Horror Movies

As far as films go, while my highest respect and appreciation goes to classic character-driven and literary/thematic dramas like The Godfather, Chinatown and Easy Rider, I have an unabashed gleeful relish for horror films. Like heavy metal, horror films are fantastic visions of all the anti-social elements that lie restrained by civilization and polite society. The genre is often thought to be somewhat adolescent – perhaps those with little intimations of their own mortality can most easily consume violence and bloody death as entertainment. I for one certainly don’t enjoy the torture porn horror films of the 00s and beyond, but this may be more about aesthetics and plot structuring that an adult revulsion towards such grim topics. For all that, I do definitely love a great horror film (if, again as with heavy metal, my patience for modern forms has rather evaporated) and feel a great affection for them. Here then are some favourites and some anecdotes pertaining to them.

Nightmare on Elm Street I

This was about the first horror film I ever saw, and by jeezus it scared the life out of me. I actually remember seeing a trailer for it some time beforehand, maybe when I was 9 or 10 years old, and when I saw that bit when Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and vomited out… I had to run out the house. Then I felt worried that the ground would open up and do the same to me. Yikes! So of course, this meant that I had to see that film! And that truly was “watching-behind-the-sofa” viewing. It was my first real introduction to the delicious frisson of fear and terror of the quality horror film. It hasn’t really aged: the scary scary bits are still bloody effective. The first death is monstrously gruesome, the sight of Tina sliding down the school hallway in a bodybag is still deeply unsettling (the whole Nancy-at-school scene is one of the best in the film), the sight of the millipede coming out her mouth is gut-churning, the death of Glen (a youthful Johnny Depp) truly revoltingly sickening

NOES (or as we then called it, Freddy I) now strikes me as one of the newest additions to the classic horror pantheon (demonicon?) of zombie, werewolf, vampire and Frankenstein. Freddy Kruger has moved from the nightmare figure of the first film to the pop-culture anti-hero of Freddy vs Jason and a million spinoffs and tie-ins. As a symbol of nightmares, Kruger’s ferocity and demonic countenance symbolises the darkest side of humanity and our sleep-induced vulnerability to it. This is rich with metaphorical possibilities and resonances, just as the werewolf, zombie and vampire are. This is not to say you should go and have a wank over the critical/theoretical possibilities, but simply to note that such characters are those with the most staying power because film-makers can do so much with them. It was depressing that the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street was a sterile witless waste, but just as Frankenstein and other horror characters have fallow periods, I believe Freddy Kruger will be rejuvenated, to keep terrifying the crap out of people 🙂

Evil Dead

What I love about Evil Dead is its sheer unapologetic gleeful attack. There’s nothing tasteful or artistic about it. It is full-on raging horror from the off. This does mean that things like characterisation and setting get neglected – its hard to distinguish between the three women at the start, for example, as their personalities are not established, and neither is their relationships. (The two men do get a bit of attention though, with Scotty an impulsive jackass and Ash the sensible leader; while Bruce Campbell has that chin). But such flaws gets forgotten about quickly enough once the horror attack gets going. It’s vile, grotesque, brutal… and kinda fun. The tree-rape is (to say the least) imaginative, while the zombie make-up and behaviour more vivid, putrescent and active than the shuffling undead seen in George Romero’s films. (The card-shuffling scene still occasionally inspires me to quote from it whenever I see people playing solitaire). All of this makes Evil Dead a visceral attack on the viewer, which while raw and flawed, bristles with malevolent energy.

The Exorcist

This was the first horror film to genuinely terrify me. So much of the reviews of horror films and novels seem to me to be utter hyperbole – I mean, go read the back of any Stephen King book for preposterous overkill. Until then, horror films had certainly provided many scary and shocking moments, but until The Exorcist, only books like IT and The Omen had really deeply scared me. But man, oh man, The Exorcist truly deeply terrified me. I first saw it in the cinema, having that day moved into a flat where the rest of my flatmates would be arriving the next week. I met with some friends, smoked a couple of joints, then went to the cinema. We were late (as stoners tend to be) and the only seats left were right down the front. So the film totally assaulted my eyeballs, and then I had to suffer the unease of being in a new, empty flat when I went home. You know when you really have to pluck up the courage to go to the toilet? Yeah.

Many people have analyses quite what makes The Exorcist probably the scariest film ever: the body horror, the special effects, the religion vs science, the calling of the unknown, the subliminal images. For me what remains terrifying is the sense of an unknown, unconquerable power of malice and malevolence. This vibe is of course straight out of HP Lovecraft, but to see this being played out on a sweet and innocent little girl is enormously disturbing. It is difficult to dispel feelings that there is a greater power out there, somewhere; but it is an alarming thought to consider that it may well be evil and spiteful. The subplot of the priest and his mother is also particularly affecting, bringing up feelings of guilt and remorse and parental neglect, which most of us I would imagine are prone to. Similarly, the juxtaposition of faith and science, and the film’s examination of the limits of knowledge, can show up how little we know and what little control we have. The Exorcist is a deeply disturbing acknowledgement of the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of humanity.

