Jackie Brown: the third Tarantino film of five, the one people tend to forget. Naturally, it’s one I love dearly. How is it different from all the rest? Well, it marks the moment before Tarantino dived into the self-referential genre stuff, and is a bit slower and smoother than the rest of his work, and I think it’s generally considered his most mature work. But I don’t want to talk about that stuff. Just watch it, it’s great, and if you like Tarantino you’re really missing out, okay? I want to talk about music. That means, I realise, talking about one of the things that doesn’t differentiate it from Tarantino’s 0ther work: after all, he’s always been handy with a soundtrack. It’s easy to rattle off a list: Little Green Bag, Misirlou, Battle Without Honour or Humanity, Cat People… But this is a whole other level. Because it’s never just been about the music. It’s about how Tarantinos entwines them with the film, to make something bigger. I could talk about the opening, where we track, following Jackie as she walks through an airport to the sound of Across 110th Street, and how it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the character or how it should be one of the most iconic scenes in recent cinema. We could reminisce about Strawberry Letter 23, how its opening is one of the most magical minutes in all of music, and how beautifully it complements a scene of Samuel L. Jackson preparing to stone-cold murder one of his friends. How the gliding vocals as he pulls those gloves on develops that Stuck in the Middle/torture juxtaposition into something far more subtle and sinister. I could go on like that all day. I really could. But I want to tell you my latest theory. We’ve already considered Kill Bill’s novelistic chapters, but I think Jackie Brown is the perfect illustration of how musical Tarantino’s work is. Obviously the use of songs, yes, but: the way the greater plot so often gets sidelined in favour of dipping and peaking tension. The rhythm of dialogue. The non-linear style that returns to certain moments, chorus-like. The focus on Moments. There’s a way of looking at music that’s well expressed in the work of Tom Ewing, and one I tend towards when thinking/talking/writing about music, that puts the focus on these individual Moments. You know: the thrilling peaks in the middle of those repeating structures, that demand your attention every time a song plays. It might introduce a new idea, or put the emphasis on one instrument, or maybe a production trick that tweaks the way everything sounds. In Tarantino, this manifests as those quotable moments of dialogue (“Our ass used to be beautiful”, the AK-47 speech, 90% of the things Sam Jackson says in this film) and little stylistic quirks (the ubiquitous ‘trunk’ shoot from inside a car’s boot, the use of white text on black titlecards). There are valleys – and Jackie Brown is a long film, so be prepared for a whole lot of valley – that provide the rhythm, and then layered on top of that, and on top of the push and pull of these characters and the constant threat of them killing each other, are these beautiful moments of style. People criticise Tarantino for being style over substance. I say, style is the substance. Have you never listened to a pop song?
I can remember when the concept of ‘bromance’ was a revelation to me. It’s warped into something ugly now, a word I can only bring myself to use contained safely between quotation marks. But I was young, and full of foolish innocence, and the word was a lightning rod. The relationship between two (mostly) straight men, it said, could be as beautiful and important as the love affairs most films dedicated themselves to. I wasn’t thinking of Ryan Reynolds and The Hangover and MTV. I was thinking of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Shaun of the Dead, for all its high-concept romzomcom premise and delicate construction, is just about two blokes in love. Shaun and Ed. The kind of mates who’ve known each other since primary school, have intertwined lives and shared jokes that have being running since forever. Of course, there are women, and family, and all the types of love that come along with that too. But Shaun of the Dead presents nothing on a higher pedestal than what I’m sure Plato himself would have termed the bromantic love between the two. In the finest Twilight tradition, however, the path of their love does not run smooth. The painful truth, as various characters continually point out to Shaun, is that he’s just no good for him. Ed’s lazy and abrasive and selfish. But since when has that got in the way of a good romance? It’s the central conflict of the film. Sure, it looks like a romantic comedy (with zombies!, as the tagline so cheerily informs us) about a guy trying to win back his girl, but really the threat that drives the plot along – from the very first scene, long before the zombies arrive – is deciding whether his relationship with Ed is destructive. It’s all tangled up with Shaun’s need to sort his life out, but the relationship with Ed – and whether Shaun should dump him, and whether anyone will stand between these starcross’d mates – is where that conflict crystallises most clearly into actual narrative. This relationship between men is one of the key tenets on which all of Pegg, Frost, and Wright’s work is built, along with the oft-cited pop-cultural obsession and the symmetrical structures of callbacks and foreshadowing which we’ll be looking at in a future post. All three are fascinations of mine, and Shaun came along at so perfect a moment that I can’t separate the two, establish which came first. When I actually watched Shaun of the Dead, on my bedroom floor with my own BFF, did this all stand out? Did I know that I would ever try and mark pre- and post-? Of course not. I was too busy being entertained by a funny, thrilling, gory romp. Everything else came later: when you’re watching it for the seventeenth time; when you take selfsame friend to see Hot Fuzz for Valentine’s Day; when you’re trying to write about it…
