I haven’t done one of these articles for a while, but in light of the Conservative Party victory in the General Election the other day, I thought it interesting to lean toward a more political filmmaker for my latest post. Thus, I once again pick five highly recommended films by one of my favourite cinema creatives. Today, I look at the work of Ken Loach.
Loach is now, at time of writing, eighty-three year’s old, and has just released a new film called Sorry We Missed You (2019). At the cinema alone he has singularly directed twenty-five films, plus been involved with many television productions too. His ‘Wednesday Play’ Cathy Come Home (1966), was voted in the top ten best British television programmes of all time at the turn of the millennium. It was so powerful in its depiction of a struggling homeless character, the issues were raised in Parliament at the time. His work continues to address socio-political issues even now and has often provoked controversy.
Loach works generally in the dramatic or social realist genre. However, his raw, almost documentary style, which centres on working or characters from the under-classes, does have much comedy going through it too. Structurally his films build empathy with his characters in a generally linear fashion; slices of life which more often than not result in tragedy. While the landscapes he displays are quite depressing, his characters aren’t victims though. They are always strong and passionate and striving for the best outcome. However, poor life choices, poverty, bureaucracy, gangsters, criminality, addiction, military, and unfair government laws and procedures provide fierce obstacles.
Some have accused Loach of, over the years, being a ‘Champagne Socialist’, comfortably attacking the ruling classes from a position of privilege. He’s also been accused of vicariously holidaying in the land of the under-privileged, for what gain I’m unsure of. Personally, I am always compelled by Loach’s cinema, the issues raised and the characters he presents. He is a true humanist director and storyteller, who has made some consistently brilliant films. Whether you agree with his politics or views, he is at least attempting to reflect the injustices in the world and the underdogs within in it. Here are five films which capture this perfectly.
Based on Barry Hines’ novel, Kesis one of the finest British films ever. It concerns the everyday existence of Billy Casper (David Bradley) and his attempts to survive the harsh realities of Northern life in Barnsley. Billy struggles at school, but finds salvation when he adopts and trains a young kestrel. Kes represents a microcosm of working-class life where the kids are either damned or sent down the pit to work. Simultaneously warm, harsh, bitter, funny and tragic, Kes is a memorable early work from Ken Loach and deserves revisiting over and over again.
MY NAME IS JOE (1998)
Anchored by an incredible leading performance from Peter Mullen, My Name is Joe, centres on Joe Kavanagh and his attempts to stay sober. Joe has been a destructive alcoholic for some years and uses AA to control his drinking. The narrative drive comes from Joe’s attempt to assist recovering drug addict, Liam (David McKay), plus Joe’s blossoming romance with a local health worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). It’s a raw rendition of Scottish working-class life with romance and tragedy lying side-by-side in a moving portrait of addiction, love and life’s everyday struggles.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006)
Incredibly controversial when released, Loach’s war drama is set in 1920’s, Cork, Ireland. It centres on the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British army, as civil war broke out prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The lead protagonists are two brothers portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney. As the war and violence heightens the two brothers, their families and their compatriots are devastated by harsh British rule. Loach was described as “anti-English and traitorous” by the English press and Conservative politicians, when the film was released. However, irrespective of your politics, it is a stunningly human work of cinema; both shocking and heart-wrenching in equal measures.
LOOKING FOR ERIC (2009)
Films about football (soccer in the U.S.A) and footballers can be very tricky to get right as the game itself arguably works better as a live spectacle, rather than at the cinema. However, Loach scored a big win with this really moving story about a lowly postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who is struggling with family, love and work pressures. Depressed and almost suicidal, Eric finds unlikely help in the magical appearance of Manchester United football legend, Eric Cantona. Sprinkling the kitchen sink realism with fantasy is a departure for Loach, and Paul Laverty’s wonderful script brilliantly espouses the need for teamwork, fraternity and community within its touching narrative.
I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016)
Having worked for the Benefits Agency a few decades ago, I have some understanding of social security and government assistance schemes. Via the titular character of Daniel Blake (the brilliant Davey Johns), Loach savagely criticises Conservative austerity measures. The systematic turning of the screw has seen many British people have their benefits stopped because of somewhat Kafkaesque measures. Of course, the system should work to stop people abusing it, but many deserving people suffered too. This is demonstrated here in this heartfelt drama of one man, who having suffered a heart attack, battles for his pride and future.
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series.
