Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) [BFI #10]

Posted 13 December 2011 by kinephile
Categories: Antiheroes, British, Danny Boyle, Drugs, Scotland, Slice of Life

I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time
[The Velvet Underground: I’m Waiting For The Man]

There are no reasons.  Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
[Mark Renton]

It’s been a week now that I’ve been trying to find a handle on Trainspotting.   It’s not all that hard to say what it is, although the answer is a complex one.  What’s more elusive is saying why it is.

We’re in Edinburgh, ancient royal capital of Scotland.  But this is not the tourist Edinburgh of shortbread, kilts and pipers on the castle ramparts; nor is it cultural, erudite Festival Edinburgh.  This is an altogether grittier place, the Edinburgh that lurks in unloved suburbs like Pilton and Craigmillar.  There’s a thread in British film that recurs over and again, where the festering sores behind the facade of popular icons and locations that make up the British myth.  We’ve seen it before already, in Brighton Rock.  Trainspotting, however, makes no concessions to the shiny side in the way that Brighton Rock lingers on the families enjoying the beach oblivious to the squalour behind the seafront.  There’s something else going on, because Trainspotting isn’t just, or even at all, a British film.  It’s an essentially Scottish film, a film that asserts a uniquely Scottish identity that denies and dissassociates itself from the tartan-packaged tourist version.  There is a healthy and distinctive school of Scottish film as we shall see in time.

In this Caledonian midden lives Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, dissatified child of oppressively Morningside parents and heroin addict.  In between raising the means to satisfy his habit by fair means or foul (it’s not clear if this involves living up to his nickname) Renton spends his days in the flat of his dealer along with his friends and fellow addicts; slow, amiable Spud, petty crook Sickboy and single mother Alison, whose baby is allowed to crawl at will around the filthy floor while the gang shoot up and check out of the everyday world.  Their oblivion, while it lasts, is as Alison orgasmically puts it “better than any meat injection”.   The cost of the fleeting moment of personal ecstasy and release is a frightening depth of personal degradation illustrated graphically with Renton plunging into his own diarrhoea in a squalid public lavatory to retrieve the fix which a sadistic supplier has given him in the form of a suppository.  Also around the edges of Renton’s circle are a pair on non-addicts, the explosively violent Begbie and the clean-cut athlete Tommy.  It’s when Renton steals Tommy’s home-made porn video as part of his attempt to go clean that such plot as there is kicks in, and things go horribly wrong for everybody, bearing in mind that they are in a pretty horrible place to begin with, except for Tommy, and he has a long way to fall .

Trainspotting is a deeply unpleasant film  That’s not to say it’s a bad film.  It isn’t; far from it.  It’s simply involved with deeply unpleasant issues.  It’s not hard to imagine being made as a documentary, one which would perhaps have received much acclaim in the colour supplements but would have struggled to reach an audience that needed to hear the message.  It isn’t that though.  Danny Boyle, who began his media career in television, makes effective use of television techniques especially those that developed from advertising and grew through the short music video.  The rapid-fire cutting, distortion and sudden shifts in place and time leave the senses reeling and while it’s not possible for one who has never used heroin to know completely what it’s like but the surreal world of the junkie comes to vivid life.  A deadly dance of destructively love, summed up by Doyle’s inspired use of the Habanẽra from Carmen: si je t’aime. prend garde à toi¹.  There’s even space in the darkness for a laugh or two (mainly at Begbie’s expense).  A documentary would have given food for thought, but as entertainment it hits the viewer right where it hurts.  Inevitably, on release it attracted accusations of glamourising drug abuse, but there’s nothing glamorous about these pathetic lives.

