Thursday, April 29, 2010

Random Film Review: The War Zone

Dir: Tim Roth | 1999 | UK | 98min

The Devon tourist board certainly won’t be doing Tim Roth any favours in the future. The only message of his directorial debut, The War Zone, seems to be a definite ‘Don’t Move To Devon’. Manic depression, incest, car crashes, empty pubs and cafes and a peculiarity for staring into space seems to be the only action happening in Devon.

It's strange that English actors or directors having worked in the States come back to England not having learnt a thing. The War Zone seems to be stuck in the murky kitchen sink ethos of sixties English cinema. We still have the stilted dialogue, the over-long shots, and that sense of entrapment, dread, despair and boredom that only England seems to offer (usually the feeling you get watching English films).

The film has none of the cinematic coups that the similarly themed film, The Cement Garden, had. Both films create their own worlds but in The War Zone you just can’t breathe. I longed for a bit of humour, a bit of Withnail to lighten the oppressive air. Why is everything so serious in England? Can we not have fun in our films? If we do, it always seems to be of the Carry On variety. I haven’t seen intelligent humour of the Withnail variety since… well, Withnail and I.

The War Zone oppressively lingers on flesh: Ray Winstone’s thick-set neck and back; Tilda Swinton’s Renaissance-like angelic face, Lara Belmont’s breasts (there’s more tits and arse than a porno), and most disconcerting of all, Freddie Cunliffe’s zits. Tim Roth seems to have observed Pudovkin’s maxim of montage: a man staring into space, blank expression on his face, intercut with various shots to imply meaning and feeling to the man’s blank expression. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. Blank is blank.

Although Ray Winstone’s takes top billing, his part, although central to the film, doesn’t take up much screen time. His presence is felt throughout, his bulk is felt throughout, yet like the whole family in the film he is a non-person. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, the characters are ghosts, they don’t inhabit the real world – they inhabit a film.

Some scenes seem unnecessary: for instance, Tom recharging the battery on the camcorder. When I saw the camcorder I thought Sex, Thighs and Videotape (UK style) might be a better title. When I saw the rape scene in the war bunker I thought of Blue Velvet or a Francis Bacon painting. (Some of the dialogue feels improvised but the film is at its best when there’s no talking, just dark, desperate images.)

The brother says he misses his friends in London; I can’t imagine them missing him. It’s hard to tell if he’s simply a bad actor, badly directed (Tim Roth: “Right Fred, I want you to stare into space.” Freddie: “Okay Tim, I can manage that.”) or is meant to be playing a gormless idiot. For better or worse, it is Freddie’s film; we see almost everything through his frustrated, na├»ve, stupid, narrow eyes.

Freddie Cunliffe simply becomes annoying, by both his actions and his non-actions. He burns his sister with a lighter after she’s just been anally raped by her father and is in tears. Surely he’s not stupid enough to think she enjoyed it, or is he just jealous? The ending seems to imply that all the time Tom just wanted to get his leg over. Carry on up the anal passage indeed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2am Martin Sheen Dream

I woke from the vivid dream and walked down the stairs for a leak. To the left, Barry’s room, where a girl is on his sofa and he’s on the floor, rolling a joint. I hear the end of a sentence. The girl had been talking about shoes.

‘Oh, so you work in the shoe shine business,’ said Barry, absently.
‘No! I work in a health club.’
‘Oh,’ said Barry, bemused.

Portishead was playing the same song over and over somewhere, maybe from Anna’s room, who greeted me in the kitchen with an Australian ‘Hello’.

Later, I couldn’t get to sleep due to the sound of traffic outside. Traffic never sleeps. I just want to be somewhere where I don’t have to hear traffic all the time.

My dream had been vivid and one of the only ones in recent memory that I have remembered. I was buying cigarettes from two Eastern European criminals. I said I wanted Chesterfields and they handed me a packet of Lights. I said I didn’t want them and saw right in front of me a carton of regular Chesterfields. The packs were smaller than the Lights, for some reason, and when I enquired about the price, one of the criminals was stumped for a price to offer me, but eventually settled on £5. I checked my pockets and had no money, of course, so they come back with me to my loft apartment. I went looking for some money but have none at home either, so they suggest I give them my telephone number, which I don’t know off by heart, so I check in my wallet for the number, which I’m sure I’d written down somewhere. Just then Martin Sheen pops in, and I remember we’re late for an engagement. He tells me to hurry up and eventually I find my phone number and give it to the criminals who then leave.

