its opening scenes, which alone made the movie a cult must-see among young people, in style and pace, it would have been a great movie as it’s not without its assets: yes, it’s very beautiful to watch, very melancholy (too much so, perhaps) and richly layered with details redolent of culture and past times that only immortal creatures can appreciate. Miriam and Sarah’s love-making scene is erotic in a tasteful way and the violence can be quick and shocking, almost demonic.
The appealing aspect of “The Hunger”, which Scott could have made more of, is the notion of two individuals pursuing indefinite life who have only each other and who by their nature must stay their distance from human society yet are compelled to interact with it and negotiate and test its changing boundaries and extremes through time. They acquire art and culture and learn to act as refined sophisticates and social leaders according to the host society’s conventions; they may become world-weary and sad at the passage of time (and the growing coarseness of society around them) but their essential nature remains savage and ravenous, and they will always be dangerous wherever they are.
Michelangelo Antonioni, “Blowup”, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (1966)
I’d been warned by a friend that this movie was over-rated, and possibly “Blowup” is famous among a lot of people for the wrong reasons, but after seeing it for free at an art gallery, I find this is a clever murder-thriller with a dark message about Western society and its fetishisation of objects, technology, spectacle and popular fads. The movie is based on a short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar (1914 – 1984), one of my favourite writers who has a brief cameo in the movie as a homeless man in a photo; the story revolves around an amateur photographer who takes pictures of a woman and a teenage boy, and discovers the boy is being set up for something sinister. The man intervenes and rescues the boy but later when he develops the photos and relives the actions he took to save the boy, he ends up paying a huge price for committing himself … The story itself is narrated by the photographer himself or his camera, and perhaps both at once so it’s very hard to tell what actually happens to the photographer but the reader gets a sense of the photographer identifying so closely with his camera that human and object become as one.
In the movie itself, the now professional photographer (David Hemmings) takes photos of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her much older lover in a park; as in the short story, Redgrave’s character demands the photographer hand over the film but he refuses. She then follows him to his studio but he tricks her into taking away a different can of film. He becomes curious and obsessively develops the pictures of the woman and her lover over and over, and discovers in the process an image of a murderer. In later developments of the photos, he also finds a dead body. By the time the photographer has done all this, the movie has already made clear he is an arrogant, self-absorbed and misogynist prick lacking in feeling for his fellow humans and bored with his current career, wanting to strike out in a more “serious” artistic direction, so it’s no surprise that he seeks to exploit the apparent murder to advance his reputation instead of calling the police. His self-seeking actions are thwarted though: his studio is raided and the prints stolen while he returns to the park to view the dead but curiously bloodless body of the woman’s lover. The photographer appeals to his publishing agent to come see the body but gets nowhere. The photographer visits the park a third time to discover that the body has gone.
In nearly every scene of “Blowup”, something is always lacking: nearly everyone we see in the movie, including the rock band (the Yardbirds) in the last half hour of the movie, is not named; the antiques shop lacks a cash register even though the female manager yaps about money and little else; the photographer buys a propeller but once he gets it home, he can’t do anything with it and can’t imagine what he can do with it; he straddles a writhing model while photographing her, ogles Redgrave’s character when she bares her breasts and romps around with two starry-eyed teenage girls but the scenes end up strangely asexual. Anything that hints at exchange, some kind of transaction that could lead to an ongoing relationship that involves emotion and feeling, is missing from these encounters.
One realises that the wider society really does share the photographer’s inner hollowness and quest for meaning as illustrated by the Yardbirds scene, where the young audience is drained of enthusiasm and life, at least until one of the guitarists (Jeff Beck) gets fed up with his non-performing instrument so he bashes and breaks it and throws the pieces at the audience who, vulture-like, swoop in to fight over the fragmented object. The photographer nicks the fretboard and the stock but once he races back out into the street, the items lose their symbolism for him and he tosses them onto the pavement. This particular scene itself has become an object of desire in media like YouTube.com due to the presence of four individuals in the scene (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Michael Palin and Janet Street-Porter) who found fame and fortune years after the movie’s release; the significance of the scene itself, with Beck’s rage at his silent guitar and the audience mirroring perhaps the photographer’s frustration with his life, is lost with its removal from the movie’s context. Antonioni and Cortazar no doubt would be very amused.