I haven’t said what kind of film Trainspotting is yet.  Well, I have said it’s a Scottish film.  It’s a horror film in a way, but it’s not the kind of horror film which takes the viewer on a fairground white-knuckle ride to set the endorphins flowing, it’s the horror that upsets and discombobulates, it’s what Brecht would have striven for and Barthes would have labelled jouissance.  It becomes  a heist film towards the end.  It’s a love story, with Renton’s under-age girlfriend being not only more mature than he is but the source of his ultimate redemption.  It’s a quest narrative, with Renton in search of release from his biochemical bondage.  Renton is at bottom a good-hearted soul and we can even find a spark of warmth in what is a very chilly film in hoping that he finally does escape for good.  Ultimately it’s a terrific and original piece of cinema which thoroughly deserves a place in the canon.

¹ If I love you, watch your step!

Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

Posted 4 December 2011 by kinephile
Categories: 2010s, British, Middle class, Mike Leigh, Slice of Life

Tags:

Gerri: On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are, Janet?
Janet: One.
Gerri: One. I think there’s room for improvement there, don’t you?

Another Year

Joe (Oliver Maltman), Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen)

What was the best British film of 2010?  The King’s Speech swept the board at all the glitzy awards ceremonies, and those who measure quality in financial terms will probably point out that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows took far more than any other British film at the box office.  In another year, perhaps, Another Year would have been allowed room to shine between the laments for the dire state of British cinema, a reminder that Mike Leigh is a consistent creator of high-quality.

Leigh, along with Peter Greenaway and Ken Loach (both of whom this blog will surely be visiting in time), is one of the few genuine British auteur directors, and of the three perhaps the most quintessentially British.  The British, it always seems to me, have a deep suspicion of the auteur, the creative genius craftsman.  Perhaps they are just too Continental for comfort, don’t you know.  But perhaps in Leigh’s case they are wary because he gets too near to the truth, his slices of lower-middle class life too close to the bone for comfort.  And Another Year isn’t a comfortable or comforting film.  It’s all about happiness, and survey after survey shows the British to be unhappiest people in Europe.

At its still centre is a sublimely happy middle-aged married couple called Tom and Gerri.  Yes, really, and it’s so deliberate the script draws attention to it at one point.  Like their anthropomorphic cartoon namesakes they may enjoy sparring with each other but at bottom their devotion to and dependence on each other is so deep that each would defend the other to the death.  Actually it’s not as dramatic as that; there is little sign of conflict between them and they are as solid and dependable as the seasons whose progress is marked by their work on the allotment, planting, harvesting, digging as the year progresses.   Things don’t happen to Tom and Gerri; people do.  People who are so desperately unhappy that they have become self-destructive.  People like Tom’s old friend Ken, drinking and eating himself to certain early death.  Or Tom’s brother Ronnie, shrunken into taciturn withdrawal from a world he no longer comprehends., or Ronnie’s estranged son Carl, door-slammingly angry and bitter at everyone and everything.

And then there’s Mary, right there at the centre of such action as there is.  Mary, long-standing friend and colleague of Gerri’s, who seems so bright and lively and charming at the beginning.  One feels that Mary should have everything going for her if he weren’t so chronically in denial about her own failings.  When she gets maudlin drunk and wallows in self-pity on the shoulders of the unflappable Tom and Gerri, or engages with outrageous flirting with their placid son Joe it’s tooth-achingly painful to watch.  When jealousy propels her into outright rudeness to Joe’s effervescent new girlfriend Katie it’s too much even for Gerri; a rift develops between them and Mary’s subsequent sharp decline is nothing less than agonising.  I said it wasn’t comfortable, and the source of the discomfort is that we’ve all known a Mary and maybe, just maybe, some of us older women have been in danger of being Mary.  Gerri, who tries hard to keep her day job as a counsellor out of her social life, is finally prompted in her upset with Mary to suggest she seeks professional help.  I’d like to thinks that she does;  for all the agony Lesley Manville makes the character so believable that I care about her and want her to find the redemption redemption and self-knowledge that she seems on the edge of accepting at the end.  But we aren’t given the easy answer, as the curtain comes down on the inner torment in Mary’s eyes.