To celebrate his work and the fact he finally got recognised for his amazing filmmaking skills by the Oscars this year, I would like to highlight, five of his finest films that are worth watching and rewatching. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard. Here are some great examples of his cinematic work.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
DO THE RIGHT THING (1986)
Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Arguably, Malcolm X (1992), is Spike Lee’s most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever seen. The project took decades to come to the screen and Lee and Washington both faced objections from many parties for their involvement. However, the finished film a masterful biography capturing the spirit of an intelligent, passionate and outspoken individual trying to right the wrongs within American society and history. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work. The film stands ultimately as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
HE GOT GAME (1998)
From my basic research Spike Lee is revealed to be a New York Knicks fan. It’s no surprise then his love of basketball really shines through in this mix of sport, crime and personal drama. The story follows young hot-shot basketball prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and the decision he has to make in regard to which college he goes to. On paper it’s Jesus’ choice but in reality he has all manner of people attempting to influence him. These include: his girlfriend, his coach, agents, local gangsters and most pressing of all, his jailed father portrayed by Denzel Washington. Ray Allen is excellent as Jesus and Lee invokes an empathetic character study with lashings of verve and style.
INSIDE MAN (2006)
Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen both excellent as the lead cop and main criminal. Jodie Foster is brilliant too as a venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner. What makes Lee’s direction ping here is his deft handling of a complex structure within the heist genre. Moreover, Lee demonstrates he is able to convey a genre story with impeccable skill and deliver fine screen performances to boot. I especially loved the diversity of the supporting characters and the film oozes a pure New York atmosphere throughout.
BlacKKKlansman (2018) is a complex film which expertly mixes many genres, infusing musical, thriller, Blaxploitation, comedy and documentary styles, making it a joy to experience. Spike Lee has never been afraid of experimenting and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with this he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018. It should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. It is thought-provoking but never preachy for the sake of it and uses humour most often as a weapon to undermine the senseless ideologies of the KKK. Indeed, in ridicule there is hope they may eventually be side-lined to the shadows of history.
Having recently caught the underwhelming B-movie crime movie, Hotel Artemis (2018), on Sky Movies, I was suddenly reminded what a brilliant actor Jodie Foster is. She has been around for years so it’s easy to take for granted what a consummate performer and on-screen creator she is. Indeed, her sterling work held Hotel Artemis‘ weak narrative together; as she gave a nuanced and clever portrayal of a morally ambiguous medical professional.
Foster is an actor, director and producer who has received two Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes and countless other nominations recognizing her screen skills and brilliance. She is one of those rare actors, like Ethan Hawke, who has transcended child stardom and become a prolific performer in adulthood too. Here are, in keeping with the rules of this feature, FIVE stand-out Jodie Foster roles that I can highly recommend you watch.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Already boasting acting heavyweights such as Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this existential classic finds Foster as a teenage prostitute, Iris. It was a very risky role for all concerned, especially as Foster was only twelve at the time. However, it is one of the greatest child performances of all time, with Foster bringing vulnerability, toughness, smarts and pathos to girl lost on the mean streets of New York seeking salvation.
THE ACCUSED (1988)
Foster’s incredible performance as Sarah Tobias deservedly won her a first Academy Award. Tobias’ character is the victim of a brutal gang-rape and the film sets about to highlight the savagery of men and the injustices of the legal system. I have not seen this film in years but I will never forget Foster’s steely and emotional acting tour-de-force, plus the physical and mental bravery she committed to the stunning portrayal.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
If I didn’t include her role of Clarice Starling then I would need my head examined. Obviously, NOT by Dr Hannibal Lecter, I must add. Indeed, while Anthony Hopkins gets much kudos for his startling turn as no one’s favourite chef, it’s Foster’s sterling work which glues the film together. All in all it’s almost a perfect genre film which owes much to Thomas Harris’ fine characterisations of Lecter and Starling and Jonathan Demme’s excellent direction. Nonetheless, Foster brings the tough, determined, yet vulnerable, FBI rookie to life brilliantly; and her scenes with Hopkins spark, scare and thrill especially.
I wasn’t a massive fan of this film when it was first released. That was because I was expecting something more action-based akin to Robert Zemeckis’ previous body of work. However, Contact, on subsequent views is an emotionally rich and intelligent look at religion, science and contact with extra-terrestrials. Foster is Dr Ellie Arroway, a scientist who utilises radio signals to chart potential alien signals in space. In a role which doesn’t exclusively find her life in danger, Foster is able to show her range as an intelligent, heartfelt and sensitive character. As such Dr Arroway is, amidst the vast expanse of space and time, ultimately searching for that all-encompassing and universal desire: love.