The movie is deliberately unsettling and provocative in the way it contrasts the emptiness of materialism with the world of the intangible, the hidden symbolism, the context and inter-relatedness of things: so-called Swinging London of the late 1960’s is revealed as shallow, aimless, dreary, sometimes oppressive and dependent on contrasting itself with a traditional England (but not necessarily a nicer, kinder one); the main character tries hard but is simply unfit to investigate the murder of the woman’s lover, if indeed the fellow was killed, and what the woman’s role may be; and the plot that is the movie’s raison d’etre remains vague, open to interpretation and unresolved. There are many passages in the film where there is no dialogue or very minimal dialogue and the characters tend to talk at or over each other. Background scenery that includes long camera shots of greenery and historic English villages, city scenes of brutal modernist buildings and modish interiors anchor the movie in a definite historical period but because I was so absorbed in the photographer’s actions and the movie’s plot and themes, the movie didn’t seem very dated to me.
It may be that a murder has never occurred at all and the photographer comforts himself with this possibility. Or he comes to a realisation that there’s much more going in life than what he sees physically. David Hemmings puts in a credible performance as a character who may or may not have been changed by the events of a 24-hour period; appearing in nearly all scenes, he is the one constant who must hold the entire film together and to his credit, he keeps the viewer’s attention riveted to his unpleasant anti-hero’s character and actions.
Judging from my friend’s reaction and the comments left on YouTube.com about the Yardbirds scene, I see that not everyone who has seen the movie agrees with Antonioni’s aims or interprets them in the same way. The film’s plot can be so vague that you can read almost anything you want into it. Notions such as object worship, the search for hidden meaning, the contrast between modern materialism and older, supposedly more meaningful ways of being and living have been done to death and probably in more depth in literature and film, and Antonioni’s take on these subjects in “Blowup” could be construed as narrow and reactionary. It’s easy to come away with the impression that Antonioni disapproved of or didn’t understand 1960s youth culture and trends. I like the film but I think perhaps it’s not one of Antonioni’s better efforts.
Christopher Nolan, “Inception” (2010)
I found this film disappointing despite the ingenious combination of
science fiction with the conventions of an action heist film, based on
the notion that one day it might be possible for strangers to invade
one’s dreams and muck around in there stealing secrets and planting
ideas and impulses that end up defining who you are and your life’s
work. I don’t expect a great deal from Christopher Nolan as a director:
the ideas he has for his movies may be good but their eventual execution
falls far from brilliant even when you allow for conformity with
Hollywood and mainstream audience expectations. I’m sure David Lynch,
Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg among other Hollywood directors would
have made something far more interesting and much wackier with the idea
of a dream-thief and his team implanting a notion into the head of an
heir to a corporate energy empire to force him to break it up. The
result might be messy and confusing for the audience to follow, with
sub-plots that might break off suddenly and remain unresolved in the way
of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Various snide asides and jokes at the
corporate world and about mind surgery would be dropped along key points
in the plot to relieve tension, lighten the mood and enable some
character development. With the idea in Nolan’s hands, everything
becomes part of a cool, glossy, sterile corporate-world veneer of glass
skyscrapers, picturesque historical architecture, marble floors and
people in expensive suits. Scenes of fighting and mayhem shot in a
Kenyan locale look well-ordered and clean with one narrow passage
between buildings strangely free of rubbish, pools of smelly water and
scavenging dogs. Even cities in the First World aren’t that
dental-flossingly clean! An unseen inflexible logic lurks in this world,
allowing nothing to disturb it and pursuing and getting rid of anyone or
anything that does.
In order to properly plant the idea into the victim’s head, the
dream-thief Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo di Caprio) and his companions –
an apt description as one of these people, Ariadne (Ellen Page), is a
novice at dream invasions and needs must have the parameters and
pitfalls of the inception explained to her (so the audience understands
what’s involved) in the way Doctor Who explains his actions to yet
another befuddled female Earthling he’s taken a shine to – find they
have to descend to four levels of dreamscapes, each one dreamt by a
different team member who must stay on that level in order to bring back
his fellows from a deeper level by a device or series of devices they
call the “kicker”. I happen to find it easier to view each dream as
being on a “lower” or “inner” level from the next as though they are
parts of a progressive vertical hierarchy. Each dreamscape runs at a
different pace of time so that the main action bar the kicker on one
level can finish before the team can enter a lower level. Hence we have
constant flipovers during the last hour of “Inception” to a van falling
in slow motion from a bridge to a river below. It’s very curious that
activity on the higher dreamscape level can affect levels lower down but
the effects of activity on the lower levels cannot filter up. Equally
curious is that Cobb’s guilt feelings about his dead wife Mal (Marion
Cotillard) intrude into the various dreamscapes while any subconscious
feelings Ariadne and the other team members might have resolutely stay
away from the dreamscapes.
