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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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.

Three Top British Films

(N.B this, with a little judicious editing, is taken from my old blog.)

I’m not really a film buff. The films I really like I watch over and over again, sucking the marrow out of them as you would with a good album or novel, but rare is the movie which repays that close attention. Generally (but not always), the ones I get obsessed by are British. Not that Hollywood doesn’t produce some good films – Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown and so on – but the best British films seem to be more truthful, more lifelike, where the best American films seem more stylised. Films like Personal Services, Get Carter, Kes, Scum, Withnail and I, Trainspotting, Wish You Were Here, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, hell, even Educating Rita, capture a reality I relate to far easier than any other films. (I know there are large amounts of British-made pish, but I’m talking about the best ones, as compared with the best American or French films for example. I’m not going to defend The Sex Lives of the Potato Men).

So here then are my top three:

Quadrophenia

This is my favourite youth-orientated film of all-time. It’s the film of The Who’s 1973 concept album of the same name, the story of Jimmy, a mod, who is unsure of his identity and subsumes his own within the mod movement. Mods, of course, were the youth culture of the day, who dressed sharp, took speed in the form of pills called purple hearts and blues, rode Vespa scooters and listened to sharp modern pop. They were in opposition to, and antagonistic towards rockers, who rode larger motorbikes, wore leather and idolised fifties rock like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Being a mod gives Jimmy a sense of identity at a time (he must be seventeen or so) when you are unsure of yourself and need to fit in: but this comes at a cost, as Jimmy eventually finds.

Amongst the numerous qualities of this film is a absolute dedication to the reality of the context. There are no compromises in setting, dialogue or tone. The strong London accents are undiluted, giving some memorable exchanges, such as “Feel asleep on the train and waahnd up in bloody Neasden!” or “The people who ride these things are state, third-class tickets.” Similarly, the setting is unvarnished but completely recognisable as a working-class environment: Jimmy’s home is a plain council house, with crude newspaper cut-outs adorning his bedroom wall and evidently no bath. The scene where Jimmy sleeps out in their shed and just misses his dad leaving for work, with flat cap and wax jacket, is tiny but acutely detailed, which goes for the film throughout.

Despite this verite, there is a depth to the film which is constantly dramatising larger themes. The way it does this using everyday dialogue is just amazing, and a real lesson: you don’t need to be “educated” to have ideas, you don’t need to have upper-class characters to illustrate larger issues. (James Kelman, the greatest writer Scotland has produced since Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was no doubt taking notes). To take one example: we see Jimmy paying another HP installment on his suit (no store cards in those days – and where else have you ever seen such a frank depiction of the realities of consumer spending for the young?). As he pays, another mod and his friend is being measured for a suit, angrily querying the tailor, insisting it be made much tighter and sharper. “Stop fuckin around and bring it in ere!” To which the agitated tailor loses his temper, insisting, “Look here, sonny! You keep that kind of language to yourself! You don’t like it, you can go and get your own suit.” The mod asks his friend what he thinks. “Fucking rent-a-tent, innit.” The tailor looks angry but does nothing; he doesn’t want to lose the sale. There, in a nut-shell, are big themes like Youth Consumption and Generation Clash and Consumerism.

Or to take another scene: a former school friend Kevin, now a rocker (the enemy) pays Jimmy a visit, biking up Jimmy’s garden path. Jimmy is in the shed tinkering with his scooter, and hearing the deep thrum of the bike and fearing assault, picks up a spanner. They talk about why one is a mod, one is a rocker. The conversation is just brilliant:

Jimmy: But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people. And the people who ride these things [gestures to Kevin’s motorbike] are states, third-class tickets.

Kevin: Do what?

Jimmy: Rockers, all that greasy hair and clobber. It’s diabolical!

Kevin: I don’t give a monkey’s arsehole about mods and rockers. Underneath, we’re all the same, ain’t we?

Jimmy: Nah, Kev, that’s it. I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.

Kevin: That’s why I joined the army: to be different. To get away from all this! But wherever you go, there’s always some cunt in stars and stripes who wants to push you about.

God, that’s great. Identity, conformism, ambition, belonging, group identity – all in one completely realistic conversation. (And the irony of going into the army to be different – delivered completely straight-faced, whereas any hamming it up would shatter your belief in the character).

