Nebraska (US 2013)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Immediately after I saw Nebraska my impression was that I had seen one of the most enjoyable films of the year and also one of the best. Since then I’ve thought about it several times and it’s in danger of becoming the year’s No 1. There are several reasons why it stands out. First it looks terrific in Black and White CinemaScope with slow pans across the flat landscapes and a higher than usual number of long shot framings by Phedon Papamichael, director Alexander Payne’s regular DoP. Second, the excellent casting and wonderful performances give us convincing representations of communities in the small towns of the ‘high plains’ of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. This is a film about a ‘real America’ – strangely beautiful even when run-down and tired. I should also mention the excellent score by Mark Orton. I’m actually listening to the soundtrack streamed live as I write.

Of course, part of my fascination is because the film speaks specifically to men of a certain age. The narrative offers us a father and son on a road trip – which, as someone who didn’t like the film pointed out to me, combines two of the most common traits of American cinema. The trip involves a bemused and possibly bewildered retired man who wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his ‘winnings’ in what he thinks is a lottery but which in reality is just a marketing promotion by a magazine publisher. This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). His wife and sons attempt to dissuade him, but in the end the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, hoping that the journey will give him time to re-build his relationship with a father who he felt was ‘absent’ during his childhood.

The setting takes Alexander Payne back to his home state and reminds us of both Election (set in a high school in Omaha) and About Schmidt (a road movie, starting from Omaha, with a similarly aged character at its centre played by Jack Nicholson). Like those two films, Nebraska has both comic moments and ‘real’ characters with elements of both hero and anti-hero. One difference, however, is that both the earlier films were literary adaptations but Nebraska is an original script by Bob Nelson, himself a native of South Dakota. Nelson and Payne know the territory and the people and, apart from the intrusion of some black comedy ‘business’ with a couple of ‘goonish’ cousins, the film is pretty close to Rossellini’s ideas for neo-realism. It’s a story taken from a real community with family secrets and relationships that most of us can recognise as ‘real’. I’ve heard criticisms that the film is depressing but I found it to be uplifting and optimistic because it seems to deal with life as it is and not as fantasy.

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

It has been fascinating to read some of the commentary on the film and some of the interviews and to discover the influences and references, many of which occurred to me watching the film and others which make sense on reflection. The strength of the film in aesthetic terms is its representation of landscape and characters in that region which represents the spine of ‘middle America’ and in Hollywood terms the terrain of the classic Western. In cultural and geographical terms this is the region from Montana down through Wyoming and South Dakota to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North-West Texas. The two films that came to mind as I studied the landscapes were Brokeback Mountain and Hud (1963). I remember from Brokeback the opening scenes in Signal, Wyoming and the drama of the huge skies. Similarly with Hud, I remember the Texas landscapes presented in Black & White ‘Scope.  Those two films are linked by the inputs of Larry McMurtry, the great storyteller of the ‘Twilight Western’ who helped to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback and whose novel Horseman, Pass By was the source for Hud. McMurtry has the feel for landscape and communities in the region and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Alexander Payne had always wanted to cast Bruce Dern, a ‘1970s character actor’ in what Payne saw as his own version of a ‘Peter Bogdanovich film’ (see this informative interview with Kevin Tent, the editor on the film). Bogdanovich made two black and white films in the early 1970s – the depression-set road movie (travelling through Kansas) Paper Moon (1973) and the Twilight Western, The Last Picture Show (1971) – based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and set in a Texas town in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

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Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar walking into the town of Signal, Wyoming at the start of Brokeback Mountain

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry's creation of 'Anarene'

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry’s creation of ‘Anarene’

