In his native Japan, Takeshi Kitano has always been revered. As a comedian, TV personality, actor, director, even a game show host, he’s not a man in need of more exposure. Back in 2000, he featured in the cult horror Battle Royale, a film that helped put Japanese cinema on the radar of hip young geeks in the West. In the same year, Kitano also directed and starred in Brother, his first and only (to date) film shot outside Japan and an intriguing attempt at transporting his hard-boiled yakuza persona into an American setting.
Producers expecting Kitano to land in Los Angeles and make a slick gangster movie must have been very disappointed. It’s obvious from Brother that Kitano was never really bothered about breaking into Hollywood; he barely speaks any English in the film and rarely reaches for the tenderness of his previous masterpieces like Sonatine and Hana-Bi. Instead he comes off as nonchalant and uncompromising, trying to wrestle with an unfamiliar language that refuses to fit his style, and the result is sometimes stilted and disengaging. But Kitano’s recurring themes are still apparent and Brother has plenty to say about the fraternity of the gang world, and the hollowness at its centre.
Brother‘s strength is that it refuses to conform to the Hollywood portrayal of gangsters as glamorous icons who lead a life of danger and excitement. Kitano plays a yakuza, Yamamoto, forced to leave Japan and head to LA to see his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), who is a low-level drug dealer with his buddy Denny (Omar Epps). Yamamoto is soon killing off the competition and taking Ken and his gang of posers and wannabes to the top of the food chain. A director like Scorsese would have had a field day but for Kitano, being a gangsta is a mundane job with little benefits and a short life expectancy - the view from the top isn’t much different as the view from the bottom, you’re just more likely to get killed.
Kitano’s main target is the empty morals of American society, with LA just a hunk of land to be fought over by those with enough greed, ambition and firepower to be the last man standing. Kitano is keen to highlight the mundanity of it all with the boys left to sit around in their absurdly grand office playing basketball while Yamamoto starts to feel an affinity with Denny as they play stupid betting games with each other. Their relationship is supposed to be at the heart of the story but rarely is there any depth, leaving the final scene largely redundant.
The film is violent, but not in a chic Tarantino way. Kitano’s style is matter-of-fact, long takes punctuated with something extreme - a finger being chopped off, chopsticks blasted up some poor guy’s nose - while shoot-outs are kept off-screen. This isn’t a film about how cool it is to be a gangster, it’s about going through the motions until, inevitably, someone bigger and better - in this case the Mafia - comes along to dump you in a shallow grave in the desert. Kitano’s done this sort of thing better of course; you’ll just have to put up with subtitles to get the full Kitano experience.
Saturday night, back in 1980, I was informed of the remarkable story of a US pilot, who had been propelled, by accident, 500 years into the future. His name was Buck Rogers, and after waking up slightly bewildered by his experience, he soon overcame his misgivings and went on to have weekly adventures in his TV show.
There are still many things that are alien about the future Buck Rogers found himself in. We do not do much travelling around space; we do not find it necessary to adopt a blanket policy on white jumpsuits regardless of shape, size and gender; we have so far resisted the allure of intergalactic warfare and, most disappointingly, the vision of the well-trained, domestic robot remains as distant now as it did in 1980. (Side note: Twiki, Rogers’s electric sidekick occupies a unique position in the unthreatening android Venn diagram, being precisely 50% Camp, í la C3PO, and 50% Childlike, like C3PO’s cute little pal.)
In one respect though, Buck Rogers’s future is here right now. His Snozzopod (future speak for bedroom) was notably uncluttered compared with the rooms of his viewers. There were no shelves of dusty vinyl, no artfully strewn magazines, no piles of VHS cassettes. When he wanted to listen to music, he pushed a button, when he wanted to check out an old episode of The Clangers he pushed another button (or maybe the same button twice, you have YouTube, you can check) and when he wanted the latest weather, headlines or traffic reports he did the same. He was, in short, just like us.