I say “the curtain comes down” as a metaphor.  What actually happens is a cut to black;  a long, lingering black before the credits begin to roll.  Let the metaphor serve as a reminder that if there is a mark of a distinctively British style of film-making and television it is theatricality – it’s a mark I’ll be revisiting again and again.  There’s a reason why Hollywood, which likes its all-American leading men and women, so often turns to the likes of Anthony Hopkins or Alan Rickman for its villains; they have a stage training American film actors can seldom match.  Mike Leigh is, more than any other British director, rooted in the theatre and it’s 1960s offspring, the television play.  Another Year could have been a Play for Today from thirty years ago.  Leigh is also noted for his style of working, a style which goes back to Shakespeare and beyond.  He surrounds himself with a joint stock company of seasoned actors who are also skilled improvisers, and between them all they build a characterisation and script that is thoroughly coherent and believable.

Leigh isn’t unique in this respect, nor is the technique absent from big name American cinema.  Perhaps Mike Leigh’s nearest equivalent in creating films light on plot but rich in character is Woody Allen; Orson Welles worked in much the same way and the Coen bothers too in our own generation, but none are close to the Hollywood cash machine.  When the obituaries are written for British film, as they are at regular intervals, the notices are for the ability to make the big-budget blockbuster.  Well, let Hollywood do what it does best since it has the money to do so.  So long as Mike Leigh is turning out films like Another Day, British cinema would seem to be in rude health.

Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1947) [BFI #15]

Posted 27 November 2011 by kinephile
Categories: 1930s, Boulting Brothers, British, Film Noir, Gangsters, Religion

Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock. Bite one all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature. (Ida Arnold)

Brighton Rock

The Hollywood hard-boiled gangster movie might have seemed alien to the British way in 1947, but if it was going to take root then the years immediately following the Second World War was naturally the most fertile time.  Britain had a very different war from the Americans; the conflict brought extensive bombing of civilians, massive disruption of infrastructure, shortages and rationing.  In the dark weary years of austerity and reconstruction that followed, the climate was perfect for the spiv, the blackmarketeer and the protection racket.  And Britain, in Graham Greene, had its own chronicler of the dark and seedy.  The time had come for a distinctively British take on the genre.

As a noir novelist, Greene was a long way from the school of Dashiel Hammett and James M Cain.  A writer who straddled the line between the populist and the literary and, although he tried for a long time to separate the ‘entertainments’ from the ‘novels’, he never quite came down on either side.  In his later years, when many thought he was overdue for a well-deserved Nobel Prize for a string of works full of insights into the human condition, it was suggested that he was far too populist a writer to get the committee’s attention.  He just couldn’t win.  Greene’s universe is populated by unremarkable, unattractive, seedy (but seldom downright wicked) people caught up in a world beyond their control, and Brighton was just made for him.

Brighton Rock the novel is itself a sequel.  The setup can be confusing to the reader who isn’t familiar with the much less well-known A Gun For Sale, where the background to the teenage Pinky’s attempted takeover a gang of older petty crooks, and the terror of the journalist Hale who knows he’s going to be killed from the first sentence, is made clear.  But this is one of those rare sequels that grows way beyond the original.  A Gun For Sale is a potboiler, but Brighton Rock is a solid, serious novel that has its moments of dramatic action, is mostly concerned with what goes on in the characters’ heads, in particular their response to religious faith (or lack of it) and their notions of sin and morality, and it doesn’t really matter what came before.  Like much of Greene’s work, it reflects the author’s troubled relationship with the Roman Catholic church.  So we find that, ruthless as the child-gangster Pinky is (no doubt influenced by American hardboiled magazines), he takes his catholicism seriously and beneath his bravado lurks a terror of the afterlife.  And we find, too, that the naive, hapless waitress Rose, whom Pinky marries not for love but to prevent her giving evidence against him, agonises over the conflict between love and sin in innocently deciding to stand by her man to the very last.  And on the third corner of the triangle, the atheist (or at least agnostic) Ida stubbornly driven entirely by her outraged sense of morality, first to seek justice for the man Hale she hardly knows  but subsequently to find salvation for the straying Rose.