Me and Marty arrive at what seems like a premiere for a film, but isn’t. In the corner an old friend, Duncan, is having a birthday party, which I didn’t know about, but he seems to think I’d turned up for. People notice Martin Sheen and Duncan exclaims, excited and loud enough for the whole room to hear, ‘Martin Sheen!’ and some people look around, and there’s a small ripple of clapping and Marty shyly stands up, looks around smiling for a bit, and sits back down again. Then Duncan says, as if to justify me turning up with a famous actor, ‘Barnaby’s always doing something with home videos and films’, in a slightly bitter voice, almost under his breath.

I didn’t sleep well and the next day at work five people – Richard, Neil, Marian, Sabrina and Kevin – were made redundant, and Nick was fired, for arguing with Bryan the boss, then calling him a ‘fat cunt’ under his breath. Bryan left envelopes on the five people’s desks, with their fate sealed inside it, just before he left to go on holiday for two weeks.

I felt so tired and bored that day, annoyed at every noise and person, bored with people and work, I just wanted to do something different.

(Brixton, 2001)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 would be the anti-social networking site for the unemployed, the unpopular, the disenfranchised and the unwanted nobodies of society to exchange wrong information, bad ideas and lack of opportunities.

Find other losers in your area
Lose friends and gain enemies
Search for the emptiest pubs, best charity shops and car boot sales
Moan about how unfair society is
Share what you do with your copious spare time be it the latest Pynchon novel you've just read or the last pointless walk you went on

Over 65 million amateurs (could) use LinkedOut... just for something else to waste their worthless time on, really.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Top 10 record producers

Being a record producer is the best paid form of cowardice
– Brian Eno

Music producers are now getting a lot of recognition (something that will probably never happen with film producers, perhaps because we can't see the creativity – or the coolness – of their jobs), with the likes of Timbaland and the Dust Brothers (Paul's Boutique; Odelay) often overshadowing those who they're producing.

List is in (roughly) chronological order...

1. Sam Philips (1923-2003)
Credited with inventing rock n roll: Elvis and all those white boys doing black music.

2. John Hammond Sr. (1910-1987)
Back in the day when producers were producers, Hammond 'discovered' Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen...

3. Phil Spector (b. 1939)
Crazy, quite possibly a murderer, but at least he's got personality. Created The Wall of Sound. Has a great collection of wigs. Produced Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man – once threatening Cohen with a gun. Killed an actress. No one's perfect.

4. George Martin (b. 1926)
The Beatles.

5. Joe Meek (1929-1967)
Not many producers have a film, even a bad one, made about them.

6. Tony Visconti (b. 1944)
David Bowie and T-Rex.

7. Joe Boyd (b. 1942)
As an American in London in the 60s, he produced early Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. His autobiography of those heady times, White Bicycles, is a fine read.

8. Lee "Scratch" Perry (b. 1936)
Jamaican reggae and dub musician and producer. File under 'eccentric genius'.

9. Brian Eno (b. 1948)
I know a lot of people don't like him (and a music journalist called him the worst thing to happen to music), but his influence is immense. Aside from Roxy Music and his solo work (where he sort of invented ambient music), he's produced U2, Talking Heads, Devo, John Cale, Paul Simon, David Bowie and Coldplay. Now somewhat haughtily referred to as a 'sonic landscaper' – well, someone whose full name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is bound to be a bit pretentious.

10. Rick Rubin (b. 1963)
From RUN-DMC and the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond in three easy steps. Still milking the Johnny Cash Cow.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cool as Cats

Cats have always been there for me. We had cats when I was a boy: Fag, Huple and later, Rocky. Fag and Huple died; they always seemed old to me anyway. Fag only had one eye and Huple was shy, until Fag died, then she was over-affectionate. Rocky was my favourite. She died a few days before I left home for college. It seemed appropriate somehow – I don't know if I could have left home with her still there, without me.

Then there were the neighbours cats who have been and gone; 2p (a tabby), Toto (a vicious grey cat who used to attack me whenever I stroked her tail), Chloe, Polly and Sukie. My parents other neighbour's cat, Leo (though we called him Socks on account of his white socks), is still around. He's never seemed to have aged. I'm sure I've known him for like twenty years. We used to be close but I rarely see him nowadays. Still, it's always good to catch up with him when I visit my parents.

