Murder By Contract (1958)

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First time with Irving Lerner I believe.

Some thing almost fascistically Randian about Claude’s impulse for physical self-improvement, coupled with his desire to become gun-for-hire despite already working a steady job. His apparent initial greed is undercut by the methodical patience of his process (“There’s too many doers in the world not enough people take time to think”); efficiency and twisted morality (“I brush my teeth three times a day and I obey local speed limits”) of Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. But, in the prologue section, the figure who really suggests himself is Travis Bickle; no surprise to read that Scorsese loved this. Cruising, inexorability, blackened cynicism, domestic fidgeting. C’s beliefs and justifications suck you into the film; they later comment on ruthless capitalism, with a terrifying unblinking speech about cutting costs vs cutting throats and the fundamental similarity between assassination and competition.

MBC is also very distinctive stylistically. Read comparisons with the French new wave and I certainly see Bresson in the elliptical efficiency – an early contract in a barbershop is hitchcock-level suggestive and terrifying. Welles all over the place too: Touch of Evil in the motel showdown, Lady From Shanghai in the geometry, Third Man in the final shot. All the time under bleached-out LA sunshine, languid isolation in Antonioni streets.

Unfortunately the pulpy sensibility does tip over into some ridiculous moments, such as C bizarrely berating a hapless waiter for his complicity in ruthless capitalism, or the way C’s misogyny is much less poisonously alluring than his misanthropy (“the human female is descended from the monkey”). And when you’re spending most of the 80 minutes with three characters you feel the need for decent acting from more than just one of them (C reminded me of a midpoint between Brando and Ruffalo). Still a lean and clean B noir with a jazzy sense of cool and a masterful efficiency.

7

Get Out (2017)

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It’s smart. The dynamics of racial tension operate on a few levels in Jordan Peele’s script, who has a great ear for squirm-inducingly misjudged chat, hilarious and horrible. This is clearly the focus and it’s a great topic – it makes the construction of a robotic and uncanny community inevitable – but there are a few less amusing undercurrents. Tied into the themes of underexposure and cohabitation are issues of employment inequality, even modern-day slavery – uncomfortably present notions in the mind of Chris’ Dick-Halloran accomplice, Rod, masked though they are by his conspiratorial imagination. Rod’s trouble getting institutional help, which becomes increasingly significant towards the end, also touches on the problem of high rates of AWOLity among African Americans. People have talked about these immediate issues being suppressed by the more comic observations, but I think GO shows the way awkwardly superficial relations hold a more profoundly imbalanced framework in place. For Chris, “It’s all good” (and variants) becomes a quietistic and isolating mantra for diffusing tension, especially in the more subtle interactions with the seemingly sympathetic Rose, a kind of ally-squared in this horrible context (C is really alone before he even arrives). Observant horror in the year of Romero’s death.

It’s cine-smart too. Being a horror-novice I get most of this second hand, but so will an audience of people my age; easy to enjoy alongside Edgar Wright’s TCC trilogy and Shutter Island. There’s a nice flow from the former to the latter, in a sense, with the toe-curling social negotiations gradually giving way to a mistrustful search for answers. Preceding all this is a nasty encounter with a deer which put me in mind of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Also thinking of Under The Skin during the trips to “the sunken place.” The psychotic brother definitely seemed to be going for DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, too; later, the bingo slave-auction is a horrifying set-piece. Performance-wise, Daniel Kaluuya nails the reticent discomfort as well as the gasping panic, while his mumbled incredulities after some of the more egregious social interactions are always amusing and empathetic.

But it’s also smart in terms of pace (yeah too many). JP has talked about comedy being training for writing horror; the importance of timing is evident here, with the jump-scares carefully measured (sometimes forgone altogether) to keep you guessing. As a whole, the film moves along economically too, its briskness correcting for both the simplicity of the central idea as well as its predictability. While it is somewhat predictable, the tone does shift, as mentioned, and the climax is a gutsy and well-earned blowout which is less inventive but just as entertaining withal. It’s harder to piece the narrative together in retrospect (if the abductions depend upon hypnosis, and hypnosis depends upon the subject’s comfort, why are the family so knowingly discomforting?) but questions don’t come up while you’re watching, and the way grotesque violence somehow emerges from superficial solidarity is a point in itself.

