Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Writers: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Cast: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono

USA 1993

95 mins

In this seminal American independent film, a black man takes on the identity of his ‘identical’ white twin brother.

Sampling a single frame from any of the features directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel offers evidence of the striking visual aesthetic that defines their work. A thrilling synthesis of composition, editing and design (visual and aural), Suture (1993), followed by The Deep End (a carefully calibrated update of Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment that gave Tilda Swinton one of her first American roles in 2001) and Bee Season (2005), has seen them imprint their indelible signature style on contemporary American filmmaking. Completed under the aegis of a major studio, Bee Season was a move up in division, but it was vastly under-appreciated on release, and so it is perhaps little surprise that McGehee and Siegel have returned to independent production with the as-yet-to-be-released Uncertainty, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008.

Introduced by McGehee’s sister Kelly, who was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute alongside Siegel, Scott and David bonded over movies and discussed a possible collaboration. Neither had attended film school (McGehee was studying for a PhD in Japanese Film History at UC Berkeley; Siegel was doing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design), but with Kelly as production designer the pair completed a number of short films before deciding to tackle a feature. Audacious enough in its conception stage to attract the attention of Steven Soderbergh, who came on board as an executive producer, the witty and supremely confident Suture made an immediate impact on the American independent landscape. When it was originally released in the UK at the Institute of Contemporary Arts I vividly recall going to see the film seven consecutive nights in a row. Some 16 years later, its potency and originality remain undimmed.

Despite having met his identical half-brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert, today best known as the pre-Obama black American president in 24) just once – at their murdered father’s funeral – wealthy sophisticate Vincent (Michael Harris) invites his blue-collar sibling to stay with him in Phoenix, Arizona. As this is ostensibly a bonding exercise, Clay is dismayed to learn upon arrival that a business trip necessitates Vincent’s immediate attention. After dropping his brother at the airport, Clay is involved in a horrific car explosion that leaves his face burned beyond recognition, his memory erased and Vincent’s desirable Rolls Royce a write-off. With the aid of a psychoanalyst and a leading plastic surgeon, Clay is slowly pieced back together. Unfortunately, he’s reconstructed as Vincent, now the primary suspect in his father’s death.

Suture is a sophisticated, post-modern affair borrowing freely from the B-movie thriller, the American avant-garde and the film noir, including stylised chiaroscuro lighting, a complex flashback structure and the focus upon a moral landscape predicated on corruption and greed. The film nonetheless brings its own intoxicating embellishments to the Hitchcockian mix (1945’s Spellbound, with its Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequences, is an obvious and acknowledged influence). An intelligent analysis of identity, class, the Lacanian duality of mind and body and the physical and mental means by which we define ourselves, Suture features at its core compelling performances from Harris, who is slight and white, and Haysbert, muscular and black. ‘Our physical resemblance is striking’, remarks Vincent in a typically deadpan moment. The naming of a character after the philosopher Descartes and the use of ‘Ring of Fire’ (both Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions appear) as a charred Clay is transported to surgery offer further evidence of the mischievous humour of the filmmakers – who both briefly appear as gurney operators – amidst the film’s lightly and comfortably worn highbrow tendencies.

Masterly shot in austere black and white by Greg Gardiner (who won an award for the cinematography at Sundance in 1994) and boasting Kelly McGehee’s stunning production design (the inventive use of modish 60s office interiors evokes Godard’s Alphaville), Suture is also significant in its compositional assurance and positioning of characters in relation to objects and buildings. The Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo) would perhaps be the closest contemporary point of reference. The final face-off between Vincent and Clay, shot from high above in an ornate bathroom, an image that became the film’s enticing poster, is especially memorable. The film is also remarkable for its disjunctive editing and the overlapping use of sound from one scene to another, techniques that reference the pioneering work of the late 60s theorist Jean-Pierre Oudart, who drew parallels between the psychic processes of subjectivity and the structuring language of cinema.