In Brighton I lived on my own in a damp flat behind a shop; there was a black cat who came to visit me every day. When Taryn and I were lost in the Egyptian Sahara desert, a tiny, skinny cat (pictured above) helped us find the way back to town. When we got back to the cat's home (basically a hut) we met its owner, who proceeded to kick the poor thing around. We tried explaining how it had just saved our lives, and to treat it kindly but he didn't understand what we were talking about. Let it be known: ancient Egyptians may have treated cats as sacred, but I don't think it applies to modern Arabic Egyptians. And now there's Orlando, the handsome ginger cat next door in our Wiltshire home. He's a bit standoffish, but it's good to have some distance; you don't always want to get too close. He's getting on a bit now, but in his prime he caught mice, rats, birds and even a bat once.

According to statistics, there's meant to be more cats than dogs in the UK, but I don't see them around as much as I used to, yet dogs seem to be everywhere. Maybe they're just louder and more aggressive.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Doom Paintings

A close family friend with terminal cancer has two wishes before she dies: to visit Coney Island in New York and see the Doom paintings of England. Not many still exist but the one nearest me, in Salisbury, Wiltshire, is the largest remaining one in England.

Doom paintings are depictions of the Last Judgement, painted directly on church walls between the 12th and 16th centuries as a stern reminder to church-goers of where they'd be going in the afterlife if they sinned (Hell, on the bottom right hand side; Heaven is on the left).

The one in the Church of St Thomas, Salisbury, covers the Chancel Arch. It was painted around 1475 but white-washed over during the Reformation, and restored in the 19th century. It's a stunningly vivid and macabre painting; not exactly the Sistine Chapel ceiling (painted less than forty years later) but still pretty awe-inspiring.

The Church of St Thomas is where Sue and Phillotson were married in Thomas Hardy's tragic novel Jude the Obscure. Jude himself worked for a while at Salisbury cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England.

Photos by Sheepdog Rex on Flickr; used with kind permission.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The films of Sergei Parajanov

"Parajanov made films not about how things are, but how they would have been had he been God" – Alexei Korotyukov
"Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein, the world cinema has not discovered anything revolutionary new until The Colour of Pomegranates" – Mikhail Vartanov

Although now routinely called one of cinema's greatest masters, the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) is still fairly obscure, even in film circles. Fellini, Godard, Antonioni and Tarkovsky all called him a genius yet his films remain difficult to see.

So the recent Parajanov season at London's BFI and Bristol's Arnolfini was a rare treat indeed. I went to see Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors and, the following week, The Colour of Pomegranates (red, in case you're asking). It was interesting watching these films consecutively. Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Ukraine) is all fluid, often spinning, dizzying, camera movements, with dazzling colour, extraordinary folk music and a fairly simple doomed love story at its core.

Watching The Colour of Pomegranates (1968, Soviet Union) the following week, it's hard to believe it's by the same director. For a start, the camera is static and there's no plot or dialogue. A series of beautiful tableau's about a poet's life (Sayat Nova, the original title of the film), it's so dense with ritual and symbolism that any understanding of it is virtually impossible, and perhaps not necessary. This is art after all.

What unites both films is a singularity of vision, richly detailed, extraordinary visuals, costumes, mise-en-scene, music and scenes of ancient rituals, superstitions and magic which seem completely alien to most western eyes.

Along with the films there were talks by two people who worked with Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director (whose films I thought were impenetrable until seeing Parajanov's). The Tarkovsky connection is an interesting one. Parajanov had started his film career making fairly conventional films and documentaries in the 'social realist' style which he later dismissed as 'rubbish' and altered the course of his film-making for good, after a viewing of Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. They would later become great friends.

Layla Alexander-Garrett (who was interpreter on Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and acted in Jarman's Wittengenstein) gave a talk before Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors. After making The Colour of Pomegranates, Parajanov was imprisoned for five years on trumped up charges by the Soviet authorities, who disapproved of his 'subversive' film-making. "No film-maker – not even Tarkovsky – suffered as much as Parajanov*", she said gravely.