As someone who has long taken issue with the way certain childrens’ books (hint: rhymes with Larry Frotter) are not just acceptable but celebrated reading material for grownups, my love of kids’ films is maybe worth a little examination. They have to dumb down to the same common-denominator level, surely, to be understood by even the littlest of the littl’uns? And, if you’d put this question to me in person, I’d likely spend a lot of time humming and aahing, looking at my shuffling feet, before making a hurried mumble of apology (something about explosive diarrhea?) and fleeing from the room. But here we are on the internet, where I am master, and have infinite time to consider my answer. Which is (now) this: as a passive medium, cinema doesn’t have a prerequisite ‘you must be this tall to enjoy’ barrier to enjoyment. In a children’s book, even one aimed at an audience older than Monsters Inc, the level of vocabulary and technique available to the author is limited by the reader’s understanding. The same logic applies to game for children, which have to be reasonably simple to interact with. Pixar are able to bring all sorts to complex cinematic technique to bear. Just look at the comedy outtakes that run over the credits: try something like that in a book, and the extra layer of fictional reality introduced could be alienating. But in Monsters Inc, that just slips over you without being an issue, even when it slips back into the original reality with Mike & Sully’s ‘Put That Thing Back Or So Help Me’ musical. Or… well, it could be that I just don’t really dig on Harry Potter (I’ve tactfully avoided making any reference to Pullman’s Dark Materials stuff or my lack of interest in the HP films, both of which would totally sink my argument) whereas Monsters Inc is an undeniably brilliant film, equally capable of making me laugh, cry, go awhhhh, marvel at its prettiness, get caught in the action, cry again, and totally not care about any kinds of adult/child divides. But, shhh. That would totally invalidate this post, wouldn’t it?
You know when you go back to a film you love, especially one considered a classic, after a few years? Your memory tends to get fuzzy, and so you kind of wait for the moments that have settled in your mind. It’s often those ‘classic’ big moments, the bits you see talking heads remembering for you on endless Channel4 Top 100s. Ride of the Valkyries, napalm in the morning, the horror the horror, etc. But I was surprised to find what’d truly stuck from Apocalypse Now was something else entirely; an unusual moment three-quarters into the film. It comes as the boat carrying Captain Willard reaches Do Lung Bridge. Night has fallen, and the bridge is chaos, smoke and sparks everywhere. Like the rest of the film, it makes beautiful use of light and dark, silhouettes and explosions of blurry colour. Flares fall lazily from the sky, leaving trails that are reflected in the ripples of the water. It’s probably the single biggest bit of spectacle in the film. As the boat pulls up to the bridge, Lance announces he’s just dropped his final tab of acid. “It’s beautiful … far out”. And it is – the whole scene is a light show – but it’s hellish too. “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain!” The soundtrack is broken circus music and the incoherence of dying soldiers. The space between flashes of light gets longer, and we’re left in darkness between moments of piercing brightness. Just to underscore all that, into the most dangerous space we’ve been yet, Lance brings his newly-acquired puppy. The scene signifies a crossing into the out-and-out strangeness of the last half an hour, which is fitting given it’s a gate, a threshold between ‘here’ (Vietnam, warring against Charlie) and ‘there’ (Cambodia, hunting down one of your own). The film is one long stream of insanity, of various stripes and colours, but there’s a coolness to what comes before, that doesn’t have much place in the uneasy remainder. This is the bit where the film starts to turn nasty. On top of all that, above everything else, it’s presented like another world; more sci-fi than war film. Willard and Lance moving through the trenches in silhouette could be men on the moon. Among the churning soundtrack, I swear I can hear laser fire. That’s Apocalypse Now: an exploration of a world outside of our laws. It might as well be a fantasy world: it’s certainly far richer than the world of any fantasy film I could name. The Lord of The Rings? Pfft, this comes with its own language too – equal parts acronym (FNGs, ETAs, LZs), French, and insults – one which filled me like asbestos when first I saw it as a teenager, coloured my vision of festival fields, and is still with me today, laughing uncontrollably in the backseat as Dom throws his car round a sharp corner while Ride of the Valkyries blasts in my ears.