So there’s all that. But I haven’t even mentioned the Brighton scene yet! This must be one of the most visceral scenes in all cinema – those fuckers are really beating each other up on that beach! It’s completely compelling, sheer euphoric teenage kicks: not just the fighting, but when they are “kettled” by the police into one small street, the battle cry of “We are the mods! We are the mods! We are, we are, we are the mods!” sets your hair on end. It’s just electric.

As with speed (which Jimmy is shown taking fairly often), or any stimulant, there’s the rush and then the hangover. So it is with Jimmy. After the amazing climax of Brighton, the rest of the film is an unravelling, as Jimmy finds being a mod can’t support a life. The euphoric camaraderie splits apart as soon as it achieved. Jimmy retraces his steps, unable to let go and clinging on to the mod identity. He returns to Brighton, but what was once alive with mods is now a sleepy resort. And once all his illusions are shattered, eventually he manages to let go. At the end he’s shown walking away from it all, alone.

Other things worthy of attention: the direction is excellent with the camera inobtrusive; you really do get the sense of watching a slice-of-life. It’s not flashy or showy, concealing its artfulness behind a self-effacing realism. The cast are terrific (a show-case for acting talent – Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Ray Winstone, Sting, Toyah Wilcox, Michael Elphick, and Benjamin Whitrow) with the characters well-sketched. You really get a sense of the group dynamic, the boys aiming for the leadership of the mod gang, and the top girl knowing it all too well.

Still not sure? Here’s a clip to prove it.

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2. if…

Whipsif… was famously filmed at the time of the evenements of May 68 in France – as the film is an allegory for revolution against the repressive, reactionary old-order, this was entirely fitting. (John Lennon was at the same time writing “Revolution” while meditating in India – clearly there was something in the air). It is also the first film of Malcolm MacDowell, and while he doesn’t steal the show (for a film almost entrely about boys who are actually played by boys, he cast is highly impressive), he does grab the attention.

I said if… is an allegory of revolution – but the school is also an allegory of Britain, with its all from past glories, repression, incompetent, class-based leadership, absurd rules, appalling education, and gross archaic longings. It works remarkably well as a simple story of school boys revolting against repressive discipline (enforced by prefects called “whips” – a magnificent little detail), but almost every scene has a symbolic meaning. For example: one boy confessing to having “dirty thoughts” (presumably homosexual) to the Chaplain, who can offer no real advice – a condemnation of British sexual ignorance and hypocrisy. The new boy being told by a senior boy that “You don’t talk to us” and that the youngest boys are called “scum” – the power of seniority. The chaplain being (literally!) kept in a drawer in the headmaster’s office – the use of religion in controlling and disciplining the masses.

As suggested by the chaplain being in the drawer, the film flips between realism and surrealism. The realism is noteworthy – there’s no idealisation of the boys, who are no Hollywood lookers and the film looks frankly at bullying, public-school homosexuality, beatings, and pretentious pseudo-intellectualism, and the school itself is shabby and past its best. But remarkably this realism is commented upon by the surreality of some episodes, such as the schoolmaster’s wife wandering naked through the school (a comment on sexual repression and longing) and the encounter with “the girl”, especially the tiger-fight between her and Mick (the leader of the rebels, played by MacDowell). Similarly, while the pretty junior boy is realistically portayed as having older boys prey upon him, he is surrealistically seen in bed with one of the rebels, who had actually taken the time to talk to him.

The film itself similarly filps between colour and black and white. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that parts were shot to save money, as parts of the same scenes alternate. It’s another trick to break up the film, a Brechtian “alienation effect”, as with the realism/surrealism dialectic. Both add to and heighten the other.

The rebellion gradually gathers pace, once the school and the characters are established. (Viewers may note the pictures of revolutionaries pinned up throughout the boys rooms, such as Mao and Che – it was that kind of era). The end is obviously allegorical, ending on a freeze-frame of MacDowell raining down shots on the school and the gathered dignitaries. After Columbine this feels awkward to me, but no-one is suggesting that this should be taken literally. It’s a fantasy – that’s why the film is called if...

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1. Performance

OK. The best British film ever is Performance from 1970, co-directed by Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, and featuring (I’m loath to say “starring”) James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and some real East End heavies. (Let’s not get too public-school boy/Guy Ritchie excited about that – but they do add to a convincingly brutal opening half of a subsequently psychedelic film). It’s worth noting the directors, too: Roeg made his name as a cinematographer (Performance and his later films such as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth are highly arresting visually), whereas Cammel was a painter and writer soaked in Genet, Borges, Burroughs and London/Parisian bohemia.