Read about the alternate endings on wiki, too. You can see the seams when the police car pulls up with the sinking reactions on C’s and R’s faces. Makes for a nice final twist when Rod gets out instead. Shame the reason JP felt the need to swap it is because stories about police brutality against young black men seemed especially close to the bone in the States at the time. Obviously dealing with different issues here but glad we can all enjoy a smash blockbuster written and directed by an (established) AA debutant which deals with the complex realities of American racism in 2017; especially in a film as fun and generous as GO.

8

Knight of Cups (2015)

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There’s another poster for this film which emphasises the tarot dimension (I finally like the title), as well as its religiosity and the central image of palm trees. I think this one better captures what the film is actually like.

Terrance Malick effectively takes off from everyone’s second least-favourite bit in The Tree of Life: Sean Penn wandering around Austin, eyes broodingly upturned towards the glass and girders around him.

The initiative is essentially similar: an attempt to reconnect with a point in the past at which choices were made, paths were taken (unfortunately these are phrases repeated explicitly and quite frequently in the script here) which led us to a troubled and misguided present. The important difference is character – the keystone which, KoC now makes me think, held ToL together like a mathematician’s bridge (I’m still gonna check To The Wonder for this reason). Christian Bale’s Rick has gravity in the way a vacuum does: other people are briefly pulled into his orbit, whispering admonishments or temptations to him as they pass by, before being flung out of the film’s universe. I think this connects to the lack of plot here. The momentary images which constitute ToL accrete into a developmental narrative, which at least helps us situate SP’s heel-kicking torpor at the end of a timeline. ‘Timeline’ is an appropriate word here, too, but unfortunately more in the social media sense. R is a man constituted entirely by what surrounds him, much in the same way that an Instagram profile attempts to construct a ‘self’ through views and objects.

The result is a flattened and dissolute consistency. Take any ten minutes of KoC and swap it with any other ten minutes and no-one would notice. Tarot-themed intertitles are insignificant (the section Freedom follows Death without much inconsistency), as are a procession of lovers who behave differently (Cate Blanchett is probably the standout as an incisive ex-wife) but leave equally faint imprints on the narrative.

Not much to report stylistically, besides excursions into handheld footage which at points near the beginning reminded me of the glowing patchwork of Jarman’s The Garden. Some amusing musical moments: extracts from Burial’s Kindred EP in a neon strip-club are topped for lack of self-awareness by a sample from Bisophere’s ‘Hyperborea’. Too many levels removed from the Twin Peaks general.

KoC doesn’t hold up well on the remaining trembling leg: its worldview. I don’t mind the empathetic dinosaur in ToL but the equally notorious equivalent here – Imogen Poots bestowing a flower upon a sleeping homeless man – is pretty embarrassing. It’s hard to distinguish between criticism of opulence and excavations of uncanny, perhaps unintended beauty inside that opulence (best examples are the sub-Koyaanisqatsi tableaux and elegance in the human form, particularly the tumbling acrobats at a depressing Las Vegas party). This usually isn’t helped by the continuous Lubezki-swooping, which often gives the impression of oceanic exploration but also the interiors of cathedrals (especially when covering internal architecture), which ties in with the frequent baptismal water imagery, the Bunyan references, the flimsy concluding remarks from a priest about suffering and transcendence, etc. It’s not often that I’ve concluded a film’s characters could use a little more old-time religion.

I read that SP was very annoyed at how ToL turned out because he thought the original script (which feature his character more prominently) was trimmed beyond recognition. The KoC script really is pretty dire – repetitive, vapid, mawkish, mumbled. Here are a few egregious gems:

Treat this world the way it deserves: no principles, only circumstances.

Living my life is like playing Call of Duty on easy – I just fuck shit up!

No-one cares about reality any more.

Real life is so hard to find. Where is it? How do you get there?

Shoutout also to the monologue about “taking drugs once” and consequently “seeing the world in a new way”, even “know[ing] more about the world than other people.” Feathers under armpits.

TM deserves credit for honing a very singular style and making apparently urgent and principled films. I don’t think we needed this contribution. ToL was a successful experiment; this was a failed one.

3

King of New York (1990)

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Second time with Abel Ferrara after Bad Lieutenant.