The film-maker Levon Grigoryan, who worked with Paradjanov on The Colour of Pomegrantes, gave talks and answered questions before and after the film and showed extracts from his documentaries about Paradjnov, including some banned footage from The Colour of Pomegranates (a pretty innocent scene with a naked woman was one) and a short documentary about Parajanov's drawings (drawn "with Biro," he stressed at least twice through a giggly translator) made whilst in prison.

Asked what Parajanov was like to work with, he replied "Awful. Like a nightmare". Then, a shrug, as if in explanation, "But he was an artist". He also admitted to understanding little of The Colour of Pomegranates, and when he asked Parajanov about it during its making, he would offer no answers.

Oh, and he also stressed, "Don't believe anything you read about Parajanov on the internet".

* But perhaps Roman Polanski?

Some of Parajanov's films have been released on DVD by Artificial Eye; Shadows of my Forgotten Ancestors is coming out on 10 May. There's also an NTSC boxed-set of his films available from Amazon.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

In praise of... volcanic ash

Old woman 1: What a beautiful day!
Old woman 2: Isn't it just? Must be 'cos there's no blimmin' planes flying overhead
(Overheard in charity shop)

Nature, just like our bodies, likes to give us warnings when something is amiss. Planet earth is giving us plenty at the moment in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and now a volcano erupting in Iceland, causing a halt in air traffic in many parts of Europe. The culprit is volcanic ash (which I thought would be black but is in fact, er, invisible, leading me to half believe it's all made up and a subterfuge for the actual culprit, probably an imminent terrorist attack).

Some 1,300 flights leave from Heathrow airport daily, and while I'm truly sorry to hear about Sandra from Newcastle's delayed flight to Sharm El Sheikh, any cancellation of air flights can only be a good thing and have a positive effect on the environment, not only because of climate change but also local noise and air pollution.

Look up at the beautiful blue sky, listen to the birds singing, and realise what a lovely world it would be without those blimming loud, ugly metal objects ruining the sky (now if only we could find a way to get rid of motor vehicles...). Also, due to flight cancellations from Heathrow, I know a lot of people in South West London and England will be getting some decent nights sleep for the first time in years.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Unseen Rimbaud photo found in flea market

A previously unseen photo of Arthur Rimbaud, the cult Symbolist poet and traveller who turned his back on poetry at the age of twenty-one to eventually live in Africa and become a gun runner (and possibly slave trader), has been found in a French flea market.

There are only about eight known photos of Rimbaud in existence, and only a few blurry shots of him as an adult in Aden, Abyssinia (where he spent the remainder of his life until he died, aged 37), so this slightly awkward formal shot (Rimbaud is second from right; at least two members of the party seem to be giving him a dirty look) is a revelation.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Film as Film: A look at Hitchcock’s Psycho

Psycho is one of the few films loved by audiences and critics alike. It is a shocker, a thriller, but also an arthouse film. More has been written about Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock than just about any other film or filmmaker. However, this has been a fairly recent trend (outside of France). In its day, 1960, Psycho, although (or perhaps because of) making millions at the box office, did not fare well with the critics. Peter John Dyer in Sight and Sound (autumn 1960) wrote: ‘…it is a very minor work. Hitchcock is not a serious director (except in his worst films)…[Psycho has] an unacceptable basic premise.’

Nevertheless, critics of the younger generation were to hail Hitchcock and his films as the work of a genius. The French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema said of Psycho: ‘Every scene is a lesson in direction by its precision, its sharpness, its efficiency, but also its beauty.’ The film-maker Francois Truffaut, formally a critic on Cahiers du Cinema, published a book consisting of lengthy interviews with Hitchcock. Truffaut tried hard to make out that Hitchcock’s films are more than ‘mere’ thrillers, and that they should be treated and examined as works of art. He probably succeeded: Hitchcock’s work as a whole is now admired for the themes running through them, its sense of humour, pacing, beauty, etc. Even his ‘bad’ films are interesting for their thematic links to others.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Psycho is how the film manipulates the audience so that they do not know what is coming next. The first scene establishes audience identification with the characters. Marion and Sam are nice, ordinary people, who, like everyone, have their problems. The scene in the bank with Marion and the business tycoon reinforces this: he is bragging about his money, saying about unhappiness ‘I buy it off’. We have just heard how Marion cannot afford to get married, and now there is this slimy character saying how much money he has. The audience feels sorry for Marion and her situation.