The small Texas town in Hud

The small Texas town in Hud

The Last Picture Show is the most often quoted reference for Nebraska. As well as the monochrome landscapes and small town views of the plains, there is also a thematic resonance with all three films I’ve mentioned here. The Twilight Western is in this particular formulation a contemporary story set in the geographical ‘West’ as defined by Hollywood. There are usually two central male characters, one upholding the honour/traditions of the West and the other negotiating with ‘modernity’. In both Hud and The Last Picture Show there is also a generational narrative with an older and younger man attempting to learn from the other. These primarily male narratives are about loss – the loss of ‘freedom’ and the ability to ‘act’ with dignity and honour. Perhaps it is a push to equate the confused Woody with older characters such as those played by Melvyn Douglas in Hud or Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (or indeed Robert Preston in Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen as the younger man) – but the links are there. Woody has turned to drink and to lassitude, remembering his past as the owner of a small garage. We learn later that he might have been an honourable man in business – but also that he might have suffered from his experience of the war in Korea. Several commentators refer to him as an alcoholic but he seems to me to have been a man who drank beer in bars rather than face his demons at home. That judgement is something audiences have to think through for themselves – the narrative doesn’t judge the man as such. I’m not sure he is suffering from any form of dementia either. He doesn’t say much and his belief in his ‘win’ is perhaps pathetic, but he still has an identity that he cares about. Bruce Dern’s performance is remarkable but it would be a shame if it overshadowed that of Will Forte as David – the genuine protagonist of the narrative. Forte seems to have worked mainly in TV, but he is very good in this film.

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Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’

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Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (print held by the Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78455)

The interview with Kevin Tent throws up two more interesting references in terms of the look of the film. One is to note that ‘Woody Grant’ is a name that reverses ‘Grant Wood’, the artist who painted ‘American Gothic’ the iconic portrait of the rural American couple and a potential model for Woody and his formidable wife Kate played by June Squibb – another terrific performer mining the comedy in the script. There is also a suggestion that another iconic painting, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) was an influence – even though Wyeth was from Maine. ‘Christina’s World’ is possibly my favourite painting so perhaps my appreciation of the beauty of these desolate landscapes is somehow triggered by memories of the painting?

The music is the final part of the aesthetic construct. Again, I have to confess that American ‘roots music’ is my favourite form. In this interview from Film Music Magazine, Mark Orton explains his own background and that of his colleagues in the Tin Hat trio:

We had all studied classical music but were all improvisers as well. We listened to Smithsonian records, Thelonious Monk, Iannis Xenakis, and Willie Nelson. We were a composer’s collective and the only thing we had decided about the group early on was that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques and preparations rather than anything electric or processed. Whatever of bluegrass’s past that found its way into my/our sound did so naturally. (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=12017).

That’s a pretty eclectic mix and the interview is well worth reading. As Orton puts it, the music takes the film away from a specific genre while at the same time firmly locating it in the American ‘Heartland’. The characters are at one remove from the rural people of the dustbowl stories and the cowboys of the Twilight Western, but they certainly ‘connected’.

Nebraska is a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling. I’m sure there is a great deal more to say. What did you all think?

Before Midnight (US 2013)

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) check-in to a hotel.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at check-in in the hotel.

So here is the most talked about film of the moment – a film which must mean something to anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any kind that has lasted more than a few years. It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific performances by its two leads speaking the lines they created with director Richard Linklater – who demonstrates just how well he understands cinema as an art form. There are thousands of words already out there in which fans describe how much they love the film and a smaller number by those who want to find fault. I’m going to try to look at the film a little differently by thinking about in terms of its formal properties and the questions it raises about representation and ideology.

I should explain that I didn’t see the film in which the couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first met – Before Sunrise in 1994. I did see the second film in which they re-kindled their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and I remember that I enjoyed it very much but, possibly because I hadn’t seen the first film, nothing really stuck in mind other than the general idea of a film narrative based on a long conversation  between two people. I think that the third film stands up on its own. No doubt those who have seen all three will argue that it is much better viewed as a three-part long-form narrative. Linklater’s brilliance is that he can clearly please both camps.

The central question about the film for me is how the narrative, both in its content and in its formal strategies negotiates what I see as a series of contradictions or ‘binarisms’. The first of these is the use of cinematic devices connoting realism/naturalism v. the tightly structured and controlled two-hander acting displays. The devices include the long take, long shot sequences including the 14 minutes in the car, the scenes at the house, the walk through the village and the long hotel room sequence. In fact, after adding in the opening at the airport, there aren’t many more locations/set-ups in 109 minutes – most of the ‘action’ takes place in just five settings. If you haven’t seen the film, I should briefly sketch the outline (without giving away spoilers). Jesse (Hawke) is an American novelist who met Celine (Delpy), a French environmental project worker, on a train and then spent time in Vienna in 1994. In 2004 they meet again when Jesse is in Paris and decide to live together. Jesse has to leave his wife in Chicago with his young son. At the start of Before Midnight we meet Jesse saying goodbye to his son (now 14) at the airport in Kalamata in the Pelopponese region of Greece. The boy has been enjoying a vacation with his father and his new family and is now returning to his mother in Chicago. Outside the airport Celine is waiting. The boy’s departure is the ‘inciting moment’ because Jesse realises how much he has enjoyed being with his son and it prompts him to think about how he could be a much bigger part of  his son’s teenage years. But this is something which would clearly affect Celine and her future. The couple will have to talk.