After a penitential Christopher Walken is led out of his scantily monkish cell he’s escorted through a steaming night-time New York which looms up at him through the windows of his limo. The buildings are drenched in a Gotham electric blue (check the neo-noir poster); Badalamenti synths wash through the scene and increase the sense of intimidating alienation. KoNY (paint the night) is best when NY takes on the status of a character, as towards the end, after CW has hacked away at his inner circle like Richard III (having dispensed some killer lines – “bury it with him”), when its neon blocks rear above the seedy basement and remind him that he can never win (“If I can have a year or two I’ll make something good”). CW is King in a king-of-the-jungle way: the suffocating, tentacular city is the only winner.

KonY is a predictably hard-nosed and unflinching but surprisingly sleek depiction of the drug war that pulled snarling antagonists from both side of the law into a moral black hole. CW, though, is looking at the stars after a supposed reformation and a convincing conviction to drain his nihilistic associates and partners for cash to prop up a hospital in the deprived local neighbourhood. His performance is great – there’s a subtle disengagement, which goes beyond world-weariness, in his eyes from the tense weigh-in vs Lawrence Fishburne’s psychotic henchman and previous employee. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks, but he wants something else. Definitely connected with him more than the foul, even demonic Keitel of BL, who seems to generate the town’s moral torpor rather than react to it.

Can see his stated influences in this: Pasolini in the charged visual symbolism (the madonna and the coca cola signs cast shadows); Fassbinder’s unapologetic political righteousness; Kubrick in the clean, centred headshots and the menace of elegance (first connection is obviously with Eyes Wide Shut because of the NY decadence). Also thought of Elio Petri’s Investigations of a Citizen Above Suspicion during the simple and self-explanatory shots of dripping material wealth, particularly at the beginning.

Not perfect: stretches of the action feel like high-powered bluster which drowns out the message, and there’s some dodgy acting particularly from David Caruso. But the politics are great, which leads to an unsettlingly righteous rant by CW in the home of his opposite number, and some nice touches like the continual pressure on a disingenuous local politician (there’s even an accusatory cake like the one in The Bad Sleep Well). I’ll definitely return to KonY to see CW stalking out of the subway like reheated death, swimming through the vast crowds and silent glass walls until he collapses bleeding into a cab, cops closing in like teeth.

7

Black Origami (2017)

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Opener ‘Black Origami’ skitters and bangs with cascading chimes, breathy female vocals, scarab percussion, sonorous bass. Some North African sounds in the synths are joined by thumping hand percussion and claps – encircling instrumentation, reminds me of the inclusive medley of Africa Express’ rendition of Terry Riley’s In C. It’s a statement of intent as far as instrumental diversity goes, expanding the palette from Dark Energy but retaining that propulsive and relentless drive derived from footwork, a genre which Jlin seems to have transformed almost beyond recognition.

Love the mechanically rapid toms and serpentine shakers on ‘Enigma’ – succinct summation of the power of combining manual sounds and mechanical production. Looped vocal sample definitely cleaves to the DJ Rashad archetypal footwork style. Far more stripped back melodically with plenty of negative space, which reminds me of more British bass music trends like SOPHIE’s skeletal pop madness.

Middle Eastern synths on ‘Kyanite’ and perhaps South Asian vocal samples, although its hard to say given how fragmentary they are – poring over the sounds, some mysteriously partial some perfectly and entirely captured and repurposed. Gut-tightening revved synths introduced near the end, enhancing the aggressive feel of this opening stretch; does have that rollercoaster feel of entertainment done to you. These opening three tracks are distinct mostly in the geographical traditions they evoke. There’s a lot of similarity in the linear structures; they’re more like a sequenced stretch, an evolving kaleidoscopic trip for which we remain sharply awake.

‘Holy Child’ opens the B side with the surprisingly distinctive stamp of William Basinski on the sampled vocals (they do remind me of the mood on his recent, meditatively funereal release A Shadow In Time), which are much more foregrounded giving the track a more distinctive melodic component; the same distinctive approach is inflected in a more cerebral, less physical direction. ‘Nyakinyua Rise’ splits this difference in Jlin’s sound by shifting completely in the other direction, being almost completely percussion and bass – thumping snares and bruising shouts – until about halfway with the arrival of a vocal which could be sampled from a Japanese combat video game. It’s easy to sit here and narrate the album’s compositional diversity and complexity, but the effect of Jlin’s painstaking editing is to keep BO fresh in a way that few footwork albums or comps succeed at.