INSIDE MAN (2006)
I love this heist film because it has so many brilliant aspects; notably one of the cleverest twists in recent movie history. Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen excellent as the lead cop and main criminal, respectively. Jodie Foster steals her scenes as a feisty and venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner, to handle a more “delicate” element of the robbery. I liked that Foster chose a less heroic character to portray, as she struts and sells her services to the highest bidder. Ultimately, her Madeleine White is anything but white; instead she’s a black-hearted vulture, dealing with the greedy capitalists and politicians of first-world Manhattan.
Experienced French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, makes what I call proper films. I mean, have you watched the cinema of yesteryear, notably the 1970s, with stories about characters that are deeply flawed and even possibly unlikeable. Well, Audiard still makes those kind of films. He takes risks representing human beings on the edge of society and perhaps struggling with life; people who often make left-field decisions to improve or escape their existential plight.
For my latest piece in the My Cinematic Romance series, I will look at some key Audiard films well worth watching. I will also incorporate a mini-review of his most recent release, tragi-comedy Western, The Sisters Brothers. If you haven’t seen much of Audiard’s work and are drawn to intense human character studies with absorbing narratives, then I highly recommend it.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW
Starring a quartet of fantastic scene-stealing actors in: Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, this Western bends the genres between drama, comedy and tragedy. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s critically acclaimed novel, the film is set in the 1850s during the Californian Gold Rush. It centres on the titular brethren, easier-going, Eli (Reilly), and drunken Charlie (Phoenix); hired bounty hunters who kill mainly for an enigmatic individual called the Commodore.
The film unfolds in what I would call a curious romp fashion; and it is certainly guaranteed to attain future cult status. Moreover, it also echoes the tone and eccentricity of recent Westerns like: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) and Slow West (2015). While Reilly and Phoenix’ characters form a humorous double-act in terms of verbal exchanges, their actions betray the fact they are cynical, hard-bitten and murderous. A product of their amoral milieu they remain the antithesis of the stylish and charming outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Their latest quarry and target for the Commodore is Ahmed’s idealistic chemist, Herbert Warm. Assisting them is Gyllenhaal’s likeable tracker, John Morris. The brothers’ haphazard pursuit of Warm is a fun and bloody journey replete with: chaotic shootouts, barnstorming brawls, hilarious bickering and right-turn narrative twists. Overall, it’s probably too idiosyncratic to impact the box office, yet, Audiard directs with his usual love for morally ambiguous characters. Lastly, the natural lighting and colour scheme is beautifully shot throughout; while Alexandre Desplat’s score resonates impeccably. Thus, these elements plus Phoenix and Reilly’s tremenodous on-screen sparring make this a very enjoyable picaresque Western tale.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
OTHER RECOMMENDED AUDIARD FILMS
READ MY LIPS (2001)
This Audiard thriller centres on Emmanuelle Devos’ office worker, Carla, and has echoes of Hitchcock and Coppola’s paranoiac classic The Conversation (1974). Hiding her deafness from colleagues, Carla enters into a robbery plot with Vincent Cassel’s ex-con and a fascinating serpentine double-crossing narrative ensues.
A PROPHET (2009)
This is one of the best prison films I have ever seen. It is a perfect example of the emotional power of linear filmmaking. As we follow Tahar Rahim’s lowly prisoner rise through the prison ranks using: violence, luck, cunning and smarts, we feel every emotion and tension he does during an incredibly compelling journey.
RUST AND BONE (2012)
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts fizz with passion, star quality and brute sexuality in this “opposites-attract” romance drama. Cotillard is a Marine Park employee who falls for Schoenaerts low level criminal but obviously the path of love is a jagged one. Full of beautiful imagery and brutal violence, it’s a memorable character drama full of bitterness, redemption and pain.
Dheepan starts as a humane story of survival and the immigrant experience, before crossing over into explosive thriller territory by the end. Further, Audiard casts his leads with unknown actors and wrings every ounce of feeling from the sympathetic characters. As the Sri Lankan Tamil, Dheepan, and his “wife”, struggle with life on a Paris council estate, what may seem small in scale is in fact emotionally very epic.
Sally Hawkins is such a formidable actor. She is likeable, bright, and funny; possessing an expert ability to bring pathos and emotion to every role. Having first really noticed her in Mike Leigh’s compelling period drama Vera Drake (2004), it’s mainly in the last decade she’s getting the leading roles her talent demands. Thus, here are five of Sally Hawkins most impressive performances that are well worth watching again and again.