The long take, long shot approach is associated with realist filmmaking, stretching from Renoir and Mizoguchi in the 1930s via a host of filmmakers, but perhaps most notably the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s, up to the present. Although it does occur in aspects of Hollywood cinema it is generally anathema to the streamlined, central-character-based Hollywood narrative form. In Before Midnight Linklater makes his strategy explicit by having Celine talk about a film she saw as a teenager. She doesn’t name the film, but its unique plot details – a married couple wandering through the ruins of Pompeii and being affected by the bodies of parents and children preserved by the lava flows – can only be from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Many of the audiences for Before Midnight won’t understand the direct reference so it isn’t particularly useful to compare the relationships between Delpy and Hawke and Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in the Rossellini film. Even so, by making the reference at all, Linklater looks ‘out’ from the naturalism of the couple on the streets of a Greek village to the artifice of a cinema feature.

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax while the women work in the kitchen!

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax – while the women work in the kitchen!

The outdoor scenes, captured by the Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris offer a ‘real place’ utilising the fantastic light. Linklater also includes some local colour caught in the long shot framing. More strikingly he elects to include passages of dialogue in the background in Greek that are not subtitled. There is also a moment when Celine talks in rapid French, also not subtitled. In neither case is the lack of translation a problem in moving the narrative forward – but what it does do is underline the sense of this being a film narrative that is taking place in a real location (in Rossellini’s ‘real world’) rather than a Hollywood confection that needs a colourful background. However, in the long hotel sequence, the verbal exchanges between Delpy and Hawke become more like a stage play – I thought of Coward’s Private Lives. This tension between the ‘natural’ (artfully constructed of course) and the skilfully contrived is linked to a second set of binarisms of character and actor and then of male and female, French and American, scientific/social/rational and artistic/romantic.

Delpy and Hawke are ‘film stars’ who manage to resolve the conundrum of the star image – how to project that sense of being somehow ‘special’ but at the same time just like you and me, to use their fantastic skills of timing and verbal dexterity to make the scripted seem naturalistic. This is highlighted in the scenes around the dining table when Patrick (Walter Lassally) speaks. Lassally at 85 has had a remarkable career in the cinema as a German refugee who became a leading cinematographer in the UK in the 1960s, eventually winning an Oscar for Zorba the Greek in 1965. Now he lives in Crete, so although he has not (as far as I know) acted before, his presence in the film is perfectly understandable. Yet when he speaks, he can’t manage the naturalistic speech of Delpy and Hawke and his lines therefore point towards their performances. Delpy by contrast can suddenly switch into another kind of performance when she pointedly plays the bimbo for everyone’s entertainment.

At times during the screening I actually closed my eyes because I found some of the dialogue just too real and too painful. At other times I allowed myself to become distanced from the conversation so that I could think about what the two characters represent. I felt at times that Delpy was being very ‘French’ and Hawke very ‘American’. There has been a great deal of discussion about the scene in which Julie Delpy plays topless. What’s more to the point, I think, is that she plays a romantic lead in an American film in which she is a 42 year-old woman with a real woman’s body, a little thicker and broader in places, but still beautiful and very sexy. By comparison Ethan Hawke seems rather brattish and definitely less mature, less ‘rational’ in his attitudes. It’s never clear how much the audience is expected to see Celine as at least in some way based on Delpy and Jesse based on Hawke. This is relevant because the plot includes the idea that Jesse has had successful novels published, supposedly based on the two earlier encounters between himself and Celine.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

Reading interviews with Julie Delpy after the screening I’m a little puzzled as to what she was aiming for in her contributions to the script. She talks a lot about her feminism and she clearly alienates some American audiences with her atheism. These two facets do figure in Celine’s make-up as a character. Watching the film I did feel that at times Celine seemed too whiney and shrew-like – though most of the time I was completely with her. By contrast Jesse seemed too much like a little boy lost who had some useful practical arguments but who perhaps didn’t want to face up to facts. But perhaps this is the brilliance of the film? These are complex developed characters, not romcom cardboard cut-outs. I’m still thinking about the film. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed.

