Saturday, June 25, 2022

Review: GASLIT

Watergate is one of those moments of history that people assume they know. Some do know. Most, like me, only have a fair idea. An act of bungled espionage ended in the downfall of the U.S. President. Well, yes and no. However, it's the web of connections and the involvement of members of the ruling government and question of what the President knew and sanctioned that form the big blob of scandal that gave every scandal thereafter the suffix gate. If you really want to tell this story you need a long form documentary. It's been fictionalised many times but this telling is not only impressive but comes to us on the fiftieth anniversary of the events and coincides with hearings surrounding another president's involvement in an outrage. As we watch the movement of plot and liability, Trump's implication is as much on our minds as Nixon's was half a century ago. It's like method watching.

Gaslit presents the twin core arcs of Martha Mitchell and John Dean. Martha struggles to keep her high public profile functional, her own dysfunctions stable and her family integral against the threats from the plotting. The young John Dean stumbles with a shaky grip on the ladder of ambition as his haste and tunnel vision erode any safety to his distance. That barely scratches the surface but this is a historical drama and the details can be filled in with a little Googling.

Julia Roberts shines as Martha Mitchell, a ruling class lush with all the sass of her dirt humble start, bringing a convincing brittleness out from the strength that brought her to the top of her society. From intimidatingly forthright to a bizarre surrendered intoxication, while we can clearly see the signature beauty of the movie star she gives us so much solid character that we forget. The reverse is true of Sean Penn as her husband. He is buried in such undulating prosthetics that you won't recognise him and will need reminders throughout. His performance, while not as striking as Roberts' (though she is more richly written) is impressively physical and gravity-generating.

Dan Stevens gives us a compelling mix of ambition and clumsiness as John Dean. Young, beautiful and ostentatious, he is proud of his gold Porsche and seems to have strode proudly out of a What Kind of Man Reads Playboy ad. When Mo, his eventual wife, steals an exploration of his den she finds a kind of waxwork recreation of the mind of an upwardly mobile conservative. A neon sign blares FUCK COMMUNISM from one wall. Medals for places in spelling bees are displayed as a testimony to persistent, high-functioning mediocrity. The wall of empty beer cans say the same about his tertiary education.  The way Stevens brings this into character is a studiously uneven delivery of lines that are often repeated with slight differences but not in the way that a silvertongue might redraft on the fly as much as someone who wonders if he said it right to begin with. At other times he eases into a confidence that he shares with too few. In one scene this balloons as he jokes gently with the malcontent daughter of Martha Mitchell who is hiding in the closet with a cigarette while Mo, looks on unobserved a few doorframes away. Best of all, Dean as a character does not reconcile and consolidate, he's as nebulously formed at the end as he was at the beginning, facing each new challenge with the same struggle with doubt.

But if he is a socio-political Salieri without a Mozart, G. Gordon Liddy is less of a Wagner than a Wagner fan. Shea Whigham is having a ball playing the intense Liddy. It is in this larger than life character that the series' writing most closely approaches satire as Liddy's own self-avowed extremity of expression and action must be portrayed believably. He is someone so deeply buried under his own self image that even his moments of vulnerability feel like performance. He is someone who never makes exits or entrances but has the sense that he takes the stage with him. Even here, I have strayed a little from describing a character and a performance in favour of describing the person, so I went to YouTube and sampled interviews from different decades and found an almost disappointingly lucid and even handed raconteur. Back in the series Whigham's bravura characterisation is built on the need for a central force whose precarious self-control engenders stress and dread in his audience. With his concentrated stare and machismo the actor gives us a kind of Dadaist Dabney Coleman: not quite the person on the talk show chair but, in line with the title of the series, somewhere between that and the thing driven in the real world. Whigham is a character actor but this performance lifts him from dependability to career best, however strange his vehicle.

While performance and strong writing keep this series afloat the vehicle for those, the cinematic presentation, provides a casing that is not without its issues. First, it looks like the kind of boardroom paranoia movies that the likes of Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula made at the time (including the Watergate-based procedural All the President's Men)  There is a clear attempt at giving the look and feel a brown suede tint with visible film grain and many sexily overstated angles in establishing shots. The good side of this is that the story feels like the era in which it happened. The bad side is that in keeping things so apparently authentic means that it is easy to keep the events and concerns in the time capsule as though they can be bottled as curios. While Nixon himself is kept mostly to real news footage of the time and a physical portrayal given in slices of body and facial features like an archival examination as he sits in the shadowy gloom of the Presidential bedroom and delivers a prolonged reedy fart in sight of the Washington Monument through the window.