American Werewolf in London

This is sometimes called a “comedy horror” and while there are funny bits (the decaying Jack picking up a Mickey Mouse figure and saying “Hi, David!” has cracked me up for more than twenty five years), the premise and plot structure of the film are horror. As a film, it’s very concisely plotted (note how David’s nightmares, for example, provide dramatic incidents in what would otherwise be a dull period in hospital, and how he remains unconscious for three weeks – just time to him to get going before the next full moon) and the characters sharply drawn – the dour sceptical Chief Inspector, the brassy (and contrast-providing) nurse, the harassed Indian orderly, and the three tramps, are all wonderful vignettes. It’s probably best not to think about the distance from north Yorkshire to London and how long it would take Doctor Hersh to drive there, though. Also notable aspects include the precise snapshot of a grimy and unappealing mid-1980s London (from the pricey local supermarkets to the punk-infested subway), the superlative soundtrack (from Creedence Clearwater to Van Morrison), and (of course) the remarkable special effects (by Rick Baker). If there’s a more visceral transformation in cinema, I haven’t seen it.

What I find most affecting about American Werewolf, though, is how believable it all is. Ignore the plot holes about distance etc, and consider the character reactions to events, and they really are entirely believable. There’s none of the common but annoyingly absurd heroics of horror films, where the protagonist just has to find out what dread things are going on in the basement. When the werewolf first attacks the hitch-hikers, David’s entirely human first response is to run away. David’s reaction as his appalling predicament unfolds (as I think actor David Naughton has said) run through the stages of shock – first disbelief, then anger, then pleading, then acceptance. Alex’s behaviour too is similarly comprehensible, in trying to help what she sees as a man afflicted by a great trauma (although the level of their mutual passion, if necessary for the plot, does seem somewhat unlikely).

American Werewolf then is a rare case of a believable modern day (okay, modernish) horror film, updating the classic werewolf fable. It’s funny, sad, convincing, and at just the right times, really fucking scary.

Thriller

Okay, this is a music video. But the funny/sad/weird thing is, Thriller scared the living shit out of me for longer than all other horrors combined. I don’t quite remember the exact incident, but seeing it when young scared and scarred me, so that I developed a large phobia about both video and song. I literally could not even hear the song without panicking and having to run out of earshot. This lasted until I was in my early twenties! At which point I became fed up of crapping myself every Halloween or 80s night, and started to wean myself into being able to stand it. I started by watching the video on mute, then with the sound barely audible, then progressively higher and higher. I would grip the chair with white-knuckled nervous anxiety, but in time the fear and panic dissipated. I now consider both video and song to be fantastic. But sometimes… the shadow of that panic and fear still crosses my mind!

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My Favourite Characters

I’ve been busy running my new blog of late, hence the lack of posts. If you have any interest in Chinese business, or business in China, check it out.

Anyhoo, yesterday I answered a question in Reddit about which characters seemed the most “complete”. I immediately thought of Toranaga, the warlord from the brilliant novel Shogun. This made me think on about other characters I have loved, laughed at/with, felt fond of, empathised with, sympathised, admired, etc etc. Fiction (in whatever medium) is such a glorious way of expanding your acquaintanceship with a broader section of humanity. Whenever people ask me what kind of films I like, I tend not not say a genre (so reductive), but reply, “One’s with good characters”. This is really what makes a good film, nine times out of ten. You can admire cinematography all you want, but if the people on screen ain’t doing shit, then it’ll be a boring film. A good film, or book, will have this humanity. It is the irreducible core of fiction.

Anyway, here’s some that I have liked.

Richie Tozier from IT (Stephen King)

Richie Tozier is one of the “Losers”, that group of disparate and unhappy children in King’s best novel. He is an endlessly wisecracking smart-ass whose mind runs ten times too fast for his sense of decorum, whose comic absurdity mirrors the folly of the world he sees in his sharp eye, and whose belief and imagination are inchoate yet rich with potential. He’s an eleven year-old who views the stodgy hypocrisies and self-delusion of adults somewhere between wise cynicism and hysterical laughter. And, boy, he makes me laugh. I don’t think any fictional character (outside of comedy) has ever made me laugh so much – i.e. not by being set up for comedy, but simply by being himself and reacting off the other characters.

King is clearly partial to Ritchie (as he often is with his characters), and indulges him. About the first time we see him in IT, he’s introduced to the chubby Ben Hanscombe, as the Losers build a dam: Ritchie performs a series of “salaams” in front of the bewildered Ben, wades into the stream to place sod on their dam, trainers on and all, and does a salute to Ben whenever he returns for more instructions. This overacting and hyperactivity just reminds me of what it was like to be in Scouts, when we all had boundless energy and boyish enthusiasm – when we’d go camping at the drop of a hat and ten-miles walks were a regular Sunday stroll. But Richie’s manic wise-assism, to coin a phrase, also reminds me of being in primary school when it felt like my mind worked completely differently to the football jocks I then consorted with (I didn’t really know there was any different types of boy at that age), and the bafflement when they didn’t get what I was prattling on about, what I was referring or alluding to, and so on. That sort of poignancy is a rare thing, and sets King so far above the meat-and-potato slasher writers like James Herbert.