Even when Marion steals the money, the audience still sides with her because she cannot even afford to get married, and the man she has stolen it from can afford a $40,000 wedding present for his eighteen-year old daughter. In the scene where the policeman questions Marion (when she is in her car), again the audience is made to feel sorry for her, as he is an over-bearing, menacing looking person. His sunglasses protect him from being seen as a person at all. The camera angle points upward to suggest his power and Marion’s helplessness. Hitchcock himself was afraid of authority.

The scenes with Marion in her car, driving through the night, are filmed with the camera looking straight at her. She is looking at us. The soundtrack of the shot is extremely subjective: we hear Marion’s thoughts about what her employers and friends might be saying about her.

Although we have not really identified with Marion’s lover, Sam (perhaps he is a bad actor), we do identify with Norman Bates, the owner of the motel where Marion stops. He is shy and polite, makes jokes and is friendly towards Marion. He makes her some sandwiches and they talk in Norman’s ‘parlour’. This is a strange scene, and a casual chat between strangers does not usually involve talk of taxidermy, entrapment, madness and mothers. By the end of the conversation Marion has decided to go back home and home and give the money back she stole.

Of course, the biggest coup of the film is to have the ‘heroine’ killed after only forty-five minutes of screen time. Having identified with Marion Crane and her situation, we then see her knifed to death in the shower. It is a powerful, shocking scene and after it the audience is in total confusion as to what will happen next. Traditionally, of course, the hero/heroine of a film live happily ever after. In Psycho there is no happy ending. It’s hard to look at Psycho objectively now and to realise just how shocking it was in its day. It’s interesting to compare Psycho with Billy Wilder’s equally cynical black and white film of the same year, The Apartment. But Psycho constantly brings the audience into the light only to throw them out again into the darkness.

After Marion’s murder we still symphasise with Norman. After all, it was his mother who killed her, not him. We even admire Norman for covering up for his mother and protecting her. We feel sorry for him having to look after her, and he has no friends. When Marion’s car doesn’t sink straight away in the swamp, it is a tense moment for both Norman and the audience. We want the car to sink. After all, he has cleaned up everything so efficiently.

But the rest of the film is not as effective as what has proceeded. The characters of Lila and Sam are sketchy and we care little for them. Private detective Arbogast is a smug and unlikeable person. It is with Norman whom we will identify, symphasise and pity for the rest of the film.

Throughout Psycho, Hitchcock uses many subjective tracking shots (for example when Lila is walking towards the Bates house on the hill). This again emphasises audience identification, almost participation. Donald Spoto has said ‘Hitchcock directs the audience more than he directs the actors… The characters on the screen are finally one character, and that character is each individual viewer…’ A reason for Psycho’s success is the way it draws in the audience, forcing them to look at themselves.

Another way Hitchcock does this is through the use of mirrors. Although mirrors has often been used stylistically in films (Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai is an extreme example), Hitchcock’s use of them is extremely effective. An obvious interpretation of mirrors in Psycho is that they mirror Norman Bate’s split personality. There are mirrors throughout the film, which is just one of the themes that makes Psycho such a balanced and perfectly constructed film, even though it is depicting chaos, murder, disorder and insanity.

When Marion crane is getting changed after she has decided to steal the money, there is a mirror in her room; there is another one when she through her money in the ladies room at the garage; in the Bates motel there is a mirror in the office; there is one in Marion’s room and another in Norman’s mothers room in the house.

The amount of mirrors may not seem out of the ordinary: of course, in every day life there are mirrors wherever we go. But in Psycho, Hitchcock’s use of composition and character placement within the frame suggests strong reasons and meanings of the mirrors. Characters are mainly placed in profile to the camera and the mirror, so that the viewer sees only half of the characters’ true self and half of their own reflection.

Mirrors tell a physical truth; they make us see ourselves as we are. A more complex interpretation of the mirrors is that we are seeing ourselves in Psycho, perhaps sides we would not or should not see. Each person has more than one side to their personality: we all act differently to different people at different times. Donald Spoto believes that the characters in the film ‘represent different aspects of the viewer’s mind.’ The mirrors reflect the characters and as the viewer has become so subjective towards the characters (mainly Marion and Norman), their reflection could well be ours. However, mirrors only superficially provide the truth.