To its credit the series holds back on sourced music to do its work, allowing only a few hits 'n' memories in for poignant use, usually at the end of episodes so their imposition is reduced to function rather than style. This allows for the commissioned score to thrive and do its work and even then it is subtle. Other pleasantly missed opportunities attest to restrain like indoor smoking or daytime drinking. The fashions are on high show but they would be, given the characters' place in the public eye. When similar things were displayed in Mad Men the exaggeration fit due to the demi-monde of advertising and a very self-conscious promotion of the era. There needs to be something of sixties lingering in Gaslit and it's there, weary and fading, ready and vulnerable for the attack that the scandal and its fallout will make on it and give the seventies its own grit and cynicism.

I felt like more after the series was over but instead of turning to Pakula's All the President's Men, I went to his earlier post-Watergate paranoia piece The Parallax View. This political thriller for the ages takes its initial cue from the assassinations of the sixties and adds the mood of Watergate to the brew of an America tired of hope and bravado, happy enough to leave the worst of its workings to an increasingly distrusted government. A product of New Hollywood, the rising work of previously independent film auteurs who broke through in the seventies like Coppola's Godfather films, Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Lumet (a veteran of  television boardroom culture) and his masterpiece Network, Pakula's film today looks like it's aware of how seventies it is with its cinematography of darkened offices, studiously casual swearing and the studiously casual entrance of its star (the insanely bankable Warren Beatty) in the opening scenes. It has a highly effective orchestral score in which a solemn patriotic sounding series of cadences are interrupted by the plinking piano of a mystery movie. There is a sequence in which Beatty's character is subjected to a bizarre slideshow as his emotional responses are recorded electronically. There is no way most people can view this slideshow without being heavily affected but the suggestion is that the assassin recruiters are looking for people who don't react at all. The rest of the film is as chilling. I couldn't have chosen better. It felt like a companion episode.

To me Watergate happened in the pages of Newsweek and MAD magazine. It made its way into sketch comedy and radio patter. My nostalgia for the time is through these media, grimy photographic or expertly inked. America seemed to me to be where grown up life had been designed and exported. America was the space program that awed me and the figure in the car I think I saw when Dad hoisted me to his shoulders to see Lyndon Johnson pass by after visiting Townsville air base. But there was something else. It was a mood but an assumed one. I can recall understanding, however primitively, that I accepted it when we watched Dr Strangelove as a family and laughed along at the dark cynicism on show. It seemed wise to be arch and laugh at grave things. While that made me feel grown up, like an American, it also felt like something I wanted to resist while I was still a kid and do things for the hell of it. That this tv show switched all of that on again, albeit momentarily, and felt powerful. I'm still unsure whether that was the show or just the triggered recollection but for now I'll happily mix them up.


Gaslit is currently streaming on Stan in Australia.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

ERASERHEAD @ 45

Henry, who would be equally uncomfortable in our world as he is in his own breathlessly industrial one, goes on vacation to find out that his ex-girlfriend has given birth in a freakishly short pregnancy. After the most unsettling meet the parents scene in cinema history, Mary and the baby move into  his dusty bedsit to start a life together. The baby looks like a flayed lamb in swaddling clothes and cries almost constantly in a reedy whine that gets into your ears like a letter opener. Why is this my favourite film? This article will try to answer that question on the film's forty-fifth anniversary.

After the dinner with parents scene the plot of this film slows to basics and really just depicts life with the baby in the little flat. Things that aren't plot points, though, start to dominate. Henry finds a tiny box containing a kind of grub left in his letter box. After storming out one night, Mary returns to have fitful sleeps during which she discharges large spermlike things which Henry hurls against the wall where they break and splatter. When he's left again alone with the baby he has a one nighter with the woman across the hall which ends in both of them sinking into the biggest wet patch in history in Henry's bed. Henry's means of escape from his nightmarish life is done through his imagining a cabaret visible through the fins of the radiator. The star of the show is a kind of Marilyn Monroe with a pair of porridgey growths where her jowls might have been. She grins coquettishly at us as she dances a crabwalk from one side of the stage to the next to Fats Waller's steam organ ragtime. When the zygotic things begin to fall on to the stage she grins again, conspiratorially, before approaching one and crushing it with her heel. The title of the film is illustrated in a dream sequence involving Henry's disembodied head being used for the production of pencil erasers. And that's just a few things in this film that, at eighty-nine minutes, can, depending on your mood, feel like four hours.