BIFF 2013 #16: Somebody Up There Likes Me (US 2012)

Max (Keith Poulson) and his second wife Lyla (Jess Weixler)

Max (Keith Poulson) and his second wife Lyla (Jess Weixler)

BIFF19logoIn his introduction to the film, Festival Co-director Neil Young was careful to tell us that this was a ‘Marmite movie’ – some people love it, others hate it. I fear I’m unusual. It passed the time quite pleasantly after a beginning when I thought it was going to be awful. There were occasions when I laughed and I was always interested in what might happen next. The performances were generally good, the aesthetic was clean and bright and the animated chapter headings/intertitle cards that told us ‘5 Years later . . .’ etc. were very nicely done. I just can’t get too excited about it. That’s probably because of my general aversion to contemporary American Indies. Film festivals mean that you get to see some films simply because they are ‘there’ – and in this case because I wanted to see the short (more on that later). But what’s this film about, you ask?

The title isn’t very helpful (at least to me) and I don’t think the film bears any relationship to the 1956 boxing movie. Instead it features Max (Keith Poulson) a young man with seemingly few social skills who moves from one marriage to a second and then a second separation and a third relationship. Along the way he has a son and throughout he has a sounding board/friend/rival in the form of Sal (Nick Offerman). The wittiest scenes in the film involve these two exchanging misunderstandings. Max also has a suitcase containing something magical rather like the mysterious object in Kiss Me Deadly (but seemingly less dangerous!). The film’s other novel feature is that the central characters never age, but we see the evidence of time passing through Max’s son who is played by four different actors as he grows from child to man. The film’s Texan director Bob Byington (on his sixth feature) thanks both Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick in the closing credits but for me the reference point would be Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Or do all these Austin indies include a British pop song? The music in the film was quite enjoyable but it was a surprise when Sandie Shaw popped up. (The animated graphics are by Bob Sabiston who worked on Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and A Waking Life.)

Max may be autistic, but he may just be an example of indie cool. There are moments of casual racism and sexism which I think are meant to be taken ironically – in any case the three female leads easily match the men. After the screening I found people who did ‘really like’ the film and it has won festival prizes. It’s only 75 mins long and I think it’s out on DVD in the US.

BIFF 2013 #13 1913 Massacre (US 2011)

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BIFF19logoOn Christmas Eve 1913 in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan a group of miners and their wives and children were having a party in the Italian Hall when somebody shouted “Fire!”. In the ensuing panic, 74 people lost their lives, 59 of them children crushed and asphyxiated as they tumbled down the stairs. This happened during a strike at the copper mine. Ever since there has been controversy surrounding who started the rush for the doors and why so many died. In 1941 Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the events and called it ‘1913 Massacre’. In the documentary discussed here Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie plays the song in the town’s impressive theatre. A little later he visits the memorial for those who died which comprises a plaque at the sight of the last surviving brick arch of the Italian Hall (demolished in 1984). At the site of this memorial he tells us that he’s learned a great deal about American history over the years – not in a classroom or from a book, but from songs. The film turns out to be about the song, about the memories and about the narration of  history. And now this film has become part of that history. It’s clearly a history that needs to be retold for succeeding generations and also as an example of a ‘people’s history’.

1913 Massacre is a conventional documentary film but it is skilfully constructed so that it enables several discourses around the history, culture and politics as well as the personal tragedies of that day. Directors Ken Ross and Louis Galieri have put together eye-witness (or family memory) testimonies with home movies (what looks like 8mm and video footage), archive footage from the early twentieth century and even a corporate film from the mining company with Arlo Guthrie’s presentations to camera, his performances of the song and various statements by local historians. The filmmakers have worked on the film for many years, shooting hundreds of hours of interviews. Ken Ross is the filmmaker who has also taught film and Louis Galieri was first a university teacher of history and literature before moving into film production. The background to the filming of 1913 Massacre is covered on the detailed film project website.