Performance is a film where nothing is as it seems. It questions the various dualities which make up our culture: male and female, nature and culture, fantasy and reality, heterosexual and homosexual, interior and exterior, image and reflection. Obviously this isn’t a straightforward plot-driven film: it’s something of a diptych (a film in two distinct parts, jargon-fans), with a violent gangster opener and a psychedelic mind-fuck closer. The relation between the two sections of the film only gradually becomes apparent; texturally, cinematically, atmospherically they are completely different.

Performance is a master-class of cinematography. It is densely allusive, symbolically rich and eyeball-grabbing visually. I do not exaggerate when I say I have never seen a film like it; although Walkabout has some visual similarities, they are nothing alike in terms of theme and tone. Perhaps the real union of minds in Performance is not between Chas and Turner, but between Roeg and Cammel, the visual genius and the ideas man.

The plot is relatively straightforward (bearing in mind, this is not a plot-driven film). Chas (played by Fox) specialises in “putting the frighteners up flash little twerps” for his gangland boss. When he oversteps the mark and kills a fellow mobster, Chas goes on the run, hiding from “the firm”. He takes refuge in the basement flat of a reclusive faded pop star called Turner, played by Jagger, and his household of two women (played by Pallenberg and Michèle Breton) and one odd servant girl. The longer Chas stays in Turner’s house, and the more he interacts with the residents, the more his boundaries and sense of identity are unsettled, through mindgames and psychedelic mushrooms. But this works both ways, and the similarities between Chas and Turner become increasingly apparent, to the point where both share the same death.

Much of this is suggested visually rather than dramatised. For example, when Chas goes further into Turner’s house, seeking a telephone, this suggests his further entry into Turner’s world and mindspace. This is shown by a juxtaposition of their two faces whilst they talk, which evokes a deeply uncanny feeling.
Chas/TurnerSimilarly, there is a constant use of both mirrors and mirror images throughout the film, to suggest two things. Firstly, mirrors suggest the dualities such as male/female and fantasy/reality which are explored during the film. But secondly, mirrors symbolise the self-projection with which both Chas and Turner are fundamentally concerned, both being “performers”. Performance shows how the gangster and the rock star are all too similar in their masculine, violent displays, suggesting the male ego’s need for dominance and power, whether expressed sexually or through group dominance.

But Performance also critiques this, with Chas undergoing psychedelic initiation, altering his “image”, and having his masculinity and sexuality questioned. Pherber (played by Pallenberg) uses mirrors upon Chas, projecting his face upon hers, and having both faces side by side (see top photo), and asking if he has a male and female half, like Turner. Chas angrily replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me – I’m normal!
Chas/PherberThe film also plays with the androgyny of Lucy (played by Breton) and Turner: at one point we see Chas in bed caressing someone who appears to be Turner; a moment later it turns out to be Lucy. The recurrent tactic of dislocation (further heightened by the extremely jumpy editing) effectively suggests Chas’ disorientated mind.

Further aspects of the film which merit mention for their imaginative use are the music, with some nice early synthesiser work, deep blues, rock and roll (the “Memo To Turner” scene, where Jagger sings to what is more like a conventional rock video, must be the only time where Warner Bros actually got what they wanted), proto-rap, and an eerily unsettling orchestral finale. The editing, as mentioned above, is extremely jumpy, so that you really have to watch the film a few times to understand what’s happening, as scenes intercut rapidly. Camera angles, in case you didn’t guess already, are somewhat extreme. All of which may seem somewhat overcooked, but Performance is one of those rare and happy times where content and method match exactly.

Obviously, Hollywood, this is not: the nearest comparison I can think of is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a film which is similarly non-linear and told through images and music rather than narrative. But Performance is a far more literary film (with Borges being a major inspiration), where The Wall is naturally more musical, with next to no dialogue. And Performance captures a specific moment in British 60s culture, when the rock/drug subculture met with the criminal world, as embodied by the Kray twins (whereas The Wall captures Roger Water’s alienation and little else). The utopian dreams of 1967 would turn darker and more violent, reaching a deadly apothesis in Altamont in 1969.