As a film constructed from bizarre situations that can go completely unexplained, Eraserhead has garnered a mass of interpretations. The worst of these are literal and have to do with some notion of sin. Others more plainly offer the abstraction of fears faced by new parents. but why the lady in the radiator? Why the constant industrial noise? Why that creepy song about heaven which seems to foreshadow Henry's fate (once you work out what you think that fate is)? David Lynch himself has said that he does have solid ideas about the film's meaning and that every other one he's heard is wrong but that he likes how many of them there are. That's helpful. Me, I don't care if there's a single central plan to it or not. It doesn't strike me as an essay of any kind, nor even consistently any kind of allegory. This has to do with something I think about David Lynch's films and why I like them that is a little at odds with more canonical explanations.

I have a history with this body of work. I'm not uncritical of it and have my favourites and mehs. When Blue Velvet lifted Lynch's profile anyone who saw it seemed to wear its weirdness as a badge and the term Lynchian came to mean anything bizarre and became part of the conversation. But then when the second season of Twin Peaks turned its audience off with its wayward goofiness and loss of its darker edge, Lynch got the backlash. So, even though some very strong entries appeared in the following decade, including some quite straightforward narrative mixed in with the loopiness, people would approach me as the Lynch Fan to tell me that they had fallen asleep at one of the movies or had not chosen it at the video shop. And if this strange mix of snivelling puerility and restrained psychosis weren't enough I would have to live through reasons why Lynch was a charlatan, nowhere close to the clever dick he thought he was. It was that strawman argument that did come close to bothering me as, to counter it I would need to make the kind of argument I hated: they just didn't get it. They were looking for intellectual substance from a film maker who wasn't that interested in it. My conviction about Lynch at his best is that he is not intellectually deep but deeply emotional. 

If you go with that you are going to get more out of his films and any like them. Every time Lynch adds a description of a film it's usually pretty plain and it's worth taking him at his word. The reviled INLAND EMPIRE was given "the story of a woman in trouble". That really is what you get. And then, this was much later, Eraserhead was described by Lynch as "a dream of dark and troubling things" it really does fit the film like a glove. You don't even have to plead the case of letting it all flow over you. Eraserhead is a dream of dark and troubling things. Despite some genuinely funny moments, what it does best is make anyone who goes along with it worry. It's a few minutes shy of one and a half hours of stress. Don't like that? Watch something else. But don't go on to me about why Eraserhead is crappy if you know that and it does that. I used to do the same with Wes Anderson whose films I hate for their clanging cuteness. Then again, his whole considerable following in the world likes that very thing which means that I eventually had to shut up about it and let them have their fun.

So after forty-five years, how does it stack up? The quality of its images remains a minor miracle. Lynch and his crew took four years to make it and the depth of the rich monochrome scale, the fetishistic textures and surfaces still impress. This urban scape of steam valves, distant horns and clanging have both a lulling and unsettling effect. This is a world that did not exist before its creator imagined and recorded it. This nameless city is not a recognisable one but its oppressive claustrophobia might remind you of living in any city. And breathing through it, warming it up and holding it together, however much he seems to crumble, is Jack Nance as Henry. 

Nance's worried Little Tramp is a marvel of concentrated performance. He has nuance here and there, showing humour or anger now and then, but mostly he gives us a citizen of factoryville that retains a creative imagination as a kind of disused genetic trait. When the Valhalla was in Richmond, a tram ride away, I would see Eraserhead almost every time it came up in the calendar, accompanied or not. The screenings were consistently popular and if I was alone and saw the forties style title roll out against the darkness I would panic a little and wonder why the hell I was doing this to myself again. There are scenes that still get to me and the overall mood of the film is oppressive. But I always made it through and noted that couples exiting while the end credits were playing always  seemed to be clutching each other. I also, particularly if I went alone, had the sense that I looked like Henry and everyone around me knew it.