I think I knew the name ‘Calumet’ but I certainly didn’t know the story and the film has resonated with me in many ways. Some years ago I remember being told about a similar incident in a Yorkshire coal-mining district during roughly the same period when 16 children died in a crush trying to leave a film showing in a public hall in 1908. This Wikipedia page also refers to an even worse disaster in Sunderland in 1883 when 183 children were killed in a crush at the Victoria Hall during a children’s variety show. Each of these three disasters took place in working-class communities in urban areas where the first mass entertainment venues were being developed. What was lacking was what we would now know as ‘risk assessment’ and specifically the development of ’emergency exits’ with doors opening outwards to allow crowds to ‘spill out’ in the event of fire or other emergencies. The direction in which the doors opened was a key issue in the Italian Hall disaster and discussion of this is supremely important in the film.

The filmmakers have found photographic evidence to show that the doors at the Italian Hall opened outwards, refuting what many of the townspeople have been told over the decades. Responses to the question “which way did the doors open?” are edited together with everyone saying “inwards”. It is then pointed out that it is suspicious when everyone trots out the same line. So, did someone block the doorway and then spread the rumour that the doors opened the ‘wrong way’? The film’s audience realises that the ‘disaster’ became a political issue.

Calumet was part of an extraordinary community in Northern Michigan in the 1910s. One of the biggest copper-mining regions in the world attracted migrant workers from Italy, Poland, Finland and many other parts of Europe. In 1913 workers began a major strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company – which didn’t want to see a unionised workforce and which persuaded the local authorities to send 2,000 armed National Guards to police the workers’ demonstrations. This was the context for the Italian Hall ‘massacre’ which the workers believed was started by a scab and exacerbated by deliberate police inaction/obstruction. The filmmakers present this material fairly dispassionately but in a key scene they record a group of supporters of the company who are then challenged by a previously ‘neutral’ speaker. In this way, the apologists are exposed. I wish I knew more about US labour history, but I’ve always thought that it was the brutality of the US capitalists and their hired thugs, especially towards migrant workers in the first three decades of the twentieth century, that prevented the development of democratic socialism in the US becoming part of mainstream political life and paved the way for the greedy materialist Amerika of the rest of the twentieth century. Imagine what a democratic socialist America might have done with all its wealth and the goodwill and hard work of its workers. Woody Guthrie had the imagination to promote that vision. “This land is our land” – for all Americans, not just the rich. That’s why he could see that the Italian Hall massacre was an important political-historical event.

Here’s the trailer:

and a short clip of the responses to the film after it was screened in Calumet:

The DVD of the film is available via the website. Watching the film brought back memories of similarly themed documentaries such as The Wobblies (1979), the story of the International Workers of the World (available in full on YouTube) and features such as The Ballad of Joe Hill (Sweden/US 1970), sadly unavailable and also Claude Jutra’s classic Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada 1971) set in a ‘company mining town’ in Quebec in the late 1940s. Watching 1913 Massacre in the UK on the day before the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the biggest union-basher in UK history, has made me think a great deal about the narration of ‘people’s history’. I suspect that I’ll return to these films.

Hitchcock (US 2012)

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlet Johannsen (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Hitchcock. It isn’t any kind of rigorous analysis of the man or of filmmaking as a process and it has one major miscalculation in the script from my perspective. But for what it is – essentially a romantic comedy drama (definitely a Hitchcock category) about a long-married couple – I think it works very well and I laughed many times as well as once feeling quite emotional. In other words, my reactions were rather different to those I experienced with The Girl.