Perhaps you already know this, but it’s nearly a full hour into Aliens before the first appearance by any, you know, aliens. It’s a pretty ballsy move, and one that helps make the action sequences in the second half really sing. But there’s an even more important late introduction, at the 45 minute mark. It looks like it’s going to be the aliens. The motion tracker bleeps promisingly, teasingly. Guns are raised. That blip turns into a blur streaking across the foreground. Of course, it’s a fakeout. It was a little girl. Newt. Newt changes the film. Putting kids and dogs in danger is a cliché; it’s an easy way to up the stakes, but it works. (Alien had a cat, which has nearly the same effect except that cats are rubbish). Part of this is the execution – Newt’s never overplayed, she’s not a cutesy or annoying character, Cameron can build tension like an absolute melonfarmer – but more important is that the Ripley/Newt relationship is the key to the film’s main theme. If Alien was about the fear of pregnancy, Aliens is about something much more terrifying: what happens next. You survived the body horror of giving birth to something red and fleshy; now you’ve got a small vulnerable creature to care for. When I occasionally wonder about parenthood, I’m paralysed by two terrifying realisations: A) it’s very easy, to paraphrase that filthy-mouthed Philip Larkin, screw your child up; B) you’ve got something extra to be scared of, all the time. You know how much more worried you are about being mugged when you’ve got a couple of hundred quid in your pocket? But, like, times a million. This is the feeling Aliens works on, and then builds a constant plot-based tension around it. The survivors get narrowed down, and maybe you’ll jump a couple of times, but it’s only when it comes to Ripley and Newt that it really hits bone. People remember the ‘cool’ stuff of Aliens: the firing of plasma rifles and the casually-dropped quotables. But as is usually the case, that’s not very accurate. While the two hours zip past, the film’s light on set-pieces or any extended action. Instead, it practically rubs the motherhood stuff in your face. It felt weird, watching the Theatrical Release, not having the scene where we – and Ripley – discover her daughter grew old and died while Ripley enjoyed her 57 years of hypersleep. It foregrounds her relationship with Newt even more, but the film still hardly goes light on the theme stuff. After all, Aliens is a film that climaxes with a fight between a queen alien protecting her brood of eggs and the woman whose surrogate child she stole. And afterwards Newt clutches the victorious Ripley tight and calls her “mommy”. Was there really ever any doubt what it was all about?
Evil Dead II is a film in the process of going insane. It starts out playing it straight, a standard horror film: a couple go to a cabin in the woods, discover a recording of an archaeologist reading from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the book of the dead, and evil things are unleashed. Girl gets possessed, boy is forced to cut girlfriend’s head off. It’s 15 minutes of a fairly normal horror film. By genre standards, its premise isn’t even that ridiculous. This is, of course, the least interesting part of the film. But then it starts to get a little odd. It all starts with the girlfriend’s decapitated corpse doing a song-and-dance number, using the lopped-off head as a prop. It’s human nature: there comes a point where, having taken a chainsaw to your dead girlfriend’s head and chopped off your own possess hand, you just have to laugh. You can see something crack, in the film and its hero, Ash. It’s like watching the Joker’s secret origin (or, as I write this, the lovely girlfriend fighting the last few paragraphs of her dissertation): the laughter quickly turns maniacal. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the scenes end with Ash snapping back to reality – oh it was all a dreaAARGH – or fighting against himself. But, just like the Joker, with madness comes clarity. Specifically, the understanding that, if a man falling over is a little funny, turning the violence up by 100 will make it hilarious. And, really, there is little on this list funnier than a pinched-hosepipe explosion of blood going off in a man’s face, or a shotgun making someone’s entire head explode. …I guess I could point out that it’s notable that this all begins after Ash has to kill his own girlfriend (twice), and that maybe all those monsters and strange camera angles are a big ol’ metaphor. But Evil Dead II really doesn’t seem bothered with that sort of thing. It just wants to be itself: a big, brash thrill ride that occasionally makes you jump, but much more often just makes you laugh. Laugh your head off. It’s all rather funny, really. HAHAHAHAHAAAAAARGH.