Toranaga from Shogun (James Clavell)

Shogun, if you don’t know (you really should!) is a novel set in the year 1600, following the adventures of John Blackthorne, the first Briton to set foot in Japan during its time of samurai warlords and first contact with European missionaries and traders. You follow Blackthorne as he makes his way through the levels of Japanese society, from the peasants and fishermen in the landfall village of Anjiro to the nobles and daimyos (warlords) of feudal Japan, kind of like how you follow the hobbits in Lord Of The Rings, or R2D2 and C3P0 in Star Wars. At the very center, or apex, of this war-torn land is Toranaga – Yoshi Toranaga noh-Minowara, head of the Yoshi family of the Minowara clan.

One of the numerous delights of Shogun is how it presents the intricate Japanese politics of the era and makes it comprehensible, even admirable. With the nation torn between around 260 daimyos, Machiavelli would have a field day, for the balance of power can shift on a feather’s touch. At the start of the novel, Toranaga is president of a council of regents appointed to rule Japan until the son of the Taiko (military ruler), who had died the year previous, comes of age at fifteen. Though Toranaga is president, his hated rival, Ishido, rules Osaka Castle, constructed by the Taiko to be the ultimate power in the land, unconquerable in its strength and wealth, with the nation split between those aligned to Toranaga, and those to Ishido. Toranaga’s political intrigues and manoeuvres are wonderfully subtle, and as the book comes to its climax, devastatingly effective. He rules over his generals, samurai, family, consorts and peasants with a fiercely attentive eye, the ability to make a man feel a foot taller just by a word of praise, and also – what’s perhaps most endearing – an wonderful lack of decorum. (The section where he discusses the penis size of his fellow regents is hilarious). Though arrogant and power-driven, Toranaga never resembles a stuffed shirt – or as Alan Clark so memorably described Douglas Hurd, “he’d be as well having a corn cob stuffed up his arse”. Toranaga relishes the basics pleasures of life – sex, simple food, kinship and family, bawdy humour, even peeing. The completeness of this portrait is staggering, and unique in anything I’ve ever read.

Mark Renton from Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh)

Renton is I suppose the closest person to me I’ve encountered in fiction. (Although cynical, underachieving, drink-loving, smart ass Brian from Family Guy would be up there too). He’s an intellectual from a Scottish working-class family who don’t really value that sort of thing. He is ginger. He is a football and music fan. He is deeply cynical about the social and political structures around him, both of government and the working-class institutions. He attended university but remained closest to his friends from back home. He reads a great deal, but mostly aimlessly. Of course there’s the junkie thing as a difference – I didn’t spend my early 20s in a heroin haze, nor did I need to get into theft and fraud to keep myself afloat. I did get into the clubbing scene enough to get a perspective on it all, though.

There is something of a tradition of the alienated Scottish working-class intellectual. It runs through House With The Green Shutters by George Mackay Brown, Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, the (I think awful) Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman’s A Disaffection, and even flavours Iain Banks’ finest novel The Bridge. With education in Scotland practically synonymous with “getting-on” and ultimately Anglicisation, those who refuse to be assimilated into the middle-class suffer (or take upon themselves) a double alienation – from their background, and from the class/society they have rejected. This is a harsher problem than say the working-classes in England, where at least their background remains their own, should they decline to rise socially. Or so it seems to me. Renton exemplifies these problems in a way I relate to far more than the alienated protagonists in the other books. Trocchi’s “Necchi” character is a drug addict and existentialist, but far out of his time in the early 1960s. Patrick Doyle of A Disaffection is a painfully sensitive disappointed romantic, the sort of guy you can imagine proselyting about the dignity of labour and being a member of the Socialist Workers Party and all that nostalgic shite. No: Renton is very much a character of his time and place. You never hear Patrick Doyle talk about his tastes in music, as you do with Renton – instead when sitting with a group of regular working men he starts jabbering about Karl Marx. Christ. Renton (who’s name I take to mean a split, between his educated, intellectual side and his self-destructive social grouping) may be intellectually superior to most of the people around him, but unusually – and thankfully – there’s none of the usual moral smugness associated with this: he’s deeply flawed, a junkie and thief, often described as physically repellent, who has mother-issues, a small penis and a fair amount of narcissism. But all this just makes him a more believable character: far from the absurd alpha-males of working class fiction – check William McIllvanney for egregious examples of this pish – but something more brutal, more honest and more true.

Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (James Joyce)

This is another example of personal identification (and perhaps egotism on my part). But Joyce’s evocation of the development of the Dedalus’ intellect, from childhood to young manhood, is magnificent, just the sort of thing which anyone who lives the life of the mind will get and empathise with and feel excited by. While the bildungsroman is a well-known genre in charting the growth and development of the narrator/author/protagonist, most of this tends to be experiential, as you follow him/her (it’s usually him) through his early experiences. It’s harder to convey, and more satisfying to read, of the development of the mind. With the language in each chapter mirroring the language ability of Dedalus, and the text far more focused on Dedalus’ mental preoccupations than on the externals of school, family and explorations of the psychogeography of Dublin, Portrait is the best example of fiction portraying intellectual development I have ever read. (Second place goes to Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which conveys the mind of the narrator, if not its development).