Or, just like you, I should say, because I cling to DVD, to CD, to paper and even to VHS. I even get Time Out delivered once a week. Despite these fusty ties to the tradional consumption of culture, I am now to begin my own odyssey into the future, I am going to start watching films on the internet.
Unlike Buck Rogers, I have control over the launch of my epic adventure. I opt for something small. Trust me, nobody will be putting my exploits up against Doctor Who on a Saturday night. I begin by searching for The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies, a nature film from 1960, known principally for its ground-breaking camera techniques, including a novel way to avoid the combustion of delicate cast members under lights. Unfortunately, only part of the film is available to view online so I’m afraid that just one of the trumpeted insect enemies appears. This leaves a lot of billing for one parasitic wasp, however gruesome its habits, to bear. Audacious Striatus is remarkable, but not exactly Godzilla; even in comparison with other parasites it is a bit dull. What a shame that the internet has no room for footage of the famously ‘gregarious’ Xiphydriophaga.
So my first steps end in slight disappointment. Oh well, I will not let this setback dishearten me. Buck Rogers is my model, and I don’t recall him getting disheartened. If only I had a small, camp, childllike robot to give me a few tips.
What if the British army was stranded at Dunkirk and we lost the Battle of Britain? What if the Nazis thought of the Channel Tunnel 50 years before we did? What if Hadrian’s Wall was still intact and no one had heard from the Scots in 100 years? This is the alternative Second World War England of Jackboots on Whitehall, the epic stop-motion animation debut from brothers Edward and Rory McHenry. When Nazis invade London it’s up to farm boy Chris (Ewan McGregor) and vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike) to rescue Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and lead him to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, marshalling an army of villagers along the way.
Jackboots is a film for anyone who played with Action Man, Barbie, Airfix kits or Hornby model railways as a child. The animation is excellent, with large-scale battles, plenty of plastic gore and only the bare minimum of computer manipulation to help with the lip-syncing and facial expressions on the dolls. Similarly, the sets are incredibly detailed and anyone familiar with London will appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating the model versions of real landmarks.
The brothers McHenry have done a great job attracting a cast of big British names (even American volunteer Billy Fiske is voiced by great British export Dominic West), but this cannot have been based on the strength of the script, which is sadly lacking. Because there are just not that many mainstream stop-motion films, Jackboots invites comparison with films like Team America: World Police. Indeed, it shares the same simplistic dialogue and immature sense of humour. But whereas in Team America the childish jokes provided an ironic counterpoint to the serious subject matter, Jackboots doesn’t have that excuse.
There’s something in our received culture, be it from our grandparents’ war stories, or the war films we’ve all seen, that means we’re still happy to watch the Nazis being drubbed even in an alternate version of history. In this way Jackboots can be said be to be British both in terms of production and spirit, and it’s wholly appropriate that it was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. This British spirit should carry Jackboots a long way, and in spite of its flaws it is an impressive debut feature. However, it will be interesting to see how its subject matter and technical achievement fare against the similar, child’s toy based Belgian stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, which is released the same day, and while less technically accomplished, is more original, surreal and has a superior sense of comic timing.
Jackboots on Whitehall opened the Raindance Film Festival on September 29. Raindance runs until October 10, for more information go to the Raindance website.
An incredibly powerful and complex portrait of maternal love, Mother mixes tragedy and goofiness, a combination fairly common in Asian films, but one at which director Bong Joon-ho is particularly adept. As in his first feature, Memories of Murder, police incompetence features prominently in the story of Do-joon, a mentally challenged young man who is more or less arbitrarily accused of the horrific murder of a school girl. But here, the central focus is on his mother (played by Kim Hye-ja, veteran actress and maternal icon of South Korean TV), an eccentric peddler of medicinal herbs and illegal acupuncture who endeavours to prove her son’s innocence.