I didn't see it as a new release (too young and in Townsville). I didn't even know of its existence until after I'd seen The Elephant Man (when it was new). One day in 1983 there was a rumour going around the campus at Griffith University that it would be screening at the cinema for free. All true, we piled in and there it was. The first time you see the dinner scene and feel that no sooner than you'd just had a good laugh it was replaced by a nervous one. And then you saw the baby. Richard in the seat beside mine leant over and whispered harshly, "what is that?" Nothing added up in this movie but because it wasn't like any other movie we'd ever seen we just had to sit back and take it that movies made in this place or creative state don't follow the normal rules. Later, at a seminar that Richard was delivering, I drew a cartoon of the baby to give him a laugh but he later confided that the sight of it made him feel sick. As for me, I watched with gaping wonder at a world I'd felt but never seen. It was more like a Kafka story than a movie, more a Throbbing Gristle album than an independent film. It was disgust made beautiful. It was repulsion and attraction all at once which made it purely fascinating. It still is.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Review: MEN

Harper has fled a traumatising breakup for a recuperative fortnight of relaxation in the lush woody countryside. As she is given the tour by the posh and slightly edgy owner we see some of the moments of what she has escaped. They get increasingly violent. She takes immediate advantage of the nearby woods for mild exploratory exercise, pausing to enjoy some singing echoes in a disused brick underpass. A figure of a man appears in the distant arch at the other end. He sees her and begins to run toward her. She runs until she gets back home and takes refuge in a face time call with old reliable friend Riley. Behind her, through the glass doors we see the figure from the underpass, naked gold skinned. His concentration on her intensifies until he is trying to break the front door down. It's going to be a weird two weeks in the country.

Alex Garland brings us a bizarre modern fable of male violence and the self-entitlement that fuels it. Where his adaptation of Annihilation and the original Ex Machina took him to a hover space between science fiction and horror, Men veers closer to body or sex horror, intentionally recalling Repulsion or David Cronenberg at his most individual. Horror buffs are calling foul but in the same way they did with The Babadook (which had a similarly misleading trailer) but Men ends up more as a contemplation or essay than a freakish horror tale, keeping generic tropes at arm's length to the film's betterment.

Jessie Buckley brings a strong fragility to her job of fending off the circle of sweat, grimaces, charm and grunts and manages to find the reality that qualifies the Little Red Riding Hood innocence. The choice she makes at the start is done from self-preservation, not spite. I fear that this might too easily be mistaken for ice queen detachment, even when seen as a response to her monstrous husband. Paapa Essiedu in the latter role appears in framing and flashback scenes and is only seen in extreme states which is how Harper remembers him. 

But the show must go to the massively versatile Rory Kinnear who plays all the men in the village from the Vicar, the posh landlord, the yobs at the pub and more down to the scowling schoolboy at the church. This does not come across as a nod to Alec Guinness' multiple roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets or Peter Sellars' turns in Dr Strangelove as it's steered much closer to likeness despite the outward appearances. But that's not to say that his performance is all digital effects and line reading. His characters are distinct and discrete parts of a whole. I almost spoiled the climax but have thought better even of being vague about it as it's too startling to know it's coming.

I can say as much about most of the film and the urge to blurt it all out is strong. However, I'll leave it here with the suggestion that if you do mind your symbolic action to be heavy handed (as it is intentionally here) and like tidily tied narrative knots, then this is one to miss. If, on the other hand, you veer toward adventurous thinking and are prepared for some potentially triggering moments, you might well enjoy it. Men is not trying to be a mainstream drama and, despite the contrariness of that motion, it is not weirdness for its own sake, either. A definition-defier, it is its own beast, a grotesquery in a field of clones, Men gets my huffing recommendation.


Saturday, June 11, 2022

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER @ 30

Heatherish cheerleader Buffy Summers finds her alpha life ruptured by the news that she has been chosen as the Slayer, an occult figure whose status is passed down through generations to defeat vampires. Trying to balance the two lives proves virtually impossible when the vampires begin to appear in epidemic proportions. High School just got tough for the girl at the top.

I was a fan of the influential tv series without having seen the original feature film that gave it birth. I think it must have been the differences in the cast and the closure of the movie that kept me from it. While I don't think I missed out by keeping to the series this first feature screenplay by showrunner Joss Whedon bears his seal. The dialogue is snappy and filtered through adolescent invention. The monsters say things that are now fearsome now cute. The theme of the difficulties of adolescence reigns.