This is not to say that Dedalus is a a hero, someone to look up – not the triumphant student hero that you encounter on books like Tom Brown’s Schooldays or even Enid Blyton’s boarding school books (which I loved to read as a lad). Dedalus is weedy, self-righteous, veers between religious ecstasy and frequenting cheap prostitutes, and often acts superior. Yet there’s something wonderful about reading his development because it feels real, lived, genuine. You feel his ambition, his likes and dislikes, his personality, his mind. This is such a rare thing. For those, like me, who live the life of the mind, whose most important events are internal, whose forebears are literary rather than familial, Portrait is the definitive, you know, portrait of a mind attaining maturity. It’s utterly magnificent.

Charlie Brooker, RedLetterMedia and the Critical Stance

There have always been critics in society, those who explicate, analyse and comment upon other people’s creative efforts.  They first went professional, I suppose, in the era of the first daily newspapers in the early 1800s: people like William Hazlitt (Michael Foot’s favourite essayist), and so on. The previous generation of critics had generally been published in pamphlets; writing for an intellectual audience, they included writers and thinkers from Adam Smith to Jonathan Swift. Further back, the critic can be seen in religious enquiry such as by St Thomas Aquinas, and all the way back to the philosophical debates of the Ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the critic has been a figure of intellectual authority, bringing deep knowledge of his or her field and authoritative judgement to the edification of their readers (or listeners, in the case of Plato and chums). This tradition worked across fields from film and music to politics to, I don’t know, queer studies and post-gender body dismorphia. (Completely off-topic: I once read a queer-studies analysis of William S Burroughs that is probably the best book on him out there – it totally makes his works comprehensible, if not, you know, that much better). Famous critics include Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Noam Chomsky, to take three disparate examples. You’ll doubtless have a few favourites of your own: mine include George Orwell (90% of the time, a better essayist than novelist), Stephen Thomas Erlewine (of Allmusic fame – surely the best music review website on the internet), Jon Savage, Michael White and Paul Krugman.

With the internet making everyone a critic nowadays, it has thereby necessitated a change in the stance in the critic. While their essential function is still the same – they look at what other people have done and make observations, hopefully in an entertaining way – the way they present themselves and their information has shifted dramatically. This can be seen in two of the most popular critics to come from the post-2000s, namely Charlie Brooker (of Screen Wipe and the Guardian) and “Mr Plinkett” of the RedLetterMedia Star Wars prequels analyses fame. (See: The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith; each one is about 70 minutes long).

With Charlie Brooker I actually wasn’t overly aware of his broader work until recently. Though I am a pretty devoted “Guardianista” (I curdle with shame at how I used to read the Independent, because I thought it actually was  independent – it became intensely “Blair-lite” in the mid-90s, probably chasing market share), I only read Brooker’s columns and no more. I was in China when Screen Wipe was on, so missed it completely. I did see Dead Set, the zombie show he wrote, and Nathan Barley, a satire of the “Shoreditch Twat“, but found both far too heavy-handed to be genuinely enjoyable. The targets were too obvious, the humour too self-satisfied. But recently, freshly back in the UK, I watched several episodes of Screen Wipe, and found them to be extremely good. Their dissection of TV, media and popular culture is blisteringly funny, fiercely acute and scatologically profane – so the three things I enjoy most, then.

I can’t remember how I encountered the RedLetterMedia analyses – probably just through YouTube’s “Suggested Videos” sidebar. Their flaying of George Lucas and the prequels were just so absolutely dead on-the-money, though, that I recommend them to any fan of cinema, not just Star Wars fanboys. Laced with comic surreality and intense black humour, the reviews are some of the most intelligent takes on film I’ve read in a long time, when sadly the media has abdicated its critical faculties in the pursuit of advertising and movie star (imagine as a blinking gif – MoViE StAr!!!!!1!) access. This is even true of supposed “film journals” like Total Film and Empire. (This is even more observable in music media, from NME to Q to Mojo, where sycophancy runs desperate riot).

What do Charlie Brooker and Mr Plinkett have in common that I’ve lumped then together? They both take the traditional role of the critic, true – they analyse, dissect, observe, and pass judgement in an entertaining and enlightening way – but that’s not their USP. Both of them make repeated efforts to present themselves as idiots, even as deeply unlikeable. The stance of the critic, urbane, sophisticated and effortlessly knowledgeable (think Roger Ebert, Barry Norman, Frank (or indeed Mark) Kermode and Lord Kenneth Clark), is unsustainable in a world where any idiot with a computer can pass judgement. (Just look at me, heh-heh-heh). Those critics were better than us. Instead, Brooker and Mr Plinkett acknowledge the impossibility of being this kind of critic any more and – to show they aren’t superior to us – present themselves as deviants and plain misanthropes. Mr Plinkett has his voice slowed, making him sound almost like Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, while his creepily tongue-in-cheek asides present him as a abductor of women, murderer, and rapist. Brooker meanwhile contents himself with visceral hatred (of himself and all others), leering, profanity, and mimed (I hope) masturbation.