Hye-ja’s detective methods are highly unorthodox, but the comedic side of her investigation gradually gives way to something much darker as the film shows how far she is willing to go to get her son out of prison. Simultaneously, the secrets mother and son share come to light, revealing an intricate, inescapable web of overwhelming love and guilt. Although Mother is constructed like a murder mystery, structured around escalating tension and gradual revelations, it is not a conventional police procedural but a psychological thriller, and the identity of the killer is important because of what it exposes about the characters’ relationships. There are many twists and turns that take us in unexpected directions and the film’s skilful plotting draws us deeper into Hye-ja’s psyche, making her pain increasingly affecting.
Visually, the film is just as superbly crafted, with a particular attention to colour: the purple clothes associated with the mother, the dark blue tones of the home she shares with her son, the increasingly murky tones of night scenes as she finds out more. There is a fairy tale quality to the scene of the murder, which is replayed several times as characters remember more details, or witnesses recount their memories of the event. The final sequence is set on a party bus lit by the setting sun, the warm, golden glow underlining the terrible fate of the tragic dancer in the midst of the unsuspecting revellers.
The film shares much with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, not least the emotional intensity and the displacement of violence. Where the munching of a live octopus in Oldboy was meant to represent the anger the main character felt after being sequestered for 15 years without apparent reason, in Mother, an early scene depicting Hye-ja chopping herbs, the cutter getting increasingly closer to her fingers, announces the psychological and physical violence to come. But above all, the films have in common a protagonist facing a similarly dreadful, morally tainted choice in a heart-breaking finale. Like Dae-su in Oldboy, one of the characters in Mother will choose to forget and live a lie rather than remember an unbearable truth. Love is a wonderful and frightening thing indeed.
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander
You can’t fault Gaspar Noé‘s ambition, give him that: even if the audio-visual overkill, gutter-level mise en sc&232;ne and sheer unpleasantness repulse you, not many filmmakers attempt to kill you, take you through hell on earth and get you reincarnated in 135 minutes. From the hardcore techno assault of the titles onwards, Noé attempts to take you places that cinema rarely goes. The pre-film warning ‘likely to trigger a physical reaction in vulnerable viewers’ was appropriate, even if you’re unaffected by the strobe effects and camera motion…
We are Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer (LSD, MDMA) living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). I say ‘we’ because the whole film is shot from Oscar’s point of view (Enter the Void is probably the first full-length film to attempt this schtick since the Marlowe misfire Lady in the Lake in 1947). So, we are in Oscar’s head when he smokes DMT, has intense psychedelic visions and then heads out to meet his violent doom with hippy mate Alex (Cyril Roy). Post mortem we are floating between life and death, a spirit or soul observing the fates of Alex, Linda, the snitch Victor (Olly Alexander) and others who had a hand in our life and death as they suffer the legal and psychological fallout from the killing. We are also travelling backwards and forwards through Oscar’s largely tragic existence, in scenes of increasingly nightmarish quality. He has made a solemn promise to Linda as a child that they would never leave each other, and thus he is tethered to this world, and we are tethered with him, unable to alter events as they progress, as death, grief, sexual exploitation, abortion and all manner of psychological distress are played out before us. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, until a resolution to Oscar’s state in the afterlife is reached… We are reminded that DMT is a chemical released by the brain at the time of death, and Enter the Void plays with the suspicion that this is all Oscar’s trip, based upon his reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that he is showing himself the worst world he could imagine…
I’m sure the question many film-goers will be asking is, ‘if we have to die, and go through heaven and hell, couldn’t we go with nicer people?’ Psychedelics are noted for inducing a state of euphoria, but there’s precious little joy to be found here. We are among losers, victims and low-level criminals. There isn’t much in the way of witty banter, and dialogue is mostly given over to delivering information. This is an artificial, candy-coloured world of coercion, tension, and lurking horror. Noé describes Enter the Void as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and this seems about right: the story is not especially complex or unpredictable, the characters generally run to type, and the whole thing has the momentum of an inevitable tragedy. We never see Tokyo in daylight, and only see glimpses of the natural world in flashbacks to Oscar’s youth in Montreal. We fly through walls but rarely soar, moving from tiny drug dealers’ apartment to strip club to mortuary to sleazy ‘love hotel’ in one long continuous flight - it’s a nasty world to witness so intently. Linda’s story especially is upsetting. She barely seems, at times, to have a will of her own; the shape of her childhood has led to her desperate desire for affection, and the way this vulnerability is exploited by the men around her is almost unbearably emphasised by the film’s unique point of view. It’s curious that the ‘god shot’ camera angle, normally considered a distancing device, should seem so intimate here.