Light and dark is another important and complex theme in the film. Firstly, light and dark can be looked at in terms of the film’s images – its use of lighting, day and night, also its use of colour. Secondly is the way the film examines the dark recesses of the human mind and its capacity for evil. However, Psycho is an extremely visual film. This may sound obvious as film is a visual medium, but few films are purely cinematic. Psycho communicates its terror, evil and darkness through its images.

Its contrasts between light and dark (which could also mean good and evil, sanity and insanity – again these all emphasise the split in Norman Bates, and Psycho is a film of extremes) are extremely effective. For example, the opening shot is an objective shot of a city skyline (we’ve seen it in a thousand films). It is sunny. The camera chooses a building, then a window, and then goes through the window and into darkness. The viewer is being transported from light into dark from the opening shot.

In the room the camera has ‘chosen’ (it almost like a random choice, deciding to change these peoples lives here and now) Marion is wearing a white bra. After she’s decided to steal the money, her bra is black. It is Hitchcock explaining character in purely cinematic terms, which is why I find Psycho so impressive: it tells its story in images.

Some more examples: the black sunglasses of the policeman makes him seem menacing and evil. When Marion is driving in the rain it gets darker and darker. It is pitch black, and then: the neon glow of the Bates motel sign. When Marion is changing in her motel room, Norman looks through the hole in the room. It is dark all around the hole, which has a piercing white light. This light reflects onto Norman’s dark face as he puts the painting back on the wall. The white starkness is a contrast to the outside, to Marion’s black bra and to the parlour where he has been peeping. The shower scene is shocking because of its whiteness and cleanliness: how could anything nasty happen here?

Some of the most interesting uses of light and dark can be seen in the shots following the private detective’s murder. The shot immediately after his murder is of Lila and Sam sitting down at either end of the screen (they are in fact both looking out of the screen). The light comes from one side, is extreme and covers half of Lila. Sam is also in partial darkness. There is smoke in the air. As well as emphasising the contrasts of the film (Norman has just murdered), it shows the characters confusion, helplessness and isolation. They have been waiting for a phone call from Arbogast and are wondering what could have happened to him.

When Sam goes to the Bates motel and tells Lila to wait, she is seen in complete blackness. Behind her, gardening forks can be seen in silhouette against some windows which are dimly lit. The forks are fanned out, as if about to attack Lila. It is a malevolent composition. When Sam comes back with nothing to report, he is seen talking with Lila in profile (reminiscent of the mirrors) and in total silhouette. This emphasises the characters being both figuratively and literally ‘in the dark’. This kind of lighting brings to mind Welles’ Citizen Kane, but I think in Psycho it has a far more menacing, brooding, effective and meaningful presence. It not only explains Sam and Lila’s situation, but also Norman’s personality, which permeates much of the film and its images.

The strong contrasts of light and dark may also refer to the darkness and emptiness of modern life. Psycho has an uncanny physicality about it: building, objects, film, editing are all felt. There is a feeling of waste and emptiness. The way money should solve everything when so few people have it. The way a human life can be cut away so easily and randomly. Psycho is saying man is not in control of his destiny.

Perhaps the most effective use of lighting occurs in the scene where Lila goes down to the cellar and sees Norman’s mother. Lila taps the mother on the shoulder and the body turns around to reveal a bare skull. As Lila screams she swings back her arm and knocks the naked light bulb suspended in the air. Norman comes in (dressed as mother) to kill Lila. Sam stops him. The light bulb is swinging to and fro. The room changes shape due to the changes in light and dark. This is the climax to what has been seen throughout the film: contrasts in light and dark.

In a grosteque parody of life, light can even be seen shining in and out of the skull’s eye sockets, like moving eyeballs. After such extremes, the second to last shot is of Norman in a neutral gray, flat, prison cell, alone and alienated. He has now been totally taken over by his mother’s personality. It is a haunting image.

Psycho, like all art, can be looked into and discussed endlessly. It can operate ‘simply’ as a thriller or horror movie, but it is thematically so dense, its images so powerful, that it demands to be examined as much more. Many critics may have read too much into it, but like any work of art, if it has any value, it can be interpreted in many different ways. We all bring along our own personal baggage when we enter the cinema.

Psycho has its faults. The characters of Sam and Lila are sketchy and unappealing. After Marion’s car has sunk into the swamp, critics have said the film falls apart (perhaps in terms of plot it does, but its themes and images continue to the final shot). However, the psychiatrist scene is something of a disappointment when looking at the film as a whole. The audience has just been taken to hell, and then the psychiatrist explains everything we have just experienced in rational thought. It is almost an anti-climax, but perhaps giving us a chance to breathe.