This is the makings  of a fine novel, but it’s been said many times that fine novels don’t necessarily film well.  The cinema demands a shot of glamour and the book doesn’t furnish it:  Pinky and his gang are squalid; Rose is dowdy; Ida blowsy and vulgar.  Fortunately we’ve got Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan, to do the fine tuning.  They did a good job, one that doesn’t overwhelm truth to the book, although the philosophy is very much toned down.  Young Richard Attenborough makes a handome Pinky, as childlike in his amoral recklessness while still projected the existential terror behind his eyes.  Carol Marsh might be too pretty by half to be a credible Rose but she captures the trusting innocence well, so well one wants to slap her out of it as, not doubt, Ida might have in the book.  Hermione Baddeley’s Ida, though, is elevated from pub barfly to a performer in a promenade pierrot show, and the pierrot outfit which she wears throughout is a typical Greene touch that couldn’t have been done in the book.  Pinky’s gang – that’s William Hartnell, the First Doctor, in the loud suit and bow tie being suitably sinister as Dallow the enforcer – carry all the seediness and squalor; four flyblown older men in their crappy redoubt in Frank’s run-down tenement couldn’t stand in sharper contrast to the expensive hotel suite of Colleone, the rival gang leader that Pinky aspires to overthrow.  Watch Pinky’s rage when the hotel won’t let him have a room for his wedding night.

Pinky, though, has little interest in sex.  His relationship with Rose is pure expedience; Attenborough makes it very clear that he is physically repulsed by her.  What are we to conclude?  Homosexuality was a taboo subject in England in 1947 and references had to be carefully coded, but there’s plenty of code to find if we want to.  There’s always been speculation about Graham Greene’s sexuality; he vigorously denied being homosexual but leaving aside the homoeroticism soem discern in his writings his predilection for serial affairs, always with married women, has prompted questions.  John Boulting doesn’t shy away from this.  At the time Brighton was a byword for hetereosexual adultery (your wife in the Grand, your mistress in the Metropole) rather than the gay coding it carries today,  All the same the louche Colleone amidst the rococo flourishes of his suite would give all the information they needed to those looking for it.  What is Pinky’s real motive for his desire to supplant Colleone?  A man who, we are led to believe, could snuff Pinky out any time he wanted.  Can it be the pursuit of carnal desire rather than a realistic quest for power?  After all, that would be as much of a mortal sin to the Catholic as anything else Pinky has done or contemplated doing.

The cultural coding of Brighton as a place of seedy decadence has never been to everybody’s taste.  The council’s PR people were as ever alert to slights on their image as their twenty-first century successors.  Before they would let the producers film a critical scene at the council-owned Brighton Racecourse, they required the rather bizarre disclaimer at the beginning.  Brighton was like this before the war, we are assured, but it’s all changed now and the police have everything in hand.  We don’t believe it now and they didn’t believe it then.

This is an early outing for Graham Greene as screenwriter, Richard Attenborough and the Boulting brothers.  Nobody should be surprised to hear that we’ll be meeting all of them again and again on this tour through the best of British cinema.

Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964) [BFI #31]

Posted 18 November 2011 by kinephile
Categories: Uncategorized

“Because we’re here, lad. No one else, just us.” (Colour Sergeant Bourne)

Zulu

It’s 1879 and the British Empire is in its full hubristic pomp.  Emissaries from the Mother Country are busy painting the globe red; sometimes with the blood of those who already lived there but more usually with money, torture and a show of vastly superior force (does any of this sound familiar?).  That was the way brought the disparate parts of Canada together, and that was how Lord Chelmsford was going to bring British overlordship to the tribes and kingdoms and Boer states of southern Africa.  The arrogant Chelmsford reckoned without the proud warrior nation of the Zulus under their king, Cetshwayo.