If I’ve made this sound like just another French wallow in the sewer, that’s because Noé’s artistry lies not in the story as such, the words on the page, or even in the performances, but the way the story is related. It’s the most immersive audio-visual experience I’ve ever had in the cinema. The woozy shifting viewpoint from unfamiliar angles, the vivid acid neon-drenched visuals, the dense soundtrack with its background chatter and heavy yawning, rumbling bass frequencies, the flights into and out of lights, bullet holes and everybody’s heads make the film a dark, oppressive, utterly involving experience. Noé wants you to feel Oscar’s childhood pain, his adolescent trauma, the sweaty, jealous, too-close relationship with Linda, so he makes you a backseat driver in his skull. It’s clearly a vision that has been worked on for many years: some of the camera technology was first tried out in Irreversible, and to an extent that film was a dry run for what’s being attempted here. I found Irreversible astonishing, but ultimately unbearable because of its trajectory, but while Enter the Void is an equally tough watch in places, you are never in doubt that Linda loves Oscar and Oscar loves Linda; there is tenderness, and even a little hope here. The film’s visual language is rich in colour and symbols; Oscar’s life is linked to water, his death to light, and Tokyo’s neon seems to be full of messages, ENTER SEX MONEY POWER LOVE… While it seems wilfully abstract in places, and avoids conventional linear sense, it rarely loses sight of story or character, though after the full-on headfuck of the first hour or so, the film does lose power (partly because we can guess where it’s headed) and drifts somewhat. It has lost 20 minutes since its screenings at the London Film Festival and Cannes in 2009, and frankly I’m glad, but it never, for this viewer at least, becomes comfortable or dull.
Any way you shake it, and I suspect that many are going to loathe it, Enter the Void is an extraordinary piece of work, continually working miracles with picture and sound from beginning to end, a heady, grimy, powerful trip created through pure cinema. If you judge the worth of films by vision and ambition, and by the sheer effect on the audience then Enter the Void is a goddamn masterpiece. The screening I attended had a few walkouts, and a number of clearly irritated critics, but the majority seemed astonished and stunned, shell-shocked and floating off into Soho’s neon embrace, with their eyes wide open.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Grace Zabriskie, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif
‘David Lynch presents: A film by Werner Herzog.’ Opening credits really don’t get any better than that.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is based on the true story of Mark Yavorsky, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who was inspired to kill his mother with an antique sword after being cast as Orestes in a production of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides. But that’s neither a spoiler nor essential knowledge. Producer and director have chosen Yavorsky’s story because ‘Woman killed with sword’ is exactly the kind of set-up you’d find in a police procedural TV show and they use it for ironic effect and as the base from which to mount an expedition into something more horrific.
Procedure, by its very nature, is boring. There’s no CSI-style DNA swabs or keyhole camera angles here. Arriving at the scene of the murder, Willem Dafoe’s homicide detective is so concerned with the direction each coffee cup is facing that he fails to notice he bumped into the murderer a moment earlier, as one of the witnesses points out. Not only that, but the killer, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon), lives across the street, has barricaded himself inside his house and can be heard shouting something about hostages. Mystery solved.
While a SWAT team tries to resolve the situation, Dafoe’s detective interviews McCullum’s family and friends, and the audience is given flashbacks of events leading up to the standoff. Here it’s worth thinking of My Son as a companion piece to Herzog’s much bigger recent release Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (My Son was scheduled for production in summer 2008, but was pushed when Herzog got the Bad Lieutenant gig). Both films feature cops played by lead actors who excel at going off book, giving brilliant readings of otherwise mundane dialogue, which makes Dafoe’s dramatically functional, by-the-book ‘Good Detective’ all the funnier.