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
Yes, I know it says “cinematic romance” and Fingersmith was a two-part British TV programme, however, Sarah Waters’ novel was also made into a film by Park-Chan Wook called The Handmaiden (2016), so it kind of counts. Hawkins portrays Sue Trinder, raised to be a thief in Victorian England, who enters into a scam to rob an heiress. However, her relationship with the ‘mark’ becomes very complex indeed as the twisting complex plot becomes a veritable joy. Hawkins is a sympathetic criminal faced dealing with the sexist oppression of the day and she delivers thoughtful acting combining vulnerability and romance. One of Hawkins early starring performances shows what a great talent she is and will become.
When I first saw this film I really did not enjoy it. Perhaps I was in a bad mood or just not up for any kind of positivity. I was also surprised Mike Leigh had delivered something, in comparison to Vera Drake (2004), a film so inconsequential. However, having re-watched it in the last year I must admit I was a total fool and wrong. Sally Hawkins character work and acting as Poppy Cross is a joy. Her character is very natural, optimistic and care-free. She enjoys her job as a primary school teacher and drifts through life happily. Hawkins imbues Poppy with a light comedic touch and her timing of a look, little giggle and innocence gags just make you feel better about life. If everyone was like Poppy the world would be a far better place.
BLUE JASMINE (2013)
While Woody Allen’s work has been re-evaluated in light of his very questionable personal choices, there’s no doubting his casting selections are absolute quality. It’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the creative from his apparent sins this in no way impacts on the sterling work of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in an excellent family comedy full of barbed wit and conflict. Hawkins performance as Ginger, an every person just trying to get by, sparks and conflicts with Blanchett’s neurotic socialite in effervescent comedic fashion. The two actors excel and Hawkins was nominated for an Academy award for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ as Blanchett took away the main prize.
Perhaps overshadowed by the success of the big budget monster/love story The Shape of Water (2017), the low-budget Maudie features another stunning Hawkins turn. She is quietly powerful in the role of Nova Scotia painter Maud Dowling who came to prominence for her painting in the late 1960s and became somewhat of a cult treasure. Hawkins and Ethan Hawke steal the acting honours as the unlikely husband and wife, as Aisling Walsh directs a fine tribute to a small woman with a massive artistic talent. Hawkins is just brilliant though as the bullied and beaten women who refuses to break as the performance demonstrates a human being small of stature but big in spirit.
THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
Sally Hawkins plays mute cleaner Elisa Esposito, who works at a top secret U.S. army base. Silent from birth, what she lacks in voice, Elisa more than makes up for in courage, compassion and confidence. When a mysterious “Asset” is delivered to Elisa’s place of work she suddenly becomes entwined in an incredible story of sacrifice and love. Hawkins and Doug Jones performances are entrancing as two silent characters are able to say more with a look, hand signal and touch than a thousand words could achieve. In any other year Sally Hawkins would have walked away with all the Best Actress honours; yet she was up against the incredible Frances McDormand. Nonetheless, Hawkins gives us such a nuanced and heart-rending performance you forget that she cannot speak.
There is no way a mere simple page of words from my keyboard can do justice to the decades of incredible theatrical, televisual and cinematic work of the genius that is Mike Leigh. He has, since the 1960s, worked tirelessly creating: drama, comedy, pathos, empathy, love, hatred, politics, harmony, conflict, nihilism and hope through an orchestra of characters and creative endeavour.
For me Mike Leigh is a true artist. He has not only been involved in innumerable film, TV shows and plays since the 1960s but also created his own production modus operandi in the process. He is rightly well regarded for working intimately with his actors organically creating character and stories from the kernel of an emotion or idea. His works are legion and often feature representations the working or under-classes. There are no superheroes or special effects but rather raw emotion and feelings within his body of work.
The My Cinematic Romance series has always sought to praise filmmakers and actors I really love and Mike Leigh is no different. I would have to say though that to pick FIVE of my favourite works is an impossible task as there is so much choice. Nonetheless, these are five of my favourite Mike Leigh works but do check out any of his films as they have much to say about humanity and life and are also very entertaining in their own inimitable style.