From a twenty-first century perspective it can be hard to see just how to read this.  We’ve seen the crime of apartheid in action, we’ve rejoiced with Nelson Mandela and their repossession of their own country.  When we see, as we do in the opening scene of Zulu, the scenes of carnage where the impi had taken out a big chunk of Chelmsford’s main column at Isandlwana we can feel the horror but it’s hard not to feel a cheer for Cetshwayo’s warriors, giving the Imperial Lion a bloody nose with nothing but assegais and sheer weight of numbers.  Did 1964 audiences, with Empire still well within living memory, feel the same way?  What if the force under attack is not the main force of an inept colonial general but a rag-tag assortment of the wounded and military misfits holed out in a Christian mission to keep them out of the way, fighting for their own survival?  Zulu, thankfully, is no celebration of imperial conquest and glory but the true story, somewhat embroidered but without detracting from the heroism of the original, of such an ill-favoured bunch. The history of Rorke’s Drift and its 11 Victoria Crosses (it might have been 12 but Colour Sergeant Bourne declined his, asking for and receiving a commission instead) is well documented and whatever one feels about colonial adventurism, it’s impossible not to feel awe.

Although Cy Endfield directed, Zulu was the child of its star and co-producer, Stanley Baker. [But see comments below] Baker was always an unlikely star; the craggy Welsh miner’s son was never going to be a conventional matinée idol but he was handsome enough in a dangerous, bad boy kind of way. He looks like he should have been a mining engineer and perhaps that’s why the role of the jaded Lieutenant of Engineers John Chard, passed over for promotion and sent Rorke’s Drift to build a bridge where he can’t get under the feet of his superior officers, seems to fit him like a miner’s moleskin trousers.  Baker, who might well have been the first screen Bond if he’s wanted the part, never quite lived up to his promise.  He was a hard-living man who could (and did) drink his friend Richard Burton under the table, a compulsive gambler  and a chain smoker who was carried off by lung cancer while still in his forties.  He was also a socialist, perhaps the first champagne socialist, and a friend of Harold Wilson who gave him a knighthood in his resignation honours list (he was too ill to be invested and dies just a few weeks later).  This film was born of his socialism along with the obsession with Rorke’s Drift which later led him to buy Lt Chard’s VC (he thought it was a replica but it proved to be the real thing).  It was evidently a very muscular kind of socialism (the film is not kind to its pacifist characters) but one that was able to recognise and do justice to the Zulus portrayed.  That was some comfort to one feeling a little queasy at the possible moral ambivalence of the story.

At Rorke’s Drift Baker finds his foil in a more familiar name today: Michael Caine. The opening credits play a game with us, with their “and introducing MICHAEL CAINE”. Michael had been jobbing around British film lots for eight years since his debut in the 1956 comedy Sailor, Beware! (alongside an equally uncredited Paul Eddington).  This is still an unfamiliar Caine to today’s eyes though; he was yet to assume the chirpy cockney persona and here plays an upper-class twit, Lieutenant Bromhead, who prefers potting the local wildlife to fighting.  When they hear of the approaching Zulu army from a party of Boers who aren’t hanging about to help, Chard and Bromhead instantly disagree on what to do.  It’s only by three months superiority of commission that gives Chard precedence over a reluctant Bromhead.  The rest of the garrison are none-too promising; wounded soldiers in a makeshift hospital and able-bodied squaddies more concerned with choir practice than anything else (the Welshman Baker transformed the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment of Foot into a Welsh regiment).  And then there’s the pacifist Swedish clergyman, with his secret stash of booze and his prim daughter.  Astonishingly this preacher is played by Jack Hawkins, an actor more often associated with lantern-jawed officers with well-starched-and-ironed upper lips.  Hawkins does his best but he’s clearly not comfortable in the part (which he hated when he saw it, and not surprising as this padre is pure cultural cringe).  Thank goodness, say officers and audience alike, when he disappears after the first hour.