Herzog’s interviews around the film don’t make the extent to which Lynch was involved very clear. It seems the Lynchian elements - long pauses between dialogue, a creeping jazz score, a dwarf, a killer with a rhythmic, non-sensical catch phrase, ‘Razzle them. Dazzle them.’ – are in homage to the director’s friend. Of course, Herzog doesn’t need Lynch to be weird and his old theme that nature is bigger than man soon emerges when we find out that McCullum hasn’t been the same since he returned from a canoeing holiday in Peru. On the trip, McCullum refused to go in some rapids in which the rest of his group subsequently drowned. By cheating death McCullum believes he can commune with nature and it’s the frustration of this belief that eventually leads him to kill his mother (‘mother’ taking on a special meaning in the context of ‘nature’). It’s here that the Aeschylus reference comes in as in the Oresteia the fall of the House of Atreus was arguably brought about by dealing with the gods and the furies directly. For Herzog, the idea of communing with nature is itself hubristic, as seen in his other films such as Grizzly Man.
Aside from the main plot, there are brilliant little visual touches and musical cues that make the film a great pleasure to watch. It is supported by excellent performances: Michael Shannon (the film-stealing lunatic from Revolutionary Road) is perfectly cast as McCullum and great support comes from Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif and Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks) as McCullum’s mother. This is a must for Herzog and Lynch fans.
Screening as part of the František Vláčil season at the BFI Southbank
DVD release date: 23 August 2010
Distributor: Second Run
Director: František Vláčil
Writers: Vladimir Körner and František Vláčil
Cast: Petr Čepek, Emma Černá
The end of the 1960s was a time, in several countries, for seeking a corrective to comfortable views about the Second World War. In France, Le Chagrin et la pitié caused outrage with its documentary revelations about attitudes to collaboration in Vichy France. Meanwhile in America Catch-22 was being filmed, and in Italy Luchino Visconti unleashed a frontal assault on memory and taste with The Damned. Britain took a little longer - we were still ‘enjoying’ fare like The Battle of Britain, though this was countered by the Brecht-meets-music-hall satire of Oh! What a Lovely War! (our revisionism had only got as far as the First World War).
It is immediately clear that Adelheid is more subtle and sombre than any of these in its treatment of the war, or rather of its moral and emotional aftermath. (Not that this subtlety helped director František Vláčil win official approval: it was six years before he made another feature film.) The film opens memorably with a view from a train as it follows the curve of birch-wooded hills, accompanied by the transcendent sound of a choral work by Bach. The viewer is jolted out of this Germanic idyll as the train is halted by a group of armed men emerging from the shadows at the mouth of a tunnel: the atmosphere of doubt and unease is established and remains unbroken.
Adelheid has other features distinctive of this time. It shares with contemporary American films like Five Easy Pieces not just a palette of dull earth tones but a slow-moving taciturn realist style and a sense of depressed purposelessness. These are particularly suited to the aims of Vláčil’s film, with its evocation of loss, desolation, and estrangement.
In general, it seems to me that what a work of art is expressing cannot be satisfactorily stated in words. It is diminished as an aesthetic experience if you try to reduce it to a message. But in this case, for once I believe it is possible to be quite explicit about what the film is ‘saying’ without undermining its effect. The male lead Viktor represents the Czech people. He returns from the war sick and troubled, feeling out of place in the new order that has been established. He seeks to recover in a place once beautiful, but which has been taken over, degraded, and seized back: this place now needs to be opened up, restored to light, made to work again. The female lead Adelheid is a representative of the Germans of Czechoslovakia: she has a proprietary relation to this place, where she has always lived, but her right to be there is now no longer recognised. She is connected to those who have committed crimes against the Czech people, though she is not represented as herself implicated in those crimes. She is in Viktor’s power: he finds her presence disturbing but compelling, and he seeks uneasily to establish a relationship with her, though this seems transgressive and improper. They feel their way to some sort of human companionship and mutual trust. But this endeavour is blighted by their situation: for her it leads to despair, for him to emptiness.