But then, Whedon didn't direct this as he did so much of the series and the series had time to develop its own modus. If you know the show you'll think of the more grounded social setup with a cast of characters with long arcs and, eventually, a seasonal adversary called, even in the show's dialogue, the big bad. The 1992 film feels post-Heathers in a way that the show didn't have to and newcomers who are fans of the tv show should flex some caution with the movie as it will feel more like the product of an assembly line than the long form entity that adopted more depth than a teen drama might be expected to.

But that's not for lack of cast power. Kirsty Swanson brings a fiery energy to Buffy which is strengthened by a strongly physical performance. Donald Sutherland keeps his gravitas close to his chest and his restraint is a boon. Early appearances by David Arquette, Hilary Swank and Luke Perry also impress. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui clearly marshals her cast into an effective ensemble and shows a deft hand at complex action.

This thoroughly enjoyable film is never likely to emerge from its later incarnation as there is too much weight from that to allow it through. I'm enabling that very effect myself as I write this. I'm thinking of it as an afterthought but that's only because I saw the show first. I have never revisited the series after it ended in the 2000s, considering it as sewn and finished as any long form piece (see also, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad) so I haven't nurtured any link with the rest of its fanbase and cannot say if others feel the same conflict about the original film. What do people who started on the tv versions of Heathers or Scream make of the original features? Both of those were game changing milestones. The 1992 Buffy could not do this without being thought of as a kind of love child of Heathers and The Lost Boys. It does nothing but fulfil its promise but now is shunted to the status of a discoverable treat rather than a minor classic of the '90s.

Have a look, if you can find it, you'll e glad you did.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) is currently streaming on Disney +

Saturday, June 4, 2022

1982 @40: HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH

A man flees pursuers, clutching a halloween mask. He lures them into an obstacle strewn yard and escapes. He takes refuge in a petrol station nearby but collapses, muttering about doom, and is ambulances off to hospital. While there, he is visited by one of the creepy men in suits who have tracked him down. The baddie gouges out his eyes and, chased through the hospital by the horrified staff, gets into his car, douses himself in petrol and lights up. BAM! 

The doctor treating him is aghast at this and can't shake it. He has an errand, delivering presents to his kids and estranged wife before he can get on the trail. The ex is never impressed with him but the kids twist that knife even more when the halloween masks he bought them aren't the cool tie-in merchandise that Silver Shamrock has already peddled to them. They sit at the tv in the masks and watch the grating commercial once again. Countdown to Halloween, mere days.

The man from the beginning has a daughter who turns up to id the dad and, incidentally, fill Dr Challis in on how her father came to be hounded by the weirdo suit squad. All this leads to the Doc taking the gal off to Santa Mira California to the factory that makes these, the most popular halloween masks in the whole dang world. And things just get stranger and darker from there.

This is far more plot than I usually supply but there's a reason for that. Let me ask you, are you familiar with the name Nigel Kneale? Sigh, ok. Briefly, Nigel Kneale was a British writer who came into writing for the fledgling television fiction strand of the aby BBC, producing some of the most extraordinary science fiction that has, to this day, been committed to production. His character Quatermass alone and the many stories he wrote for him warrant serious pursuit for the mass of ideas each story bears. To watch an old monochrome Kneale production and feel the concepts streaming out toward you is to experience a modest but genuine revelation. Look him up and follow through. 

John Carpenter, co-chef of the mighty 1978 classic Halloween and Debra Hill proved that they weren't just Americans when they commissioned Kneale to write this screenplay. Halloween II had been a success but it was in danger of imitating the film that imitated it, Friday the 13th, by becoming a string of teenage-murdering monster flicks. Carpenter and Hill wanted something more like an expanded anthology collection where the notion of halloween might bear a multitude of tales. This one, linking the popular suburban rite to its ancient roots was perfect for the visionary British writer. But it went sour quickly.

Kneale's tale had as much folklore, technology and psychology as horror but the bossboy De Laurentis wanted blood and guts and Kneale took his name off. Carpenter, who wasn't directing, kept on with it and the result was a shonky blend of the Kneale slowburn and early '80s genre, including more than one diegetic insertions of the 1978 Halloween on tvs in scenes. Carpenter and Alan Howarth provided another electronic score of great merit and the title sequence which shows '80s computer graphics move in time with the music to create an Atari-ish jack o' lantern is superb. But that's where the real greatness and this film part ways.