Buzzsaw synths on ‘Hatsheput’ recall the revving on ‘Kyanite’, though they’re much more foundational here, playing with that balance between fragmented and holistic sampling (which I usually associated mainly with percussively looped vocals, in footwork) (actually those ‘Kyanite’ revs do return; ‘H’ is probably the least distinctive track on BO.

If the album’s first half – with the exception of standout ‘Holy Child’ – finds ways to adapt and tinker with the same formula, the same new musical vocabulary, the second half brings it back with a crashing series of diversions and deviations which ramp up into an explosive finish. Short centrepiece ‘Calcination’ skulks with dubbed-out echoes which are transmuted into the to the fidgety atmosphere of ‘Carbon 7 (161)’; here spacey synths and rolling drum presets nod to Pearson Sound and Mark Pritchard (goes to show, with ‘Enigma’ especially, how much of an understated influence UK bass music has on BO).

‘Nandi’ shudders with opening M.I.A-style vocal blasts, increasing the building sense of threat since BO‘s midpoint with some percussion slathered in echo and reverb. We’re then attacked with the album’s violent zenith, Holly Herndon-collab ‘1%’, which finds a way to make US dubstep sound relevant in 2017 by dispersing its trademark peak/trough structure across an unrelentingly linear assault. Cartoonish and video-game samples, dial tones and answerphone messages, and a creepy vocal from a young girl play off each other perfectly in a Nintendo nightmare, a Bullet Hell abstraction.

‘Never Created, Never Destroyed’ does the same thing for trap, dialling down the genre’s obnoxious predilection for weapon-sound samples into the most fragmentary and suggestive shards, while tumbling through complex rhythms with the kind of spontaneous playfulness that made Aphex Twin’s inclusion of Jlin’s stuff in his recent DJ sets unsurprising (the vinyl release appears to have two different takes on this track, too). It’s hard as nails, a perfect gritty counterpoint to the fantasy madness of ‘1%’. BO leaves us with ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, whose title seems to reference Jlin’s opinion that music should be progressive and difficult to make. It’s an absolutely orgiastic cacophony of percussion, with some synoptic (there’s an elephant on it) cross-polination of geographical influences  and a return to the encircling communality of the album’s openers through human shouts and whistles.

This is a big step up from DE: the template is expanded and enriched while remaining distinctive, pushing African, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and South Asian sounds through the structural signature of footwork. It’s out on Planet Mu and I think the buried influences of UK bass and IDM have been underplayed; BO makes a convincing case for footwork as a central and connected piece in the jigsaw landscape of contemporary Western electronic music. It balances ascetic precision with an omnivorous and maximalist palette, tweaking and adjusting its way through 44 minutes of extremely fun and pumped up bass music. It’s hard not to gravitate especially towards the more eye-catching 5 or 6 bookending tracks (as well as ‘Holy Child’) but the parabolic flow of BO gives it a lasting appeal as an album played the whole way through.

9

Baby Driver (2017)

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There’s plenty bad about this: for around the first hour most of the action feels like an advert (either for cars or coffee shops or an app or something – there was an Uber advert before the film which featured some worryingly similar choreography); too much of the car chase footage is internal, which is less exciting and confuses perspective; Ansel Elgort is MDF; Jamie Foxx is given too many lines, which deflates any menace in his performance; Kevin Spacey looks tired; the extended hog-roast/weapon-stash metaphor sucks; the ending sucks. On the positive side some of the choreography in the longer shots is great (horribly torn on the credits because it flows great but its far too reminiscent of Toby “Tugboat” Maguire’s street dance); the music usually stands up and keeps momentum; John Hamm has a Sin City cartoonish menace; there are a couple of surprises. Its greatest asset is Edgar Wright and his own enthusiasm, which is kind of diffused throughout the film and becomes infectious when BD starts going up the gears after the foot-chase scene. It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.

So yeah, there’s plenty bad about this. Totting it up in retrospect, it doesn’t look great (I think a lot of critics have been giving it an easy ride because of a sort of backdoor Tarantino effect: EW is an anthologist). But a slight surprised satisfaction still pushed through the garbled ending and out of the cinema. I won’t be watching it again (and I’m worried about returning to Scott Pilgrim) but I hope lots of people love it.