Adelheid is a reminder that the moral dimensions of war and what follows are not simple. It was not the case that being on the right side made everything OK again, and it was not appropriate for Czechs to be complacent about their moral standing. But the film doesn’t seem knowingly contentious in the way that the films I mentioned in the first paragraph were. This is partly because the moral challenge of its subject matter was not so simple. And perhaps because a quiet, intimate human drama like Adelheid is a better way to make an audience feel unwelcome emotions without resentment.
Venues: Curzon Soho/Renoir/Richmond (London) and nationwide
Distributor: Artificial Eye
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
Based on the novel by: Daniel Woodrell
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
Winter in the Ozark Mountains. Timber-framed houses litter a rust-coloured landscape, the yards full of abandoned cars, washing machines, years of accumulated junk. In this incestuous community, where the families are all linked by blood ties and a terrifying patriarch is king, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to raise her two younger siblings, while her mother, mentally locked inside a world of her own, barely acknowledges their existence. And then the sheriff arrives: her father, who cooks meth, is missing ahead of a court appearance. If he skips the hearing, their home, posted as bond, will be seized. But when Ree tries to find him, there’s no one who will help - instead, she’s chased off people’s property, threatened, and taught the hard way not to interfere in other people’s business.
Directed by Debra Granik and based on a novel by Daniel Woodrall, Winter’s Bone paints a portrait of a remote community mired in poverty and drug addiction. These are people who have fallen through the cracks, who live by a different set of laws and deal out justice with their own hands; the women, protecting their loved ones, are even more sinister and ruthless than the men. It’s a gripping film that reminds the audience that there is a world far away from Hollywood or the bright lights of New York, or even the majestic Midwest that usually stands in for rural Americana. Chillingly authentic, this is a place that few outsiders will ever see.
But the film’s biggest assets are two terrific performances. Lawrence, in her mud-stained, ill-fitting clothes, her hair knotted, exudes grace and a rough, unvarnished beauty (she’s already been cast in both an upcoming Jodie Foster-directed film and the next X-Men movie). She’s completely convincing as the foolishly brave 17-year-old who is determined to ensure her family’s survival, with no money, no job and little hope.
Another surprise is John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, her father’s brother and a violent, unpredictable addict who belatedly tries to do the right thing by Ree. Although he was endearing in films like Me and You and Everyone We Know, if a sometimes surprising love interest, here his craggy features and thin, worn-out frame blend perfectly into the landscape; he’s a man ravaged by abuse, who’s been given one last shot at redemption.
But the deeper Teardrop and Ree dig, the more tangled things get. Meth - using, selling or supplying - has corrupted the whole community, including the law, and a father who first appears to be the story’s villain may not be such a bad man after all. But even Ree is finally forced to accept that rough justice is the only way to protect what little community she has.
Granik’s film is part social realism, part mystery and part tragedy. But as bleak as it sounds, Winter’s Bone has a special quality that makes it an unmissable film, and deserving of the Grand Jury Prize that it received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton
Cinematic speculation regarding the future state of New York City ranges from the perilously polluted urban environment of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) to the multi-cultural melting pot of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), but the most memorable vision of the Big Apple of tomorrow is arguably offered by John Carpenter’s enduring cult favourite Escape from New York (1981). Carpenter’s fifth feature is a tough yet satirical action picture that drops iconic anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) into a cityscape that has literally been left to rot in order to carry out a suicide mission that will take him on a tour of New York landmarks that are now distinguished by their levels of danger rather than tourist appeal.