The democratisation of knowledge the internet brings has not, of course, led to a democratisation of insight, wit, or learning, yet the opening of access (to content) makes it harder to present yourself as an expert when there’s been no equal opening of access (to media opportunity). It’s not harder to be an expert these days, but it is harder to present yourself as one, when there are thousands of others out there who can claim to have better knowledge of your field. So if the social value of the critic is devalued by its inflation (just look at how many crappy blogs there are out there), best to satirise yourself first. The criticism of the critic extends first of all to themselves. There is, too, a touch of “get your retaliation first” about their stances – call yourself a sad, ludicrous prick before anyone else does, and you seem less aloof, and less vulnerable if anyone else does it. Brooker and Mr Plinkett therefore adopt the ironic stance of seeming as grimly pathetic as the rest of us – “sitting next to Mr. Waddilove, stinking of shit!” as Pauline from The League of Gentlemen says – to head off criticism, ingratiate themselves with the masses, and attest to the absurdity of their position in society.

So is the critic dead? No, he’s merely in his basement, cutting off someone’s head, or wanking off to low grade Albanian porn. Just like the rest of us, so we feel less patronised. But what does that say about us?

Actor’s Films

I’ve just been watching Scum, both the cinema and TV versions. If you’re not familiar with the film(s), I recommend it strongly. It’s a ferocious indictment of the “borstal” system then (late 1970s) used to punish youth crime: the “short sharp shock” which brutalises rather than reforms. It’s violent and grim, but the intelligence and unflinching quality of the film make it one of the great didactic message films. (It’s directed by Alan Clarke, probably the best and most important British director of the late 7os and 80s). Watching it is often a pleasure, indeed, because of the quality of the acting. Many of the roles are ones any good actor must have loved to sink their teeth into. With no special effects, no music whatsoever, and a flat, affectless direction, it’s a real actor’s film. So let’s look at it in more detail, and also savour other prime examples of the thespian’s art.

Scum

The story behind Scum is itself fascinating. Filmed as a 1977 TV “play for today” (the kind of postwar paternalist cultural option that died out with the spread of Rupert Murdoch’s malign influence from newspapers to TV) for the BBC, it was never shown after representations from the prison system. (Absurdly, they complained that while the events shown in the film did happen in borstals, they didn’t happen at the pace shown. I hope someone retorted that murders and suicide rarely occurred in sixteenth century Verona as frequently as seen in Romeo and Juliet). The BBC has long been subject to pressure from the powers that be, of course. Fortunately director Alan Clarke and writer Roy Minton weren’t to be deterred, and made a theatrical version which was released in 1979. (The TV version was not shown until 1991, and on Channel 4 rather than the Beeb). There’s a line in Cain’s Book which says that you can judge a country by how it treats its criminals and the lowest elements of a society: what this says about the welfare state Britain of the time I can’t begin to tell. To my eyes it speaks of the arrogance of unreformed institutions, the post-war belief in the righteousness of British state. There’s a sweeping, total sense of its failure throughout Scum, one highly suited to its late-1970s context. (Compare with the similar feeling in Pink Floyd: The Wall).

The film features numerous absolutely memorable characters. Everyone knows the starring role played by Ray Winstone as Carlin, but there are many good turns to savour. The governor, memorably played by Peter Howell (who also voiced Saruman in the BBC radio version of Lord Of The Rings), is an archetypal Oxbridge graduate with a withered sense of humanity. Archer, the intellectual voicing writer Minton’s opinions on crime and punishment, is wonderfully played by Mick Ford: his insolence, intellectual superiority, and compassion stand out amidst the institutional violence and boredom. Mr Duke is a gruffly decent northern warden, with a belief in “public service” and the welfare state. While the first daddy, Pongo Banks, is merely a belligerent thug, his sidekicks are painted more subtly: Richards (played by Phil Daniels) is a bully who has learned nothing from his time inside, while Eckersley is the sneak and grass who sucks up to those stronger than him. Mr Greaves is a working-class Tory-voting Yorkshireman. The housemaster who proclaims “I run this house” (just as Mr Banks, the senior officer, and Pongo Banks have done) and tries to co-opt Carlin is a pretentious intellectual wanker, while the sports master is a hilarious ex-army type with a sailor’s mouth (“C’MON YOU BASTARDS! MOVE! MOVE!”), the descendent of the over-competitive football teacher so memorably played by Brian Glover in Kes.

All terrific. There are numerous scenes, too, which demonstrate the cast’s skills. The dialogue between Archer and Mr Duke is magnificent: it somehow reminds me of the Xmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where they start out with a family revelry and end up in a fury of bitterness and rage. The scene from Scum is as compelling, where Archer elaborates his views on how the penal system does not work, and how it brutalises the wardens as well as the boys. The expression of Mr Duke’s face is priceless; he looks as though the skin is being torn from his flesh.

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It’s all the better as he is a relatively kindly man; humiliated, he turns on Archer with fury in his eyes, clearly wanting to tear him a new one.