5

Inland Empire (2006)

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Intrusion
Are you looking to go in
Evil born from innocent boy going out
Butler celebrates
Glittering prizes irons speech
Hollywood whmacy Where stars make dreams and dreams make stars
JI traumatised by tea
Said to be cursed
Actions and consequences
Cheesy love chat Christmas music
Stories which grew out of imagination
AXXon. N
Lovers apparition
Silk skin projection mirror
Vs lost highway horror of familiar
Fucker been sowing some kinda heavy shit
Do the locomotion
Where is the paper towels
LA dern lap shot
Hypnotism pointers
Dern on tracks
Light bulb mouth
Street screwdriver approach truly unhinged
Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before
I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me
Mockumentary stars
Good with animals. Blonde wig
Jodorowsky meta film
Exorcism kiss

David Lynch’s most consistently terrifying film since Eraserhead (Blue Velvet really lifts the rock but it can only dare take disconnectedly transfixed glimpses). Pick a line taking in the (more successful) first half of Lost Highway – in which “nothing is safe, like in actual nightmares, where the link between threat and warning is broken” – through the warm cinematic familiarity but increasing narrative abandon of Mulholland Drive, to Inland Empire, which represents DL’s most explicit departure from uncanny familiarity since, again, Eraserhead. We are firmly in the realm of the alien – the interiors are plastic, radioactive; the extras (crazy) clownish; the dialogue sinisterly clipped and inaccessible. Thematically I’d situate this closer to Berberian Sound Studio, while arthouse and experimental do not feel like only partially applicable stylistic labels this final time round (the “Do the locomotion” interlude instantly brought “Think Pink” in The Garden back to me). I don’t think it’s too much to say that he has not only met the unapproachable challenge of following MD but even surpassed it by finding a new filmic approach altogether, yet successfully and recognisably bending it to his own tune.

What’s most obvious is the shift to digital, handheld. DL takes the opportunity to reconstruct his usually trademark visual style: closeups are nauseatingly close (see sweat, pores, fisheye perspective deconstructing any aestheticised presentation like noir’s acceptance of shadow) midrange movement is frenetic and unpredictable (sense perhaps not of improvisation but still of spontaneity, playing off of the trend through home-video compilation TV, handheld horror like Cloverfield, and mockumentaries like Exit Through The Gift Shop). The overwhelming sensation throughout IE is of intrusion – we are made to feel unwelcome in its environment, and when its characters invade other timelines or spaces we fully empathise with their unsettled insecurity.

Of all MD‘s Hollywood framing perhaps the most pertinent is the scene of Betty’s first audition: Jeremy Irons’ foppish Brit director provides much of the comedic introduction (see “JI traumatised by tea” above) but there’s also that mimetic blurring of life and stage, which helps us sink in. The late bleary-eyed emergence from the tinseltown nightlife spin-dryer onto a sidewalk alongside the homeless savants seems a rare surfacing for air (the thick but empirically wired feeling of a comedown is enhanced by the constant narcotised references to amnesia, as in the First Visitor’s acceptance of forgetfulness and the confessional LD’s admission that “I don’t know what happened first and it’s kind of lain a mindfuck on me”). This is like the unattended underbelly, the hangers-on after the dead decadence of LD’s palace (coupled with the new waste-noughties aesthetic I couldn’t help thinking of Elysia Crampton etc.). That this is just another stage is like a Twilight Zone / Black Mirror denial of the oxygen of satisfaction.

Pointers peek through the mist – like the cut from the random attacker on the street to the same woman, in flashback, confessing to a hypnotised compulsion to assault someone with a screwdriver. These feel like DL picking a route through his own fantasy (populated, as it is, by references to his earlier films and TV as well as lifted footage from his web-series Rabbits) which adds to the sense of spontaneity. Elsewhere it feels like he’s collapsed into a seat on our row in front of the irreducible weirdness (which is equal parts visual and dialogic [“where is the paper towels”]). The meta near-conclusion cemented a growing sense that Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain is my holistically closest touchstone.

Above all this is simply the best approximation of the illogic of nightmares that I can remember in any film. It’s something often talked about with DL but perhaps this is a definitive shadow to the Dreams of MulhollandThis is in no small part down to the handheld approach, but it also evinces the constructive maturity after graduation from the barmy clowntime of LH. Lynch’s final world is a Hollywood “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars”. He claims to have moved on from film now; IE proves that he found new possibilities in the medium right up until that decision. I want to call it the Kid A to MD‘s OKC. 

I watched MD twice in two days and I would happily do the same here.

10