Along the way, one of Cobb’s companions and instigator cum corporate
sponsor of the heist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), suffers serious injury on
one level which causes him to die on a lower level. This in turn sends
him to dream limbo and risks putting him in a permanent coma in real
life so Cobb diverts into a sub-plot – and another dream loop – to save
Saito. They end up recreating in mirror form a scene from the film’s
opening frames in which an aged Saito faces Cobb over a polished black
table. In these frames Saito asks Cobb if he wants to die old and alone
with regrets – in order to induce him into the inception caper – in the
recreation, it’s Cobb who asks the question of Saito to get him out of
dream limbo and back to reality. This is the climactic scene of the
movie: both Cobb and Saito are faced with a choice to continue dreaming
(and cut themselves off their loved ones in real life) or to return to
reality (and cut themselves off their memories of their loved ones, dead
or alive). I half-expect at this point they realise they’re in “Blade
Runner” so they pull out a Voight-Kampff polygraph test from under the
table to determine their human / replicant status and then exchange
origami unicorns. Instead, the extended denouement that follows becomes
a kind of limbo between the dream world and reality in which all loose
plot ends are apparently tied and the viewers must decide if they’re
watching Cobb in dream limbo or reality.
What impresses me is the conservatism and narrowness of Nolan’s vision:
the dream-thieves are contracted for a job to break up a corporate
monopoly in the long term. This is done mostly for the benefit of Saito
who altruistically includes his fellow corporate competitors as
beneficiaries. Nothing is said about any possible benefits or
disadvantages of this con-job to the planet and its inhabitants. Dom
Cobb has his reasons for accepting the job but the motives of his fellow
dream-travellers (apart from Saito) remain unknown and these people
remain one-dimensional for that. Ariadne initially is repelled but
decides to go to keep an eye on Cobb’s subconscious. The dream-worlds
they enter are banal even by our own Hollywood movie dream standards: an
urban highway chase scene in one dream, an attack on a fortress (which
turns out to be a hospital) in snowy country in another, a swish 5-star
hotel in a third. We may share the same culture so our dreams will often
be very similar in background scenery and symbols, no matter how kitschy
and trite they are, but the links and inter-actions among those symbols
and their meaning or significance have creative potential for something
original, something subversive, and become very personal. In the dreams
that feature in this movie, Nolan doesn’t attempt even in a small way to
play around with film genres like action film, science fiction film,
film noir or spy films that might extend their creative potential or
comment on the nature of making movies. (The aforementioned scenes
involving Cobb and Saito may themselves comment on linear plot
narrative.) For whichever genre appears in “Inception”, its conventions
are studiously obeyed. Irony and playfulness are replaced by explosions,
constant flipping among dream narratives and go-go-go action which
demands more energy than skill from the actors involved.
The result renders “Inception” as a smooth and efficient film with
little zest and soul. The film slots into a category along with James
Cameron’s “Avatar”, Cronenberg’s “eXisteNZ”, Gabriele Salvatores’s
“Nirvana” and possibly even Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (which
I’ve not seen) among others. In these films, characters take on other
identities and go into other “worlds” to interact with inhabitants of
those places: there is often a hidden agenda behind the purported
reasons for doing so. It may be cavalier or depressing to some that I
should treat the world of dreams as no different from virtual reality
worlds or brain / technology interfacing but other reviews of
“Inception” have noted the similarities between the dreamscape world and
computer games. This may have been part of Nolan’s intention when he
conceived the idea for the movie. In its drive to attract teenage and
young adult audiences, at home with the idea of blurred identities and
multiple fractured narratives that have an inner logic, Hollywood
undoubtedly will invest more money in directors and writers who can
deliver a similar style of film as “Inception” and its kind. If these
films can give us memorable characters and something challenging and
subversive about the way we see the world, that would be a bonus but
such bonuses are very rare in the rapacious and amoral corporate world
“Inception” seems to aspire to.
Contact: Official “Inception” movie website,
This homage to the 1970s all-female hard rock band The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Apparition / Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010) had a lot of advance publicity due in part to the casting of US child stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as two of the band’s members, lead singer Cherie Currie and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett respectively. Internet and print reviews of the movie ranged from high praise to extreme dismissiveness so I was curious to see what the fuss was about. My interest isn’t entirely academic as I had heard of The Runaways in my childhood way back when thirty years ago and later on was glad to hear that Joan Jett and another former member, lead guitarist Lita Ford, had carved out their own successful solo careers in different music genres.