It’s the second hour that everybody remembers.  The one with surge after surge of Zulu warriors bearing down on all sides, overrunning the compound and firing the hospital and church before retreating to regroup, while the British in their dress uniforms (another bit of license for dramatic effect) struggle to cover the walls and maintain constant fire even though each wave of impi diminished their numbers further.  There’s an astonishing moment, perhaps the highlight of the whole film, when the beleaguered garrison respond to the Zulu war song with a spirited rendering of Men of Harlech.  It’s a moment when you realise that the opposed forces are brother warriors, mutually respected, more than bitter antagonists.  It must have been a hard concept to carry off in 1964.  But If the second half is the lasting memory then the contrasting first half, in which not much happens but the atmosphere is suffused with menace, like the silence under a gathering thunderstorm.  The distant rhythmic drumming from the unseen army is as terrifying a prelude as a film could have.

Zulu was made with the co-operation of the Zulu nation.  Not something that was easy to carry off in 1964, the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned,  and the fact that the completed film exists in the form it does was an early cultural blow against apartheid.  The regime of Hendrik Vervoerd did what it could to scupper it.  The Zulu performers were not able to watch the finished film, let alone attend the premier, and apartheid regulations would not permit them to be paid for their performance.  So Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker arranged to give them the cows used in the production – they stampede during the battle and there does seem to be an awful lot of them, a far bigger herd than a small mission might be expected to keep.  The cattle would be worth more to the Zulu at that time than any amount of Rands. and that touch as much as anything makes me warm to the film.

A brief hello

Posted 18 November 2011 by kinephile
Categories: Uncategorized

Have I the right to call myself a true cinephile?  Probably not.  I’ve had a taste of academic film studies as part of an Open University course, and while I enjoyed much of the subject and it opened my eyes to an enhanced experience of watching films, I found the theoretical aspects rather dry and indigestible.  One stumbling block which became notorious amongst those on the course was the 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by the feminist theorist Laura Mulvey.  At the time it seemed like intellectual masturbation of the most self-indulgent kind.  Since then, helped partly by the engaging woman with whom I found myself chatting about films in the back room of a pub in Ladbroke Grove who everntually revealed herself to be Ms Mulvey herself, I’ve learned to accept that people can enjoy anything in their own way.

Nor am I a shallow consumer of the latest Hollywood gossip.  Today’s standard public cinemas and most of the films they show have little appeal for me and to be fair they aren’t aimed at me anyway; they are places for the kind of young people I haven’t been for many years.  If indeed I ever was, because I have loved watching films of all kinds since I was very young and silent shorts were the staple fodder of the Sunday School Christmas treat.   Later I was lucky enough to be taught by Mr Fred Aicken, who had mixed results engaging me with chemistry but in his capacity as guiding light of the Welwyn Garden City Film Society he scored a bullseye.  First he found me a way to see The Graduate when was under-age for the cinema  Then through the society he introduced me to such exotic delights as Luis Buñuel‘s surrealist masterpiece L’âge d’or, Ingmar Bergman‘s Hour of the Wolf (which I remember squeezed between power cuts in the school hall during the 1972 miners’ strike) and, unforgettably, an obscure German silent called Variety.  Years later I married an American who introduced me to the wonders of Woody Allen.

None of those will find their way into this blog.  I’ve journalled my general film experiences before, in a desultory way, but this project is intended to be a record of an exploration of British filmmaking.  It’s characteristically British to disparage this country’s cinematic history, and like any country we’ve churned out some turkeys in our time, but off the top of my head I could name a dozen that could stand proudly with the greatest films of all.  Maybe one day I’ll try ranking my favourites just for fun but for now my guide is the list of  100 Greatest British Films published by the British Film Institute in 1999.  I won’t be following it slavishly; even at a glance I can think of titles that I’d have in there which aren’t.  And I won’t be following the list in any particular order, so nothing should be inferred from that beyond the fact that the title was available to me then.

I look forward to sharing my adventure with any of you who care to drop in and comment.  Assuming, that is, that you’re going to be a congenial travelling companion.