Consequently, numerous myths have sprung up around Performance, also prompted by Pallenberg’s subsequent heroin addiction and Fox’s retreat from acting to door-knocking evangelical Christianity. (Jagger, typically, walked away unharmed, like a cat daintily leaving the scene of a carcrash). There was, too, the sticky matter of Jagger’s love-scene with Pallenberg being rather too graphic for Keith Richards, her then-partner. But this is essentially gossip. What we have a film which is both specific and timeless, literal and metaphorical, intensely visual and deeply literary, and ultimately an astonishing piece of cinema. That’s why it’s the best British film ever made.

I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings”

(N.B. this was previously published on my old Bucket of Tongues blog, but I think the post bears repeating. I have also added some pictures and further comments).

I have a confession to make – lean close and I’ll whisper it in your ear… I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd. Only the novel mind you (not a trilogy!! It is a novel which was published in three parts due to the postwar paper shortage); I’ve never managed to get into The Silmarillion, despite numerous attempts. I first read it in 1990, and have read it at least once a year since then; it’s one of the staples of my reading life, along with Shogun, Bad Wisdom, and Howards End.

So when the film trilogy came out  I was pleased. I saw them all at the cinema and was astounded at numerous scenes – jumping the falling bridge in Moria, the battle of Helms Deep, the magnificent part played by Andy Serkis. I devoured the extended versions and savoured the success of the films, financially and critically. (Especially when Return of the King was awarded so many Oscars – it almost made up for the monstrosity that is Titanic being so grossly overrewarded).

However, as time has gone on, the weaknesses of the films have become ever more apparent. They are not films which age well, films which merit repeated viewings (like Chinatown or Pulp Fiction or Groundhog Day). I can imagine them in ten or twenty years time being viewed as historical curiosities, like epics such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, rather than living parts of cinema which are vital parts of beloved film collections. I’d go so far as to say that the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi is a superior cinematic experience which is far closer to the spirit of the novel, although it’s not by any means perfect.

Peter Jackson took a lot of credit for the success of the films. He must take the blame for their failings. (There is a story that he only read the book once – whether it’s true or not I don’t know. But it would explain a lot, especially his superficial treatment of the whole concept).

So what are the failings? Let’s go through them. (I have a feeling I might be some time on this…)

Characterisation. This is frequently completely off, to such a degree that it must be deliberate. While some modifications and condensations are to be expected (especially in such a large novel), why Jackson felt the need to change numerous characters for the worse I’ll never know. Gimli for example – reduced from a representative of the noble dwarf race to a Snarf (from Thundercats), a figure of fun for cheap laughs. Frodo loses all his nobility and “stature”, becoming a tepid victim. Merry and Pippin are reduced in a similar way to Gimli, becoming joke-figures – and without their apotheosis in “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s not enough development. For Gandalf, the difference between him pre- and post-Moria is too great; it’s like he’s a different character, rather than revealing different aspects of the same person. In Fellowship, he’s a kindly old man, with a bit of a temper; in Return he’s a  a philosopher-warrior-king: there’s little connection between the two. Sauron – apparently this source of all evil, this destroyer of worlds, this ancient power and unholy dread, is a glorified lighthouse. What a fucking joke! Denethor should be stern, cold and proud – introducing him as broken by the death of Boromir removes all the dramatic tension from his escalating hopelessness, and reduces the impact of the palantir. And what they hell is with his eating scene? What a waste of time!