However, overall the film is astonishingly effective. It is so balanced a film because of the connections and themes that run through it. Apart from the ones mentioned, other themes may include birds, food, voyeurism, sex, money, relationships… These themes are, in the main, conveyed through visual means.

Much of the film is silent (i.e., no talking – obviously Bernard Herrman's music plays a huge part in its effectiveness), which should be what cinema is all about. In this respect it is a universal film. Nowadays films have too much talking. The scenes from where Norman looks through the hole in the wall at Marion, up to the far sinking in the swamp is about eighteen minutes long. There is no talking and it is one of the most impressive sequences in any film.

However, perhaps my two favourite shots occur towards the end of the film when Lila is searching the Bates house. There is a zoom into a pair of brass hands. It is pure Hitchcock, pure film: simple, direct, mysterious, scary and beautiful. The following shot is of Lila catching her double reflection in the mirror. It is a terrifying shot, for her and us.

In short, Psycho is film as film (as V F Perkins would say). Hitchcock himself only admired the technical aspects of the film. He was very pleased with himself when he said the audience were aroused by ‘pure film’.

Raymond Durgnat – The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock
V F Perkins – Film as Film
Stephen Rebello – Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho
Eric Rhode – A History of the Cinema from its Origins to 1970
Donald Spoto – The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures
Francois Truffaut – Hitchcock
Robin Wood – Hitchock’s films

• Psycho is 50 years old this year and being re-released at selected cinemas this week.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Top 10 Billy Joel Albums

Mostly, music is about being cool. But it's never been just about the music – it's the whole package: the scene, the fashion, the haircuts, the graphics ... And while, don't get me wrong, I do occasionally listen to some cool music (from Animal Collective to The XX), sometimes I just want to be told a story with a catchy tune (and maybe a bit of social comment thrown in). Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon may do this pretty well, but sometimes I just want to listen to Billy Joel, who has never, ever been cool. Is that why he's so unpopular amongst (cool) people?

I think his songs are good, great even, some of them. They tell a story, and they're catchy. They rock. But he is uncool. And now bald and a bit podgy (and he released a classical album in 2001). And Melvyn Bragg likes him. Not good for a rock star. He was vaguely cool for a while in the 70s. He even had a pretty cool record cover – The Stranger.

His songs have meaning to people. A close friend of mine – now dead – loved The Piano Man. For him, a recovering alcoholic, it was like an anthem. He used to play it to me real loud and shout out the lyrics, "The microphone smells like a beer!" After his funeral, a friend and I went into a pub with a jukebox, ordered two double whiskies, found The Piano Man on the jukebox and played it over and over – much to the consternation of everyone in the pub watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire on the TV.

Online magazine Slate gave him a right slating in an article titled The Worst Pop Singer Ever, somewhat unfairly I feel – at least he does/did have some talent – unlike many more easier targets in the music world.

1. The Stranger (1977)
2. 52nd Street (1978)
3. Glass Houses (1980)
4. Piano Man (1973)
5. An Innocent Man (1983)
6. Turnstiles (1976)
7. Cold Spring Harbour (1971)
8. Streetlife Serenade (1974)
9. The Nylon Curtain (1982)
10. Storm Front (1989)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Music Vs. Film and CDs Vs. DVDs

Take a cross-section sample of society and ask them what their tastes in films and music are. Chances are they will all have seen similar (ie Hollywood) films, either at the cinema, on DVD or TV. But take these same people and ask them about their music tastes and a more personal taste will emerge. For musical taste seems so much more idiosyncratic than film taste. Film has about five main genres (comedy, romance, horror, action, thriller); music has hundreds. Films mainly follow a well-trodden formula in terms of narrative and technique which has changed very little since the days of DW Griffith, who sort of established the language we know today of long shot, medium shot, close-up. Music can be anything – and has a history lasting thousands of years. It's almost hard to think of Miles Davis and Britney Spears and Mozart and Basement Jaxx all being called music, but there's not a huge leap from films made today to those made a hundred years ago.