Events take place in 1997 towards the end of World War III; Air Force One is transporting the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) to a crucial summit with China and the Soviet Union, but the plane is hijacked by a militant terrorist and the President evacuates using an escape pod, which lands in New York. Unfortunately, the New York of 1997 is no longer a city of commerce or a holiday destination of choice: it has been a maximum security prison since 1988 and is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall with land mines on the 69th Street Bridge. Without any guards to bring any sense of order, the only rule is that, ‘once you go in, you don’t come out’. The police force attempt to retrieve the President, but arrive too late; he has been found by the inmates and handed over to the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the leader of the most powerful gang in Manhattan. With the future of the United States dependent on the President’s participation in the summit, police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) enlists the services of soldier-turned-criminal Snake Plissken, who has been apprehended following an attempt to rob the Federal Reserve Depository. Snake is offered a full pardon if he can bring the President back alive, but to make sure that his reluctant recruit is fully committed to the mission, Hauk has him injected with microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries once 24 hours have passed. Snake enters New York via glider, landing on top of the World Trade Centre and then proceeds to locate the President with the assistance of the wise-cracking Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), his former associate Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Brain’s feisty girlfriend, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau).
By the time he has landed, Snake has just over 20 hours to complete his mission, meaning that Carpenter’s tour of dystopian New York is a whirlwind ride around a once glorious city that has truly gone to seed; Snake may be pushed for time, but his busy day in the Big Apple still involves visits to Grand Central Station, the Public Library and the aforementioned World Trade Centre. He even manages to take in a show at a theatre on 42nd Street, although the entertainment on display plumbs the depths of the term ‘burlesque’. Carpenter wanted to avoid shooting on a studio back-lot in order to maintain realism but the $7 million budget would not stretch to re-dressing New York, so location manager Barry Bernardi travelled around the country to find a city that was not only in a sufficient state of decay but that could serve as an effective double. Bernardi eventually recommended East St Louis, Illinois, which had never recovered from an urban fire in 1976 that had burnt entire blocks to rubble, thereby ensuring that Snake’s adventure would take place in an appropriately eerie environment with potential threats lurking around every corner.
Although the New York of Carpenter’s film is a prison, it still manages to function as a city with its own set of social groups and networks and a clearly defined hierarchy. At the bottom are the ‘crazies’, a gang of deviants who live in the subways and control the underground, only coming out at night. The middle-class is represented by the self-sufficient Cabbie and also by Brain and his girlfriend; the mutually dependent couple take residence in the Public Library, but only exist marginally above street level because they are useful to the gang that controls the city. At the top is the Duke, a ruthless gangster who has dreams of leading his followers out of New York and believes that he will be able to do so with the President as his bargaining chip. However, this is a self-contained world that does not have access to any external news media, so the Duke is unaware that even the President of the United States will be irrelevant if he is not able to participate in the summit discussions; the complexities of the outside world would be largely lost on the inhabitants of this future New York as the decaying environment has only served to drive their most debased impulses. Any defenceless loners who do not fit into the social pecking order - such as the woman that Snake encounters while taking cover from the ‘crazies’ in the Choc Full O’ Nuts building - are simply easy pickings. With its emphasis on gang violence and territorial control, Escape from New York is an urban acceleration of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) with the sub-disco funk of the earlier film replaced by the calculated coldness of Carpenter’s synthesiser score.
Escape from New York had an immediate influence on exploitation cinema, with such Italian efforts as Enzo G Castellari’s 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Sergio Martino’s 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) being the more notable examples of the post-apocalyptic city sub-genre, while Pierre Morel’s District 13 (2004) is located in a Parisian ghetto where the lower-class inhabitants are forced to survive without an education system or police protection. As with the imitations that followed, Carpenter’s futuristic city was conceived within the realms of genre cinema rather than serious social-political commentary and, as such, presents a fairly simplistic vision of society on the brink. However, Escape from New York remains a superior piece of pulp cinema because its down-and-dirty aesthetics subvert immediately recognisable landmarks to suggest a city where only a character as nihilistic as Snake Plissken has a fighting chance of survival.