As befits a film about vampires, there’re a lot of dark corners in Let The Right One In. Yes, real, danger-concealing ones too, but metaphorically speaking. Something will be alluded to, but never explained. It’s full of empty spaces for your imagination to fill, as it inevitably dominates your thoughts over the next few days. This vacuum sucks up everything nearby – the other version of the film, the little I know about the original book, the speculative conversations – so that going back and actually watching it, it’s strange to be reminded no, that’s not in this film or that never gets explained. By not explaining, or even dropping bigger clues, to some of the ideas it flirts with, Let The Right One In holds its mystery. And as Edward Cullen taught a generation of teen girls, being mysterious makes you cooler and more attractive to everyone. Plus it speaks with a Swedish accent and in subtitles. That wobbly sensation is your knees going weak. It’s a good looking bit of cinema, too, every bit the equal of RPats’ goth-pale chiseled features. Almost every shot feels considered, making the most of its setting- 1980s suburban Sweden in the snow, which feels as exotic and, yes, mysterious as any location ever committed to celluloid. Everything is beautiful, but just a little ugly at the same time. The two children at the centre of the story are perfectly chosen, treading that same line. There’s something repellent in the fragile porcelain features of Kåre Hedebrant’s Oskar which helps sell the character as well as being simply fascinating to look at. At the heart of all this is a very simple story, of Oskar and Eli, two children – just on the cusp of that word still being an acceptable description – meeting and bonding. A coming of age story, with some very sinister additions, as is only right for that vulnerable confused time. Girl meets boy, but girl is actually vampire and boy is slightly emotionally disturbed. And so, under and around this relationship, other things happen: some of them clear, some of them obfuscated. Serial killings, bullying, a man losing his best friend and telling his wife he now has nothing. These events all cast shadows, to be probed lying in bed awake after the DVD is safely back in its box. Shadows like: “I’m not a girl.” This is the biggest cause of speculation and if you haven’t seen it, skip this paragraph please. The whole film has sexual overtones, undertones and run-clean-through-tones (and the novel allegedly much more so) and so the gender confusion fits right. The glimpse of Eli’s crotch is the moment that stuck in the collective memory when I first saw Let The Right One In. It’s an example of that ugliness, of the sex-horror, and one of the rare times I’ve been genuinely shocked by a film. And, again, memory plays tricks. Rewatching it, the moment having built to infamy, its momentariness and simplicity was shocking. All these little mysteries and questions aren’t really important. It doesn’t matter whether Oskar’s father is gay, or an alcoholic. It’s all just an implied history that lends weight to the film’s world; fodder to keep the film alive in your memory after the credits roll. It’s refusal to answer the question just keep all the mythology stripped back, so the central relationships at the centre can shine more cleanly. Everything else is just shadows.