Halloween III is a plod and it's often a grating plod. Does anyone, now or then, easily allow a fiery sexual connection between the earnestly unbonkable Tom Aitken and the decades-younger porcelain wonder that is Stacey Nelkin? Well, they go at it like teenagers at a high school formal and it still rings with profound unpleasance. This feature of the tale would not cut it in a remake (unless Rob Zombie was interested). 

Dan O'Herilhy is the silver eminence at the center of the big nasty that will attack the world through one of its fun holidays (even though most of the world doesn't do much at all for Halloween outside the USA) and he's more than suited to the role of the edgy urbane paternal terrorist. The sadly underused Nancy Kyes (veteran, as Nancy Loomis, of Halloween I, II, and The Fog) gets one scene before being squeezed into angry high pitched squawk on the other end of the phone. And the range of plastic faced automatons perform as their robotic roles demand.

Too many idiotic coincidences later, we get a very masterful and solid final act which says everything the long previous two couldn't quite articulate. This film goes from dull to wow in a very short time before the credits roll. And there's the pity of it. Because this film only works for its post hoc admirers it flopped for anyone expecting the next slasher movie, which was everyone. Michael Myers' only appearances were on tv screens within scenes. What might have become an ever expanding idea of where cinema might take the popular festival just shut back down to an increasingly uninteresting series of masked stabber flicks. I like stabber flicks but will have to admit that, for all their goofiness, the Friday the 13th sequels take more chances and manage to please both connoisseurs and casual popcorn gorgers. This was the first and last chance for the Halloween franchise and it was blown.

All was not lost, however. Carpenter wrote, directed and scored a film a few years later which paid clear tribute to Nigel Kneale and credibly honour his tradition of ideas-based sci-horror. Prince of Darkness, a movie I can watch at least in part, several times a year. I wonder, if the energy and creative will that made such a marvel of marginal cinema had risen for Halloween III, would we have a genre tradition knocked off course in the best way? Probably not without a renaming and a lower starting rung. But it was obviously really worth a try at one point. 

Friday, June 3, 2022

Review: MAIGRET

Post-war Paris. A beautiful young woman covers herself as a shop assistant fits her with a satin ball gown. Her timidity is painful and seems a creation of trauma. That night she appears at the occasion but when spied by one of the ladies of the crowd she is ejected with a discrete savagery. The lady's companion joins the motion and after a nasty tussle he pushes money into the woman's hand. Extortion? Something. Something enough to leave her flat on her face by the Seine with multiple stab wounds and a forfeited hire bond. Detective Maigret doesn't know where to start with this Jeanne D'oe.

Whodunnits are nothing - Colonel Mustard in the library with the caltrop - why dunnits are intriguing. Maigret, the jovian homicide chief of Georges Simenon's lifetime of novels, takes his burdened time to see the picture he needs before he moves. The victim's details appear with glacial frequency but the old cop's wiliness finds a means of insight in befriending a young woman like the victim: country-bred in Paris for a more interesting life. She is of more help than the forensic report as she gets him closer to the wherefore.

You won't have a great deal of trouble guessing the who but that is not the point. If the motive also seems underwhelming it would be best to recall that it carried more shock when the story was fresh. However, this movie is about more than that. The themes of class and privilege weigh heavily and are maintained solidly (even venturing into self reflection with scenes on a movie set). Verite techniques offset the lint-free perfection of the period costumes and sexy low angles of beautiful vintage cars; more than once we follow action with a handheld camera and many shots with entrances make good use of available light. It's subtle world building and stronger for it.

At its earth's core is the figure of Maigret played with painstaking restraint by monument vivant, Gerard Depardieu. Depardieu has carried himself into this gravitational anchor status for most of his career but now, when he might go from scene to scene chewing a little mise en scene, he studies his role even more closely. When he sits on the edge of his bed after his doctor has warned him off tobacco he gazes into the halflight. We know without a syllable that he is thinking of his mortality. If he leaves a question or observation unresponded, we know he has drawn a conclusion beyond which all utterance is gratuitous. If he had ever been in danger of relaxing into the go to French bear when that was needed he cast the mantle off decades before and is happy to pursue his craft. There is no thunder to Maigret. There isn't even the kind of impossible erudition that such a celebrated sleuth usually gets. While he does offer a genuinely clever Belgian joke he shrugs as he misses literary references by others.