Hitchcock is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. The book was published in 1990 and it has taken 12 years to get to the screen. The film focuses on the marriage of ‘Hitch’ and Alma Reville and his struggle to make the film that he wanted to make for his own artistic reasons – but which eventually turned out to be his biggest money-spinner. Scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin sticks fairly close to what I assume is the material from the book except for two inventions. The first is a recurring nightmare that Hitchcock has about Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the real life model for Robert Bloch’s story of Psycho. There was too much of this for me and I think the idea of Gein ‘haunting’ Hitchcock could have been done differently and certainly more economically. Secondly, McLaughlin invents a close writing relationship between Alma and the screenwriter Whitfield Cook. Cook did indeed have a relationship with the Hitchcocks and in the 1940s he wrote an unsuccessful Broadway play in which Patricia Hitchcock featured as a teenager. In 1949-50 he worked at various times with Alma on the scripts for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These are the last two mentions he gets in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I don’t think it really matters that McLaughlin resurrected Cook as a ‘player’ in 1959. I take it that Alma was having one of what I suspect were many little spats with Hitch and that Cook is offered here as a diversion for her before she gets back on board with Psycho.

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

My feeling is that the film was very well cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as respectively Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are very good. All the other supports are good too especially Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s PA and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Hopkins, for me, ‘inhabits’ Hitch more successfully than Toby Jones – but then the script is more friendly than in The Girl. It requires Hopkins to be more playful and he enjoys himself. The crunch for most audiences will come with Helen Mirren’s performance as Alma. Clearly, she is too tall and too glamorous. I’m not intending to  be mean to Alma, but in 1960 women over 60 rarely looked as svelte as Ms Mirren. Several people have echoed the line about Mirren suddenly becoming (her best-known character) Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect whenever she has to act decisively. I can see this, but I have to be honest and say that it didn’t occur to me at the time. I accepted that she was Alma and I’m pleased that she was seen to contribute so much to the production of Psycho. Everything I’ve read suggests that Alma was a very bright woman who knew the industry well. I was pleased to hear the dialogue line when she reminds someone that when Hitchcock started working in the industry, he was her junior. I was able to forget that Mirren didn’t look like Alma and I enjoyed her verbal exchanges with Hopkins.

The real problem is not with the film but with the distribution and promotion and the audience expectations. In the US this was a ‘small film’ with a budget of $15.7 million (I’m using this Hollywood Reporter article for background). It was given a limited platform release in November 2012, presumably to have a stab at Oscar nominations. It only managed one technical nomination but Mirren and Hopkins got acting noms from several other awards panels. In the UK, however, it got a full ‘saturation’ release to all multiplexes – a big mistake in my view since I think this is a conventional genre film skewed towards older audiences who will probably be entertained much as they have been by other titles with similar ingredients. I was more entertained by this than by The King’s Speech or The Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hitchcock has got little to offer to audiences under 35 and many of the references in the parts dealing with Paramount in 1960 will mean nothing. Does anybody under 50 remember much about Jerry Lewis now?

The major problem that the producers had, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, is that they couldn’t use any material from Psycho itself because Universal, who own the rights (Psycho went to Universal when Hitchcock joined Lew Wasserman in buying a stake in the studio following MCA’s purchase) refused to have any dealings with the Hitchcock production. This was because Patricia Hitchcock, who still controls the Hitchcock estate, didn’t want to support a film about her parents. Universal still have an interest in some of Hitchcock’s best-known films and didn’t want to offend his daughter. All Hitchcock’s TV shows had been made for Revue Studios, owned by MCA and subsequently part of Universal. All of this means that Hitchcock is ‘light’ on many aspects of the filmmaking process in those Revue Studios where Psycho was shot. Consequently, the film will probably disappoint hardcore fans. But if you just want to watch something entertaining, I think the film is fine. I should mention the director Sacha Gervasi, a Brit previously known for directing the heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Canada 2008). I thought he supported his actors well and the film looks good in what Jeff Cronenweth has referred to as a bright Technicolor look created by shooting on a ‘RED Epic’ digital camera.

The Master (US 2012)

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

The Master has all the trappings of an ‘event’ film and that is indeed what it has become. Paul Thomas Anderson made the decision to shoot his film on 65mm film, but to release it in a standard 1:1.85 ‘modern widescreen’ ratio rather than CinemaScope (1:2.35) or one of the other widescreen aspect ratios associated with the 1950s ‘roadshow picture’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (December 2012) he recognises that he has created a problem with his ‘chamber’ piece which seems to promise to be something else. He thinks that you should ideally see this work on a 70mm film print. In the UK only one cinema (in London) is showing the film in this way with every other screening offered on digital projection. Not surprisingly, the rush of cinephiles to the Odeon West End placed the film into the Top 20 on its exclusive 70mm run for the first two weeks (the Roadshow idea) and the hype built for the subsequent release to 153 digital screens. However, those 153 digital screens struggled to produce a fraction of the screen average for the 70mm print. Instead The Master now looks like a solid American Independent hit rather than a crossover hit.