I don’t like crime films. Seriously, I can’t even make it past the first 30 minutes of The Godfather. Scarface, Goodfellas, The Departed? Fuhgeddaboudit. Any film which features tough gangstery guys doing tough gangstery things and saying tough gangstery stuff, I’m just not interested. Reservoir Dogs is, of course, a crime film. So, as the only representative of that particular genre on this list (considering it separate to the detective side of it which, as we all know, I love deeply), let’s ask: Why? I think it’s list-within-a-list-time. A) It’s how you tell ’em After all, looking at it Reservoir Dogs has a pretty grim plotline (spoilers follow, obviously). A gang of (tough, gangstery) guys are brought together for a heist. It goes violently wrong, leading to the deaths of a number of them, a much higher number of policemen and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. The remainder of the film plays out as one of them coughs out, in bloody chunks, his last few hours. The survivors argue over who ratted them out to the police, point guns at one another, torture (famously) a policeman, and eventually all get shot by each other. Even with the playful Tarantino dialogue, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to play it grim ‘n’ gritty. There’s a lot of shooting, blood, and hacked-off ears. But Reservoir Dogs is a film that understands that sustaining threat and keeping an emotional centre doesn’t mean staying stony-faced for two hours. It’s a genre piece, a knockabout caper not afraid to crack a smile; what Graham Greene would class as an ‘Entertainment’. A long section of the film is given over to telling a long, jokey anecdote; another (again, famously) to a discussion of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and the etiquette of tipping, rather than lingering on the ever-growing despair and pile of corpses. B) It’s not really about crime Mostly, Reservoir Dogs is a story about relationships: Mr White and Mr Orange, Mr Blonde and the Cabot family. We’re introduced to all the major players in the diner scene, leading into the title sequence. From there, the film immediately jumps to a painfully intimate scene between Orange and White. Orange is bleeding out in the back of a car, whimpering and inevitably going to die, and White is trying to comfort him. It closes on an even more painful mirror of the scene, with Orange now in White’s lap, both covered in their own blood. The whole central action of the film is driven by the push-and-pull between the two cliques. Yes, cliques. You could strip out all the genre tropes of Reservoir Dogs and play it is as something not far removed from Mean Girls. And Mr White is Lindsay Lohan, torn between two social groups – an old friendship with Joe Cabot, the crime boss planning the heist, and a paternal/ever-so-slightly-homoerotic relationship with the young Mr Orange. It’s this divide that brings the film to its bloody conclusion: just like any teen drama, then. C) It’s not a conventional crime film Much has been made, over the years, of how similar Reservoir Dogs is to a play. It has a small ensemble of well-developed characters, mostly takes place in one location, and is mostly made up of dialogue with no big action scenes. That’s just another way of approaching the point that – for all Tarantino’s knowledge and love of big crime films – it isn’t like them, somehow. They’d suggest Mamet, I’d argue Fey; the point is, it’s different. D) It’s just so beautifully dressed Reservoir Dogs has something in its favour which even the stately elegance of Coppola’s Godfather lacks: style. The first film both written and directed by Tarantino, it is stamped with his trademark cool, in everything from the dialogue – “You kill anybody?”/”A few cops”/”No real people?”/”Just cops” – to the cinematography – which manages to be both fluid in motion and pause-any-frame iconic – and the soundtrack – everyone remembers the Stuck in the Middle with You ear-cutting, but all the music, accompanied by Steven Wright’s low radio DJ drawl, works perfectly. Given you can dig on Tarantino’s particular groove, it’s beautiful stuff. E) It’s well-structured Because the film is non-linear, scenes are able to rub against one another in interesting ways, cutting from friendly banter to extreme violence. It lends an extra edge to both types of scene, something that has increasingly become the core of Tarantino’s work. And the central ‘who’s the rat’ conceit, which is played lightly enough that the mystery can be shattered early on, is a good hook to work the relationships around. It ties together the detective narrative of the kind of crime films I do like with the claustrophobic mistrust of something like The Thing. Perfect. F) All of the above
You know Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s full of those famous cinematic moments. The bit where Peter Griffin fights a giant chicken as a the propeller of a biplane swings lethally round. The bit where Bart Simpsons oh-so-carefully grabs the money jar, then flees a rolling Homer boulder. Where Bart/Puss-in-Boots/JD from Scrubs just about grabs his hat in time as the door comes down. And who could forget that famous last shot, of the endless warehouse – a lot like that other one full of hula hoops, or that older one full of Charles Kane’s stuff – where Paul gave Steven Spielberg pointers about making a film about an alien? You know, all those classic moments. …It’s an understatement to say Raiders has settled into the vocabulary of pop culture. It’s practically a part of our collective unconscious now. Most people could explain the film without having seen a single frame. It’s the most natural fate, perhaps, for a film which eats up as much film history as Raiders does. The opening moment melts from a vintage Paramount logo to a mountainous backdrop. It steals itsshots wholesale. Indy himself is an amalgam of a thousand pulp heroes, gruff, sexy, hard-edged . Like Star Wars, the film is a product of Lucas’ fascination with old-school pulp. And like those films, its brilliance seems to be at least half by accident (Ford was a reluctant bit of casting, some of its best moments and lines weren’t in the script, which starred one ‘Indiana Smith’). But all that trivia, all that marginal stuff, the shadow of the legacy it left and the legacy it tipped a fedora to… it doesn’t matter when you’re watching Raiders. The film itself is more than that: it’s elegant, well-paced, thrilling, knowing but never self-conscious, not afraid to be a little silly, pretty just often enough and more commonly handsome. Just watching it cuts through all that effortlessly, like an overly elaborate sword display brought to an end by the punchline of a single gunshot. You know, that classic moment.