The central relationship with the blow-in woman from the land has a noirish candour to it and Jade Labeste as Betty brings us the closest to Maigret's vulnerability. The campaign of trust building between the two becomes genuinely touching. That needs to happen as when she, with consent, agrees to serve as a kind of bait for the investigation that bond needs to expose the danger for its sordidness. A late scene showing the victim as an extra in a film plays with focus as Maigret and a cinema audience watch. Only he is seeing the power of the image. The rest if for us.

This slowburn tale is one of the better I've seen for many a moon. The pathos at its heart and the grief in its procedure build something both tidy and affecting. At a hair under ninety minutes you will leave it thinking you've seen something that should have taken longer. It's trick you won't mind falling for.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Review: PISTOL

So, The Sex Pistols, having survived the fantasy film of their manager, the embarrassing hagiography of Sid and Nancy, and the attempted redemption of The Filth and the Fury, are ready for an event television series taken from the account of one of their own and helmed by zippy zappy hotshot Danny Boyle. Gotta be good, right? Or, if you saw the trailer and the rapid sequence of punk forever soundbites, you might have thought: oh, who's got it wrong this time?

I wasn't enthused but try and keep me away. That's the problem, though. The band is so iconic that they are going to withstand the worst fantasy shrinkwrap attempt because what they left lives on and continues to excite and inspire. And this is not just to creaky old x-ers like me. You can get easily lost in a YouTube rabbit hole on Pistols interviews alone. They endure for the very good reason that it wasn't that they fought the establishment but that the establishment felt so threatened by them that it pushed back what might otherwise have faded into a few culty gigs before the next consumer tsunami. If the Pistols represented the anger of the dispossessed, then it was the continued repression that told the story, not the ensuing battle.

So, it's a good story. Let's keep telling it. Do we care that the actors don't really look anything like the people they're playing? We shouldn't. If this is truth through fiction we should see the point in the characters and their interaction. Are they overplayed to the point of caricature? Bloody hell, yes. 

John Lydon has a permanent glare which makes him look more like a strung out Klaus Kinski and, in less intense moments, a young Brad Dourif. Did Anson Boon not see Lydon when his judgey resting face made him look more menacing? The voice is good but it's cobbled from YouTube. Chrissy Hynde, who serves as the moral centre of the whole six hours, is flawless, suffering and waiting her turn (when she finally gets fully named the way that only ever happens in rock bios). Malcolm McLaren looks about thirteen and --

And talks and acts like he's thirteen, a man boy who's wrestling his way out of a coddled start in life to make a big armchair revolution happen. And now I'm starting to get it. The real McLaren looked like an adult but the accounts of the band have him blathering slogans and bullshitting his way out of any corner the way a pre-teen might. So, Thomas Brodie-Sangster's full throated performance, as soon as you buy into the brief, works. It works even though Talulah Riley's more naturalistic portrayal of his partner Vivian Westwood is at odds. The clash of it works (see what I did there?)

So, if Glenn Matlock is a simpering would be pop idol in a den of punk vipers we need only recall the public view that he was wrong for the band and they needed it punk not professional. Matlock was the major musical contributor to most of the songs we think of as essential Pistols anthems. This is a myth with in a myth (that of McLaren pretending to have more control over the situation than he did) ... but he is too flossy and is written that way to justify the sacking scene. Now that I think of it the closest resemblance is between Beth Dillion and her character Siouxsie Sioux. She's in many scenes but, apart from one where she gets to re-enact the Lord's Prayer gig, she is a mute, quirky decoration. 

And, as all this matching I'm doing between history and fable is going on, Danny Boyle is playing some very light footed moves with distorted action, narrative compression, a deft way with blending the looks of video with the kind of film for tv of things like Minder or The Sweeney. He gets the actors to play and sing as the band on stage, rather than mime to the real band recordings. All that. But there's still a problem. 

I get a sense of the excitement of a London breaking out against the stodgy end of the '70s. There's a lot of well-crafted ennui and conflict that plagues every single band that ever there was. But it still looks like tv and feels like a soap. It's not without its powerful moments but soaps aren't, either. And, in a movie about one of the bands whose movement rallied against mainstream predictability, the clich├ęs abound. The band can't quite get a thing together so the drummer comes in, on the point of quitting, and saves a future anthem. Did Steve Jones really tell Westwood and McLaren how to suck eggs in their own bloody shop? Sid Vicious is named through an excruciating setup. And they just keep coming. Hey, Danny, you did so well do dispel all the bullshit about heroin lifestyle back in Trainspotting and you can't find a way out of this?