I describe this distribution history and its media coverage to highlight the problems facing anyone who wants to write about the film now on release. There are already hundreds of words out there – can I justify adding any more to the pile? There are a few things that haven’t been said and some that need a greater airing so I’ll press on. I should say first that I watched the film with interest, even when I didn’t particularly feel taken by the narrative or the theme. It’s a long film (143 mins) and it requires patience. But surprisingly the time flew by. The cinematography and set design/costumes look stunning and the music soundtrack features some lovely songs some of which are on YouTube – though I didn’t notice Jonny Greenwood’s compositions as much as I did on There Will Be Blood. The central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are probably what most audiences notice first. I found them both quite disturbing (especially that of Phoenix) but they do make sense in terms of the characters. Less prominent perhaps, but very effective, is Amy Adams. There is no doubt about Anderson’s talents as a director in terms of both developing a grand vision and orchestrating all his resources. The problems I have with the film are associated more with the narrative ideas and the overall theme. This may be more to do with my increasingly dyspeptic view of American culture and American cinema generally.

If you’ve managed to miss the plot descriptions of the film, I should point out that Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US sailor who after the Second World War is unable to settle in to civilian work and who becomes a drifter – and an alcoholic – who one day stumbles onto the yacht/steamship being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a would be guru who is developing a practical philosophy about living in America entitled ‘The Cause’. He is attracted to the sailor, despite  the alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, and a strange relationship begins. Dodd’s existing family have some misgivings about accepting the new convert.

Freddie leads the crew in flaking out . . .

. . . this was in mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

. . . this was in my mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

The film is ‘about’ the struggle to marry together dreams of ‘freedom’ and the possibilities of affluence in an increasingly conservative American society in the Truman era. The specific time period I find absolutely fascinating but the narrative about ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ that is blown up to epic proportions is less attractive. It’s possible to make statements through metaphor and the stories of ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ people, but the ‘Great American Novel’ and Hollywood appear to prefer ‘big’ heroes with big aims – whether they are ‘leaders’ or ‘anti-heroes’. Freddie Quell in Joachin Phoenix’s performance offers a construction with familiar characteristics drawn from a range of famous literary characters who have in turn been personified in high-profile performances. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (an original cinema creation). I’m not claiming any direct resemblance here, rather that these are all characters either remembered from wartime or struggling in the aftermath to maintain some form of independence/freedom in the face of conformity. The difference here is that one familiar character is placed in a relationship with a second, the father figure and visionary character. The problem is that I don’t see this as a new story so much as an endless stream of references. Watching it felt like being in a kind of intertextual dream. I couldn’t work out why we were shown a scene in the desert and I started thinking about Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (US 1980). Later I read that one of the plot details in the film was based on an anecdote told to Anderson by Robards. At another point when Dodd is ‘processing’ Quell via a set of questions, I thought of Warren Beatty being subjected to propaganda films in The Parallax View (US 1974).

Part of my problem is that I’ve never found Scientology or other cults particularly interesting (the Dodd character and other aspects of the plot are supposed to be informed by Ron L. Hubbard’s story). The ‘real’ story for me would be the era of the HUAC hearings and the development of conservative politics in America. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a significant number of Hollywood creatives came to the UK to escape the witch hunts in the US. The Master plotline also heads for the UK towards the end of the film and these scenes were quite surreal – and again I started to make connections, this time to the Powell & Pressburger films of 1944-46 and their American GI characters.

Whatever problems I had with the theme of the film I have to admit that the film itself has set me thinking and I feel I should watch it again. Anderson apparently took a great deal from two documentaries – one by John Huston on the ‘processing’ of veterans returning from war in 1946 titled Let There Be Light and the other by Lionel Rogosin in 1955 called On the Bowery dealing with drunks on Skid Row (see the interview with Anderson by James Bell in Sight and Sound December 2012). I suspect I might end up watching the DVD.

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.