But my absolute favourite scene is Archer’s intellectual jousting/world-class trolling with the governor.

Governor (with tight-lipped contempt) – Have you read the Life of St Francis of Assisi?

Archer – No, though I’m sure it’s an engrossing epistle.

Governor – It is. The son of a wealthy man, he converted to Christianity in 640AD and turned aside from his life of pleasure to a life of poverty doing the work of the Gospel. You should read it.

Archer – As a matter of fact, sir, I wanted to mention access to literature to you, sir. You see, I’m finding myself… strongly drawn towards Mecca… very strongly indeed.

Governor (enraged) – MECCA, Archer?!

Archer (deadpan) – Yes, sir… something’s stirring within me… I’m sure you understand…

Governor – Archer you will see the Chaplain tomorrow morning –

Archer (smirking) – I‘m an atheist, sir – it’s on my record: “atheist and vegetarian”.

Governor – You told them you were Christ in Dover so you will see the Chaplain and we’ll have no more talk of MECCA! in this establishment!

The film has been overshadowed by the violence and the infamy of the “I’m the daddy!” meme, but taken as a piece, it is a supremely good example of the actors craft. Just watch and see how many faces you recognise.

Glengarry Glen Ross

I only heard of this film recently – a link to Alec Baldwin’s immportal “Always be closing!” speech. Watching it was a great pleasure – what a stellar cast! Jack Lemmon is the best of them, but there’s also Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Price (and that Baldwin chap). Real heavyweights. The film is essentially “Death of a Salesman” for the 1990s – the agony and bitterness of capitalism, the unforgiving nature of sales, its fraudulence and masks. Adapted from the Tony-winning play, the film wisely keeps to the basic theatrical nature of the script, keeping it in mostly in two rooms. This focuses attention of the actors: their exchanges, the feelings, needs and fears of their characters, are just magnificent. Lemmon in particular practically steals the show with his gradual unmasking of the desperate old sales pro. Here he is, trying to keep the desperation away:

Withnail & I

While this is no doubt the companion to many foolish student antics, my god the dialogue is so good! The wit is rapier-sharp, with Withnail’s helpless bathetic rage, Marwood’s stoic innocence and Monty’s desperate longing marvellously realised. You can view the film as a lament for the 60s or for mourning the passing of youth (as Monty does so articulately, and as Withnail, stranded the wrong side of thirty with a sole flapping out his shoe, so exemplifies), or as a British Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and these are all there, but the character interaction is the thing to savour. There are so many scenes which are just utter gems. Consider the “break in” scene, when Withnail and Marwood think a local poacher they argued with has broken into the cottage in which they are staying:

Or when Monty wants to commit burglary:

Or when Withnail starts to get withdrawal from alcohol (and unfortunately launched a thousand wankers proclaiming THAT LINE to bar staff):

Or Marwood’s encounter with the bull, and Withnail’s sagacious advice...

The dialogue is a joy but the delivery is pitch-perfect. There’s something utterly British in our fondness in exploring failure, loss and fuckuperry: and Withnail and I is a class one British film.

if…

What is it with film directors (or perhaps more to the point, the person in charge of casting) and young actors? It is always ridiculous to have someone around forty AND LOOKING IT playing someone in high school. Rizzo from Grease? THIRTY THREE! The worst one though is the school thug in Christine (Stephen King novel, John Carpenter directed) – motherfucker looks like he’s been held back for about twenty years.

if… on the other hand really does feature boys of the right age, and gets good performances out of them. Malcolm MacDowell rather steals the show, but there are many strong showings, from the acerbic, hypocritical, tight-lipped head whip Rowentree:

to the rather adorable Bobby Philips, watching an older boy on the parallel bars (from about 1.00), doing nothing but emoting so much:

to “the girl”, an amazonian tiger:

Films Which Are Better Than Their Books

As you might guess I in general vastly prefer most books to their films, but there are a few great exceptions. I am only going to comment when I have actually read the book. There are some that I suspect are better films, such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but I have not read the full novel.

The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel is pulpy, a bit of a potboiler of a crime novel. It relentlessly focuses on conflict to the detriment of all other aspects, such as characterisation (rudimentary but solid enough), setting (rarely elucidated) and prose style (functional at best). The film on the other hand is marvellously elegant, almost elegaic. The cast is magnificent, bringing depths to characters barely more than stock cliches, such as the mean and moody Sonny and the ruthless maverick Sollozzo. I actually have a theory about why The Godfather resonates so: on the one hand, it is a Stockholm-syndrome elegy for the days when crime was owned by the (white) mafioso, who like the Krays might have had moments of excess but were felt to keep things in order – in contrast to black gangs like the Crips and the Bloods who were coming to control the drug trade in particular. The grand high meeting where the heads of the family agree to the drug trade, therefore, is where they sign their death warrant, leaving them helpless  before more ruthless gangs who will sell around schools etc. On the other hand, Michael’s claim of moral equivalence between Don Corleone and any Senator is absolutely pertinent for the times of Richard Nixon. Similarly, Puzo’s citation of the Balzac idea that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime” seems to express the mood of the 1974 electorate, who at last knew that they had been taken for a ride. (Rosemary’s Baby seems to express a similar theme, albeit paranoically: they really are in league against you). These themes are at best latent in the novel, and are signified in the film by the direction, which is stately and elegant. The cast too are outstanding, and the sets/design, with their dark wood and sartorial style, are pure eye-candy. Many people say that The Godfather II is the better – not sure I’d agree there: the original film with its narrative arc of Michael becoming drawn in and then taking over is one hell of a ride.