Anyway as it turns out, some of the praise and some of the criticism are justified: the acting from the two female leads Fanning and Stewart and from Michael Shannon who plays the sleazebucket manager Kim Fowley is good with Stewart all but disappearing in Jett with Jett’s swagger, mannerisms and way of speaking; but the narrative and concept of the movie are very confused and don’t seem to be well thought or worked out at all. Liberties must have been taken with the movie’s narrative as though to force it into the Hollywood rock’n’roll plot stereotype of an innocent stumbling into becoming a rock star and being seduced by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, suffering its consequences, crashing out and finding rebirth and redemption in something very different. (The plot of the movie Rockstar which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional pretender who becomes the lead singer of the heavy metal band he idolises is of this type.) I can understand the film’s focus on Currie and Jett to the extent that the other band members become mere walking wallpaper as it is mostly based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angels: A Memoir of a Runaway and the film-makers didn’t get full permission from other former Runaways members to include their accounts – the bass player in the movie is a fictional construct of several bassists who played for the band – but I’d have thought that The Runaways’ history, short as it was, would have had enough drama and tragedy for a movie that could have said something significant about the period when music moved from glam rock to punk and new wave, and about how the music industry and the media at the time exploited bands and musicians for celebrity and scandal, sometimes damaging the artists along the way, and whether much has changed in the commercial music industry since that time.
If you know nothing about The Runaways’ history, you’d do better reading Currie’s autobiography or seeing Edgeplay: A Film about The Runaways, the documentary by Victory Tischler-Blue who was one of many bassists the band chewed through during its existence, than to rely on the movie: it’s a little slow on getting Jett and drummer Sandy West together, then the history lesson picks up whiz-bang speed after Currie joins and all of a sudden the band is touring Japan. Somewhere in between Currie’s audition and the girls’ adventures in Japan, they had to squeeze in a tour of the United States, a tour of the UK and recording two albums and all this must have flashed by me in the time my eyes blinked. After Currie quits the band during recording sessions for the third album, all further mention of The Runaways disappears and it’s now just Currie and Jett without her band going their separate ways. Jett cleans up her life and finds her niche in music while Currie ends up a bored shop assistant waiting for an acting break. Some redemption.
Perhaps if the movie had focussed more on Jett as the primary character than on Currie, we might have had a stronger and more complete story of The Runaways’ rise and fall. As it is, the movie tells us nothing about Jett’s background and her motivations and reasons for forming an all-girl band; we only know from Stewart’s portrayal that she hungers for acceptance but on her own terms and that she is driven by forces she may not understand. The role could easily have been one-dimensional with Jett nothing more than a tough-talking wannabe rocker so it’s to Stewart’s credit that she makes Jett at least look as if she has thoughts and feelings she has trouble expressing. As Jett in real life stayed with The Runaways to the end, having Jett as its main focus would push the movie through the band’s dumping of manager Fowley and the disputes over musical direction that eventually led to The Runaways’ break-up; but I guess all these incidents wouldn’t have made for “compelling” viewing. At least though we would have had a “happy” ending with Jett getting the acceptance she craves in the way she wants and can control. Fanning as Currie emphasises the singer’s fragility but not much of the sassy sex-kitten insolence Currie must have had to wear the corset and suspenders that became her trademark stage costume long before Madonna and her ilk had the idea of wearing their underwear as overwear.
Mention should be made of the minor actors Scout Taylor Compton who does a competent job as Lita Ford in her few scenes – what she does hardly flatters Ford but she makes her presence felt as a guitarist and a forceful personality – and first-time actress Riley Keough who as Cherie Currie’s sister must cope with their parents’ break-up and divorce, their father’s alcoholic depression and the tedium of working in a fast-food joint while envying Cherie’s seemingly good fortune. Keough underplays her role and holds up well in scenes that are heavy in sibling jealousy and emotional tension and turmoil; she has good
potential as an actress if she chooses her roles wisely and I wish her better luck in this regard than what her grandfather Elvis Presley had as an actor.
As for the music, there’s not much of The Runaways’ original material featured here with only ‘Cherry Bomb’ performed in full by the actors during the Japanese episode and snippets of ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’ appearing elsewhere. Other musicians of the period (Suzy Quatro, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop among others) can be heard which strikes me as a little strange: why do so many biopics about bands feature everybody else’s music but not much music of the band that is the subject of the biopic?
The Runaways might not have been a very good band or as influential on later generations of female musicians and performers as the hype surrounding the movie makes them out to be but they deserve a better movie treatment than what director and screenplay writer Floria Sigismondi has given them here. Admittedly this is Sigismondi’s first effort as a movie director and writer after having directed music videos so I presume she’s learning a lot in leaps and bounds the hard way: making mistakes, overlooking things and being told so endlessly by critics. The visual aspect is good with the choice of a grainy film that makes bright colours slightly acid and dark colours murky and through these effects you get some idea of the surreal world Fowley plunges the girls into. These days it seems that there are so many people moving from making music videos into directing movies that such a career move is becoming the standard way of getting into the movie-making business. Unfortunately a lot of the filming techniques and methods that work in music videos don’t always work quite so well in movies, especially in movies made for mass entertainment: these still need a strong narrative and memorable characters.
Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.
As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.
Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.
As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.
Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!