So it's surprising to me that CDs are being phased out (and yes, I realise it's because people are downloading it rather than going off music but it's now just as easy to download films yet DVD sales are still rising). UK Music shops such as HMV and Fopp now have about 50% DVDs and 30% music (and at least 20% 'other': games and books). But there's a few things I don't get. Firstly, your average film needs only to be watched once (unless you have more free time than me), so owning them seems a waste of time, money and valuable shelf space, whereas CDs are played on average at least six times. Second, plastic DVD cases are ugly things (though I'm quite partial to a nicely put together boxed-set). I know vinyl enthusiasts think CD jewel cases are ugly too but at least they can have cool booklets with artwork and lyrics. DVD cases just seem so generic and cheap. The days of pouring over lyrics and artwork of a newly-bought LP are no doubt over, but there's still some pleasure to be had from a coolly-designed CD booklet.

Independent experimental music labels such as Ghostbox, Entr'acte, Dekorder, Tomlab, Delaware, Squint Fuck Press and Constellation are still producing challenging and beautiful artwork for CDs. Even mainstream labels are making a bit of an effort with some releases by giving them deluxe fold-out packaging, extra tracks, bonus DVDs, etc. And digipaks seem an almost nice alternative to jewel cases.

DVD covers and booklets (if there is one) are usually Photoshop by numbers, simply shrinking the bland poster artwork to fit the box. Film posters themselves are so dull nowadays, simply consisting of film title, credits, pictures of the stars, quote from a tabloid. Nothing wrong with that, you say. Okay, fine, but album covers can have an iconic quality rarely seen on film posters; often it's not necessary to have the band on the cover, and the name of the band or title of the album may not even be on the front. DVD covers could never get away with this.

I guess what it boils down to is music is essentially abstract and film is concrete. Even though the medium of film is only 100 years old, it hasn't changed since the early 1900s – and the prohibitive costs of making them means it remains in the hands of big business pandering to the lowest possible denominator (obviously cheap experimental films exist but are little watched; even with the 'democracy' of YouTube people watch either clips from X-Factor or 'amusing' home movie clips). Music is ethereal, constantly changing with new genres and techniques emerging – and a lot cheaper to make.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The films of Hal Hartley

Low-budget, stylised, almost stilted, theatrical acting and deadpan dialogue; cool, aloof, yet odd-ball characters reading from books, philosophising, and constantly drinking either cans of Budweiser or expressos. Suburbia. But not as we know it. Not much in the way of plot – or too much plot. Yes, it's a Hal Hartley film.

Hartley – independent, quirky, low-budget film-maker – used to a film critic's wet dream but even esteemed film critic David Thomson and film magazine Sight & Sound tired of him some time ago. His brand of film-making has gone out of fashion (though Aki Karismaki may be a loose Finish equivalent), and in recent years he's extended himself by worked in different genres – science fiction, fantasy, religious – none of which have been too successful. I reckon he should try a musical next.

His extraordinary run of early films (he also found time to made shorts in between the features) – The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), Flirt (1993) and Amateur (1994) – are what he's best known for. Using a troupe of regular actors – including Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley – they were fresh, original and offbeat.

I didn't see Hartley's 'epic' Henry Fool (1997) until recently. It has the usual stylised mise-en-scene, acting and philosophising as well as maybe a cinematic first: a man vomiting on a woman's bare buttocks (!) It was almost a decade until a follow-up appeared, Fay Grim, in 2006. Some have said it's a return to form. I haven't seen it.

As a tragic footnote, one time Hartley muse, Adrienne Shelley (pictured above with Martin Donovan in Trust), was murdered in 2006 just after directing her third feature, Waitress. So although the film is an enjoyable lightweight rom com (with some Hartley quirkiness), it's a bitter sweet experience watching it; her death permeates the film. The last scenes in particular, featuring Shelley's real-life daughter, are especially sad.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Not so Innocent after all

Pret a Manger were bought by McDonald's; Green & Black by Cadbury (recently bought by Kraft); Body Shop by Estee Lauder; now Coca-Cola has taken a majority stake (58%) in Innocent Drinks.

They all say they're 'different', 'ethical' and 'green' but at the end of the day they are motivated by profit, greed and expansion (Innocent want their smoothies in every country in the world).

I've met a few people who have worked at Innocent and actually spouted the company bollocks outside of work – either expounding on the benefits of the smoothie combination of kiwis, apples and limes or gushing how much working there feels like being part of a happy family – and then being shell-shocked when made redundant with no notice or compensation.