Venues: Apollo Piccadilly Circus, Cine Lumiere, ICA, Watermans Brentwood (London) and nationwide
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou (based on her novel), Fritz Lang
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Germany 1927 (2010 re-release with 25 minutes of lost footage)
From its inception, Fritz Lang’s science-fiction spectacle Metropolis was a film destined to be talked about in nothing less than superlatives: with over 300 shooting days and 60 nights, 36,000 extras and a budget of 5 million Reichsmark for the effects, it was the most expensive silent film of its time. Even today, it remains one of the most copied, analysed and written about films in cinematic history - everything, so it seems, has been said about it. The fact that the original copy of the film was lost shortly after the world premiere in Berlin in 1927 only helped feed the myth surrounding Lang’s best-known (although not best) work. So it was no surprise when the newly restored version of Metropolis, which premiered at a special gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival in February, turned out to be the most exciting and astonishing film on show in an otherwise rather uninspiring 60th anniversary edition of the festival. Viewing the film in its almost complete form and with a new score based on Gottfried Huppertz’s beguiling original made for an entirely unique and captivating cinematic experience.
Getting past all the hype surrounding the restoration and reconstruction of the film, it has to be said that, despite all the advances in digital technology, the condition of the newly added scenes to the 2001 remastered print is fairly poor. One sequence of the 16-mm negative of the film that was miraculously found in Buenos Aires in 2008 was too damaged to be included and therefore approximately six minutes of footage are still lost and had to be narrated in explanatory intertitles. Still, it’s striking to see how naturally the extra 25 minutes of worn-out film stock, with all its scratches, dirt marks and fogged-up images, blend in with the narrative continuum and not only increase the visual and rhythmic density of the film but play an important role in clarifying the relationship between visual imagery, characters and plotlines.
Up to this point, the epic story of Lang’s futuristic tale about the struggle between workers and bosses in a capitalist dystopia was somewhat confusing. Lang intertwines the universal story with individual fortunes that shake up the system, most notably that of the iconic heroine, Maria, played by Brigitte Helm in a mesmerising performance. The master of Metropolis, Jon Frederson, rules over both an army of men and women who labour away underneath the earth at massive machines and a small, rich elite. But his power and control over the industrial city are threatened when his son Freder falls in love with Maria, a working-class girl and preacher of love, who is held in high esteem by her peers. The inventor Rotwang, a rival of Frederson because they once vied for the same woman, Freder’s mother, creates a wanton robot in the shape of Maria who, on her mission of destruction, eventually causes the flooding of the city’s underworld. Yet, in the end, there is hope and reconciliation in Lang’s bleak but enthralling vision of the city of the future.
In addition to the extended scenes at the end of the film, when the robot Maria incites a mob of discontented workers to attack the critical Heart Machine, the new content throws light on some peripheral characters whose presence seemed somewhat vague in previous restored versions and contributes to more fully developing the male melodrama that underlies the film. For example, there are sequences depicting Freder’s friendship with his father’s dismissed secretary, Josaphat, and we can now follow the misadventures of Georgy, a worker at the underground machines who, after trading places with Freder, falls prey to the temptations of Metropolis’s red-light district, Yoshiwara. Other new scenes deepen the conflict between Fredersen and Rotwang, including one taking place at a monument dedicated to Hel, the woman both men loved, and finally reveal the motive for the rivalry between the two men, which was only outlined in the truncated 2001 screen version. Most importantly, however, taken as a whole, the restored footage forms a chain of exciting moments that interlock the endless pursuits and disaster scenes in the final part, locating them in an overall coherent temporal and spatial framework.
The result is a version of Metropolis that has a different tone and feel. This accomplishment is partly owed to the additional material, but equally as much to the revival of the grandiose original score, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, which was used as the most important source for the recreation of the original cut of the film. Nonetheless, Lang’s visionary thinking (which is evident in scenes involving a videophone or when he portrays machines as the new masters of mankind) and his stylish, dark, yet hopeful conjuration of a heartless and starkly divided urban dystopia are still key and feel just as powerful as ever. Now clocking in at 145 minutes, Metropolis remains a dazzling, heady blend of fantastic expressionistic set design, eye-popping cinematography and deft special effects that deserves to be seen (and heard) on the big screen over and over again.
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