Carrie

Again, the good thing about this film is the way it expresses the novel’s themes more forcefully. The novel is a bit of a weird stramash, drawing it out with various “quotations” from textbooks, news reports, police tickers and letters, and the trick of conveying Carrie’s telekinesis/telepathy through the incessant (interludes) gets very tiresome. The central idea, of the girl discovering her powers and pulling down the temple upon everyone, is a great, ferocious one, though, and the savagery and ruthlessness of high school social stratification had rarely (if ever?) been seen before.

What distinguishes the film is its slyness – it brings the social manipulation out front. The “good guy” is in the book is shown to be as egregious as the rest, and a catspaw of his girlfriend, while Billy (John Travolta’s first film role) does some unspeakable things after his girlfriend, the vile Chris, gives him a blowjob. (Didya know the actor who plays her, Nancy Allen, is the police sidekick in Robocop?). The direction has its now-ridiculous campy 1970s moments – particularly the guys getting their prom tuxedos – but numerous moments linger in the memory – the look of Chris as she prepares to tip the bucket of blood, the shower scene, the idealistic gym teacher encouraging Carrie (superbly played by Sissie Spacek) to make herself up a bit, Carrie arriving home to “Momma”, and of course that shit-your-pants ending.

The Exorcist

Most people won’t have read William Peter Blatty’s book – I have, and it’s really quite dull. But oh my god, the film – it’s not just a horror film aiming to scare you. It’s an examination of the limits of science, of rationality, as shown by the flailing efforts of the medical profession. The flat, neutral tone of the direction is great as a counterpoint to the demonic forces – no need for histrionics, fast cuts and snappy camera angles. Then of course there’s the numerous unsettling half-images which unnerve you – a trick redoubled in the Director’s Cut, which really is half as scary again. That bloody spider walk is spooky as fuck too. This isn’t just a Good vs Evil film, or the typical Big Monster – Kill Monster setup of most horrors. This is one of the times when you look at the abyss. It remains absolutely terrifying. Kudos to everyone involved, from Friedkin’s extreme direction (randomly shooting guns, slapping someone in the face before doing a take, really hurting actor’s in the special effects setups), the cast (Ellen Burstyn delivers a magnificent performance), and the special effects, most of which remains effective. (Apart from when Regan’s head does the 360 spin – looks naff now). I don’t watch this film alone.

The Shining

I’m actually quite a Stephen King fan, but I think he rather dried up about twenty-five years ago, or after Misery. The books of his I’ve read since then – Cell, Bag of Bones, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Dolores Claibourne – have varied between decent (Dolores Claibourne) to adequate (Needful Things) to tedious (the rest). And what is it with so many of his protagonists being goddamn writers? Even on his hot early streak he was a bit hit and miss – I never liked The Tommyknockers, or Cujo, or Salem’s Lot. But The Shining does seem to me to be one of his best books – not as good as IT or The Stand, say, but better than Pet Semetary or Christine. Its examination of the character of Jack  Torrance is excellent – the poor bastard is a real tragic hero, blindly staggering his way to his inevitable doom – and the background on the Torrance’s marriage and life together is insightful and moving. Still, like most Stephen King’s, it moves towards melodrama: the ending is really hackneyed. He also loves to bludgeon his SYMBOLISM to death, huh?

Kubrick’s film is, unusually, far more literary than the novel. It has a wealth of symbolism and signifiers, the meaning of which are still being discussed and fought over. (There are absurd conspiracy theories about The Shining, saying it’s an apologia for Kubrick’s part in the faked moon landings (!) – see here). This simply suggests that the film is rich in meaning and connotation, and is open-ended. For example – what’s with the ending? Why has Jack always been the caretaker? Why do conversations often seem staged? And of course it is a deeply unsettling film, one which perhaps is more an examination of madness/psychosis than evil. Is it the hotel, or is it Jack? Who knows?

Goodfellas

The book by Nicholas Pileggi is called “Wiseguy” and is a tell-all of the ins-and-outs of the smalltime gangster life. The book is of course highly informative, but it’s functional. About the most interesting fact is that several details later pop up in Casino – for example the talking with hands over their mouths, or the bets which Ace places (bribing college basketball players, etc). The book is definitely one of the time when you realise the merit and artistic benefit of the direction – Scorsese’s highly kinetic camera movement, and numerous artful touches (the reflected red lights from the back of the car, suggestive of blood, death and hell; the incredible tracking shot through the restaurant interior conveying Karen’s disorientation; the knocking on the door for “Stacks” Edwards reminiscent of the knocking on the gate in Macbeth – a detail which gave De Quinceya peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity“) are all outstanding. The performance, too, are uniformly outstanding, from Ray Liotta all the way down to minor characters, like Samuel L Jackson (!). All of which elevate it far beyond the book.