ABIGAIL’S PARTY (1977) – BBC TV PLAY
Opening as a stage play in 1977, the seminal tragic-comedy Abigail’s Party sold out for months at the Hampstead Theatre when first released. A filmed TV version was released later to much acclaim that year and starred: Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse, Thelma Whiteley and Tim Stern. It’s a comedy of crumbling relationships featuring the passive aggressive clashes between the aspirational classes. The performances, notably from Steadman as the brash and formidable Beverley, are astute, over-the-top but somehow hilariously nuanced too. Moreover, the barbed dialogue and bitchy asides are perfectly delivered during a dinner party that, once seen, will have you laughing throughout. But, like much of Leigh’s work, by the end you somehow feel sad too.
MEANTIME (1983) – CINEMA
The epitome of classic working-class-kitchen-sink-council-estate tragic-comedy, Meantime, features a “Who’s-Who” of now famous actors including: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Phil Daniels, Alfred Molina; plus an early appearance from Leigh favourite Peter Wight. Set amidst the bleak concrete landscape of East London the episodic story focusses on the Pollock family, notably the unemployed brothers portrayed by Daniels and Roth. The former is an answer-for-everything-clever-dick while Roth’s Colin is the more subdued, shy and possibly autistic one, very much in his brother’s shadow. Furthermore, a very young-looking Oldman pops up as a bored, thuggish, glue-sniffing and racist skinhead who bullies those around him, especially Colin. Overall, Meantime evokes memories of my own childhood growing up on a rough Battersea council estate and captures the ennui and inertia of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain. While it may sound depressing there’s also some classic dialogue and a number of hilarious exchanges between the family and characters which certainly silvers the dark, grey clouds on the horizon.
NAKED (1993) – CINEMA
We need to talk about, Johnny! Arguably, of all the characters and creations from Mike Leigh, Johnny Fletcher is the darkest manifestation and representation of his worldview. Unlike the permanently positive Poppy from Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008), Johnny is a dress-in-black, biting and bilious shadow who drifts like smoke from North to South with no aim other than to attack those around him. Sardonic and severe in his outlook, Johnny’s misanthropy knows no bounds as he angrily castigates his ex-girlfriend’s lack of ambition, portrayed by Lesley Sharp, before beginning a doomed sexual liaison with her flatmate, the self-hating Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). It is not an easy film to watch due to the flagrant and offensive misogyny exhibited by the male characters and the seeming lack of hope throughout. Yet, it remains a compelling portrait of pre-millennial nihilism with some epic monologues delivered by the rasping and mercurial voice of David Thewlis’ in a never-to-be-bettered acting performance.
SECRETS AND LIES (1996) – CINEMA
After the nihilistic dissonance of Naked (1993) Leigh’s next film would return to familial roots and gentler, if still emotionally resonating, domestic drama. The story centres on Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s optometrist attempting to locate the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. In an extremely tender and serene performance, Baptiste as Hortense Cumberbatch finds her search turn up unexpected results. Brenda Blethyn, in the more melodramatic role of Cynthia Purley, runs the gamut of emotions; while the imperious Timothy Spall steals the floor with his noble rendition of Cynthia’s brother, Maurice. Spall’s Maurice is an ordinary, yet noble man, trying to hold the disparate family strands together. I especially loved the opening vignettes of Maurice’s photographic customers which established themes of surface appearances contrasted to hidden family secrets. This overall is what I class as a small epic containing so many brilliant character details, funny looks, and very touching moments where the emotion, quite often, is in the silence. Secret and Lies (1996) was, to date, Mike Leigh’s most accessible and emotionally satisfying film and would deservedly garner acting and directing awards and nominations from the Academy, BAFTA and Cannes.
VERA DRAKE (2004) – CINEMA
Having presented the lively Topsy Turvy (1999) world of Gilbert and Sullivan a few years before, Leigh created another period piece with Vera Drake. Set in 1950s London it centres on Imelda Staunton’s kind housewife who harbours a secret life. Amidst her family and work existence Vera assists young woman who accidentally get in the “family way”. I don’t want to say too much but this is a gut-wrenching and tragic story which highlights the issues of the day with a stunning emotional power. Imelda Staunton is one of the best actors I have ever witnessed on stage and screen and she brings to Vera’s character sympathy, pride and passionate inner strength. The supporting cast of Philip Davis, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, and Sally Hawkins are superb; and a special mention to cinematographer Dick Pope, who has lit most of Leigh’s films. Pope creates, within a palette of greys, greens and browns a salient mood which enhances the performances and Leigh’s masterful direction.
Mike Leigh’s new film PETERLOO (2018) will be released this year in cinemas.
Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.
I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.
I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.
As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!
So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.
With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.
One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable. Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.
Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.
While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.
Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.
Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.
Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.
Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.
Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.