These are in every rock bio. The worst one I've seen was in a tv movie about the Beach Boys. The band is taking a break outside the studio. A girl in a Thunderbird zooms past. One Beach Boy says, "she'll have fun." Another Beach Boy says, "yeah, till her daddy takes her t-bird away." They look at each other. One snaps his fingers. SONG! In Backbeat (whih is mostly really good) a pre-fame Lennon complains about the hours in the Hamburg club as a hard day's night. Brian May takes the band through the rhythm of We Will Rock You in Bohemian Rhapsody, explaining how it's a kind of democratic gift to the audience. Ray Manzarek tells the lads to take a break from trying to force the song they're working on in The Doors and then calls them back in and plays the nifty intro to Light My Fire. Now, I have never been in a famous band and don't know if someone comes up with hit song ideas like that or says something like: "No, let's be the answer everyone's been looking for let's be AH HA!" but, holy mucking bargemonsters, it surely doesn't happen like that. At least, people who were in famous bands don't remember it like that. This creative team ought to have known better or thought more of their audience to let this kind of thing through. What it does, apart from anything else, is add more heft to the mythology when it might pursue the same level of entertainment and tell its durably interesting story about how bad ideas can lead to bad decisions, no matter how big you get.

The Sex Pistols were a beacon for me. I felt an affinity with them, however far flung in tropical Townsville. I thrilled to see the violence of the fashion and was engaged to rigidity on finally hearing the album. I didn't wear the uniform of spiky hair or nasal safety pins. I went to school and already had a uniform. But the power and the snarling and the defiance and the cheek of it gave me strength to push back the big world of Kelloggs and Massey Ferguson. They helped me love that I was different. Not all that different, admittedly (straight, Euro, middle class) but just not wanting to be like the great slpadge, like them. That's what all that felt like. And if I was in the damp, hot arsehole of the old Empire they were playing around its rotting teeth and we were joined as one.

It was fun to play both advocate and self-dismissing clown with this at that age, and it armed me for what was to come. But now it looks and feels like the "edgy" reimagining that Riverdale makes of Archie and Jughead except in reverse it just cannot cut it. If you start watching this and relax into it I all but guarantee you'll sit up after six hours of it and wonder where the time went. It's fun to ride the tale again but I wonder if we, young or old, still need the pageantry of it. As a balance I played my favourite representation before writing this. No, not Swindle (which is McLaren's after-dinner speech on film) or even The Filth and the Fury (which is Julian Temple's attempted redemption for making Swindle) but the Classic Albums series episode on Never Mind the Bollocks. It's from the early 2000s and everyone is still in good form but old enough to feel the need for frankness and they, even McLaren, manage to build the world around the record by focussing on the sessions. Eventually, in about an hour, you really know all you need to. The big series, for all its virtuosity and energy never feels like the world I imagined from just the pages of the NME. The best fiction film about The Beatles is Nowhere Boy because it doesn't have to be about them and doesn't once mention the name. It's happy to be a strong story about youth. Maybe forget the names and tell the tale. It would still mean something, probably more. Maybe just go back and listen to the record. It still rips right into your nervous system.

I still have my copy, bought the day Gough Whitlam lost the 1977 election (and fled politics), with the money my Nanna gave me to buy my own Chrissie present. I spent the afternoon playing it over industrial sound pressure level recommendations and it was my most played platter for the next three years. I taped it for friends and took it to parties. I didn't talk about it into the night the way other kids talked about Dark Side of the Moon. Bollocks was a creature that I could loose to gaping mouths or big bright grins. And, though it felt a little corny even then, took it to my high school formal and got the DJ to play it as a small but intense few of us scared everyone else off the blinky dance floor. My copy is a standard Australian first release and wouldn't fetch more than its 1977 price on ebay. The cover is worn down one edge and needs to be kept in the plastic sheath I bought for it or it will disintegrate. But show me a mint EMI copy of Anarchy in the UK which would fetch an easy $1000.00 and it will just look like a piece of plastic. So, I passed the time with Pistol and don't mind that after six hours of it I barely remember it. It's alright but it's nothing like what I already had. 


Pistol can be seen in Australia on Disney Plus

Classic Albums Never Mind the Bollocks episode is available free through sbs on demand here.