The Films I Have Watched Most

Weird Science

There’s the films you watch and admire – Chinatown, say, or The Godfather or Raging Bull or Scum. Then there’s the films you can put on and you know all the dialogue but they’re like faithful companions. I mean, I know all the bits in Revolver but that’s never going to stop me giving it another spin (if FLAC files spin). These films are your duvet-day entertainment, what you stick on when you come home drunk before falling asleep on the couch, the ones you swap lines with friends unto infinity. For people of a certain age, you might still raise a chuckle at “Shut your fucking face, uncle-fucker!”, or it might be “We have both kinds, country and western,” or “I know that penis – it had a mole on it!” or “The one with Bad Motherfucker on it” or even “Yes, it’s true – this man has no dick”.

I’ve quite a collection of these. I like, as Mr Keating said in Dead Poets Society, to “suck the marrow” out of the things I really get into, to really understand them- but also just because they become part of me.

Rocky II

You remember how people used to have video cabinets filled with VHS tapes? As in the blank ones they’d tape films onto. When I was a nipper we had about a dozen, all numbered with a small notepad I used to keep track of what was there. (Even then I was anal retentive about organising my entertainment…). We also had a smaller collection of bought VHS tapes, with the cover and all. These included Queen’s Greatest Flix, The Best of Hot Chocolate (my mum really likes Errol Brown), The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (my sister was the Jacko fan), and Rocky II. On Saturday mornings me and my siblings would get up and watch the Stallone tale of Balbao’s descent into poverty, his half-assed training, Adrian’s coma, his redemptive (and quite brilliant) training montage, and his rematch with Apollo Creed. It’s all character-based and pretty slow moving until the montage and fight – so with the patience of kids (i.e. none) we’d most often just skip the boring bits to the exciting ending. Still, I really do think this is a very good film (for what it is) – very much better than Rocky, which better works as a concept rather than enjoyable film, and is of course far superior to the subsequent films in the series, where Rocky becomes an absurd superhero. And goddamn that montage – the music is so stirring, slow-building on the brass and climaxing on the strings. Fucking outrageously manipulative but so well done!

Ghostbusters

I was literally just watching this today for, I don’t know, the hundredth time. It is just so well done. The plotting is extraordinarily efficient for one thing: at the beginning, they flee the ghost in the library back to Columbia only to find the Dean evicting them. Dana Barret watches the Ghostbusters ad on TV right before her fridge has a nervous breakdown (I was tempted to say “meltdown”). The newscasts letting us know (without having to have any further big-budget special effects) that the ‘busters have been busting lots of ghosts. Compare with the absurd lengthiness of post-2000 blockbusters – this is lean and sharp, just how a film like this should be. The characterisation is wonderful: I just love Egon and his semi-autistic geekiness, while sweet lovable Ray is just right for Dan Akroyd, and Bill Murray… this is probably his most quintessential role, no? At least in his earlier wise-cracking incarnation before he became the prototypical alienated, mildly depressed, existential-doubt type in Lost In Translation (though see also Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). The ghosts and other supernatural hokum is played for fun but with intelligence rather than mickey-taking. (Dan Akroyd is a fully paid-up Spiritualist). Ghostbusters is a film that’s just great fun and filled with endless quips (“Listen – do you smell something?”).

The Empire Strikes Back

I’m not really a Star Wars geek. No, really. I am not in general big on sci-fi, which I find humourless and not character-driven, which are two things I find essential in films (not necessarily in conjunction). But goddamn this is a fucking brilliant film, so rich in drama, stuffed full of major motifs like OEDIPAL CONFLICT and BETRAYAL and REDEMPTION. The characters are complex and recognisable (I am sure we have all met Leia’s and Luke’s, though perhaps not Boba Fett or Yoda); the special effects are stunning (oh god, the blu-ray version is magnificently detailed) but organic, with no artificial CGI sucking the life out of it; and the set piece action scenes are terrific: the lighting in the picture below is so well done.

Empire Strikes Back is just a film I can watch again and again and again. (Can’t really say the same about the other Star Wars films!)

Weird Science

I first saw Weird Science about the time that I got Appetite For Destruction, and the two have long felt to some extent complementary in my mind. I used to watch it repeatedly watch it with a friend with whom I’d bonded over GN’R, and we’d drool over how great the parties were and how hot the chicks were, man, and how awesome it must be to be 18 and be able to drink and have sex and drive and have tattoos and shit. We were essentially pretty much like Gary and Wyatt, in reality, but that went unsaid. For young boys (we must have been about nine years old), the film just seemed to hit everything we ever dreamed about. Aaah, such naive stupidity. Great film though: Bill Paxton in scene-stealing form as the vicious older brother Chat, Kelly LeBrock as the hottest woman ever, with those Brigitte Bardot lips, the mutant bikers from hell, Gary’s terrible parents, Wyatt’s even worse parents, the great soundtrack, the sense of teenage kicks… damn, I watched the fuck out of this film.

Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?