“I don’t know if you’re a detective, or a pervert” – Sandy Williams It’s probably about time we talked about curiosity. I’d forgotten how much of a ripping yarn there was at the centre of Blue Velvet. I remembered all the oddities, all the weird and disturbing moments, the brilliant use of music – but not the mystery story that drives it. That is to say, a story about being curious. Being curious is what makes narratives work: often in terms of moving characters around so they can create ‘plot’, but pretty much always in terms of the reader/viewer/player/listener/audience. Detective stories especially push this right close to the surface. The audience are closely aligned with the detective, their motivation united: discover the answers. (There’s a whole essay in me somewhere on how detective stories are the ultimate story; no doubt it’d feature phrases like ‘fiction suits’ and ‘cogs and gears of narrative’ so it’s probably best I’m writing this instead.) But if you’re willing to stretch the parameters of how you define curiosity, most stories work along the same lines: what would that be like? what’s over there? what if I…? And, the basic engine of Story: what happens next? And characters do your work for you, answering your questions by satiating their curiosity. So, in the case of Blue Velvet: there’s an ear. (“Yes, that’s a human ear all right” a police detective cheerfully says of the thing, crawling with ants and starting to go mouldy.) And so the question is set: where did the ear come from? It’s not too overwhelming a mystery, and the story could trail off in another direction. But Jeffrey, coming home from college to his boring hometown of Lumberton, gets curious. And, as he sneaks into a woman’s apartment and hides in a cupboard and watches through the slits to satisfy his curiosity, the question the audience is asking themselves changes: what will he find out? and, more immediately thanks to the carefully measured pace and the stabs of thriller music, is he going to make it out alive? You know all those times someone tells you there are only this many stories, really, seven or four or one? It’s silly, really, and incredibly reductive. But I have to throw my hat in this point, I’d say there are two types. Stories about curiosity being rewarded, and stories about curiosity being punished. Detective stories tend to be about curiosity rewarded, for example. Horror stories are about curiosity punished. (No, don’t just go and see what’s in the—OHGODOHGODYOURFACE!) Jeffrey witnesses atrocities, is threatened and beaten. His initial curiosity is certainly punished. But even fearing for his life, he can’t help himself: someone mutters something and there’s that little ping of a clue and Jeffrey pokes his nose in once more. He’s more addicted to answers and plot than someone two books into a Stieg Larsson bender. Blue Velvet combines the pleasure of discovery – of all the strange images the film has to offer – with the stomach-churning desire for this to go no further. That little voice that says: if I eject the disc now, everything will stay at least this okay. And that’s the, er, curious thing about curiosity: we need it for the story, we crave it, but if it’s pitched just right, something in you doesn’t want to find out. Or least, doesn’t want to pay the cost of knowing. And that feeling wins out in Jeffrey, about three-quarters of the way through the film. He doesn’t want to be curious anymore; he wants off this narrative and into a story where the only curiosities are about a girl, what lies beneath, and what they feel like. And it looks like maybe sks and costs are going to be the ones that story has to offer – jealous ex-boyfriends and sneaking around… But it’s not done with him yet. The thing about Blue Velvet is, it’s not quite a detective story, or a horror story. So in the end which will it be: the kind of story where Jeffrey’s curiosity goes rewarded? Or punished? …Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn’t it?