Relatively rarely seen in recent years due to restricted availability, Suture is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK in a brand new 4k restoration so that first-time viewers and those who were seduced by its innumerable pleasures back in 1993 can now be reminded of the film’s originality and vitality.

Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.

Jason Wood

Watch a clip from Suture:

This review was first published in the aummer 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2016

Distributor: BFI

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Stanley Kubrick

Based on the novel by: William Makepeace Thackeray

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee

UK, USA 1975

184 mins

An appraisal of the merits of Mr Stanley Kubrick’s considerable film essay on ambition and ruin.

It is the unenviable lot of every human being cast into this busy and brutal world that we must at once learn how to live life while at the same time living that very life we are attempting to learn how to live; and so it is perfectly possible, if not in fact probable, that the lessons that are the most important to our happiness, the invaluable realizations on how to get along in the world, on how to be content, on how to succeed, are bound to be worthless: for they come too late to be of any palpable use. It is for this reason indeed that we have modal verbs and the third conditional: I could have… should have … would have… etc., being essential adjuncts to our wistful condition. The great novelists tell us the same: Voltaire in Candide; Dickens in Great Expectations. And William Thackeray’s picaresque account of the rise and fall of an Irish rogue Barry Lyndon is a tragi-comic treatment on the same theme.

The erstwhile director of a series of remarkable moving pictures, Mr Stanley Kubrick, took on the novel following the collapse of his long planned epic on the life of Napoleon. Employing the research, he created one of the most authentic renderings of the Eighteenth Century, with characters who lived outside, exposed to the imminent weather, or huddled in candlelit rooms, poised and pinioned in their beautiful regalia. To speak of the film, one must first address its beauty. If Mr Kubrick were a painter, we would have to enquire as to where he procures his canvases, his pigments and oils, for all his films seem to be painted on a rich vellum with a wide range of nuanced colours apparently unavailable to other filmmakers. There is a peach-coloured tinge to the sky, his fires are pumpkin orange and the range of his palette – the spectrum of greens for instance – is simply breath-taking. ‘I do like the way the artist uses the colour blue,’ Barry Lyndon comments. Quite so, Mr Lyndon, quite so. Not to mention the framing – from the very first shot, which shows the duel that killed Redmond Barry’s father – the scene is composed so well, so finely structured – the diagonal run of the dry stone walling, the depth of vision – and so pleasing to the eye that the director rarely requires more than a single cut to tell his whole scene. The slow zooms are employed to reveal the world around his characters or to move in on a particular detail or individual, and later, in the second half, to reveal adultery and despair. But Mr Kubrick is varied in his means; a ruffian handheld syle suits a brawl and an almost documentary feel imbues a battle with immediacy and danger.

The story is simplicity itself. A young Irishman, Redmond Barry of Barryville (an outstanding performance from Mr Ryan O’Neal, best known for the sentimental drama Love Story), is forced to leave home after a romance with a cousin leads him to duel, he thinks fatally, with an English officer, an excellent and concise comic turn from the superb Mr Leonard Rossiter of Rising Damp fame. His journeys lead him from highway robbers to the English army, the Prussian army, a career as card player and conman and finally the successful seduction of a woman of wealth and station and the securing of his position in society. This is but part one and the second half of the film shows the other side of the hill, as Redmond Barry, now styled Barry Lyndon, is unable to hold all he has attained secure in his grasp, and through a combination of his own fecklessness and the unforgiving nature of the English upper class, his financial, social and familial standing are reduced to disaster and ultimately a sad mess of grief and tatters.

Over the years, the films of Mr Stanley Kubrick have acquired the reputation of coldness and Barry Lyndon is often posited as an example, but on rewatching the film such arguments appear wrong-headed. Barry Lyndon is a remarkably moving and humane piece of work, about a man in desperate search for love who fails to appreciate it when he finds it. A fatherless child who is to become a childless father to the sound of Sarabande, the triple timed dance that becomes a reminder that all marches are funeral marches in the end. It is a hard lesson, and like all lessons on how to live life it is learned only once life is over.

Mr John Bleasdale