Mishandling Scenes. Several scenes are understandably telescoped or skipped altogether (we’re dealing with a novel that’s over one thousand pages long and whose principal action takes place over one calender year). I doubt many would complain about the loss of Tom Bombadil or Ghan Buri Ghan. Nonetheless, there are several examples of Jackson getting scenes completely wrong, to such an extent that you wonder if he understood the book at all! The Council of Elrond for example – Jackson usefully gives some backstory at the start of each part of the trilogy, which reduces the need for such a lengthy, unwieldy scene. So what does he do with it instead? He has the various characters squabbling and then Frodo pipes up with “I will take the ring!” and all fall silent. This is just utterly ridiculous. Arwen making the river rise up is foolish, suggesting that any old elf can do “magic”, whereas it is Elrond does it, as he possesses one of the Three Rings. The fight between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc is just absurd – why the hell would two wizards have a glorified stick fight?! The scene between Theoden, Gandalf and Saruman in the ruins of Isengard is also handled appallingly, with all tension removed, and a complete lack of subtlety. Jackson, as always, goes for the conflict without considering what it might mean symbolically or thematically: it’s just good people against bad people, i.e. simplistic, reductionist nonsense. In Moria, we see the skulls of dead dwarves right away, rather than an rising feel of dread through the emptiness and darkness, and the battle in the Chamber of Records is much longer than it should be, and the troll unnecessary, reducing the impact of the later climactic scene with the Balrog. And what the hell is with that scene with Aragorn being nearly drowned in The Two Towers? With so much choice material being cut, why add more? We know he loves Arwen already, for christ’s sake! I also hate the entire section with Faramir – gone is Frodo’s nobility, gone is Faramir’s ability to resist the temptation of the Ring. It’s his ability to withstand the temptations of power which make him worthy of it – just as Aragorn announces that he will never set foot in the Shire. But such subtleties seem beyond Jackson, who seems more concerned with action and fighting than with conveying Tolkien’s thematic points.

Directorial Tics. There are several terrible examples of these littered throughout the films, things which become increasingly grating. The habit of showing the Ring in Frodo’s hand, the camera zooming in on the hand and Ring is one. The ridiculous elven music which comes out of nowhere at especially vital moments (Gandalf riding out to rescue Faramir, for example) is unwarranted by any dramatic necessity, and just seems absurd. And worst of all, the Hulk Hogan-esque displays performed by Gandalf and Galadriel when they display their hidden powers – these are frankly embarrassing. Tolkien was a man of great sensibility and subtlety – there is not the slightest chance he would have them rampaging in such an absurd fashion. And when Frodo is variously injured, the camera lingers on his pained expression far too long, emphasising his victimhood at the expense of his other qualities (which are never really shown).

The Scouring of the Shire. This chapter may have added little to the overall plot and action of the film, but it is absolutely fundamental in terms of theme, atmosphere and dramatic synchronicity. Tolkien himself said “it is an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. The chapter shows not only how much the hobbits have grown, but that after wars, the Shirefolk choose to revert to their prior mode of life. Wars traditionally bring mechanisation, regimentation and industrialisation, all of which Tolkien deeply opposed. The Lord of the Rings is not (let me emphasis this a million times over) a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is a deeply-felt parable on the hidden powers of the “little people” based on the heroism of ordinary men Tolkien saw during the First World War, and is based on Tolkien’s anarchism and opposition to government. That the hobbits come back and reclaim their land from the usurpers and despoilers is a metaphor for what Tolkien wished, after the war brought increasing regimentation and government control. In this sense, it is similar to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, where the First World War is won at the cost of the freedom of the small farmers amongst whom Gibbon sets his novel.

Frodo and Sam. Frodo (still less Gandalf or Aragorn) is not the hero of the book, Sam is. It’s that simple, and Tolkien himself acknowledged as much. Although Frodo gets top billing, this just goes to show Tolkien’s ultimate sympathy is with the underdog. To be fair, Jackson does acknowledge this to some extent by showing Sam and Rose’s wedding near the end, but because Jackson omits the Scouring of the Shire chapter, there’s nowhere to show Sam’s real growth, his leading role in the restoration of the Shire,  his planting of the mallorn tree (trees being a symbol of lineage, as Tolkien well knew); nor do we see Frodo’s pacifism, illness and withdrawal from Shire life, which lead to his desire to leave for the Grey Havens. Given the addition of some pointless if not absurd scenes (Gimli getting drunk, Aragorn revealing his real age), it is endlessly irritating that vital sections were chopped.

Religious subtext. Though not religious myself, I think it is fatal to Lord of the Rings if the religious aspect is not conveyed. By “religious”, I mean the sense of perhaps mystical power some characters and indeed some places demonstrate. The wizards, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly angel-like, while Sauron is a Satanic figure – their powers are obviously hard to demonstrate, but Jackson never seems to bother his arse in even attempting to do so, with little revealed about Elrond, his lineage and his importance. The Old Forest, Rivendell, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, and the Shire meanwhile all have a power of their own, something beyond an atmosphere, a power that’s not quite sentient or tangible but can be felt in the soil, whether for good or ill. Little of this is ever conveyed, yet one does get a sense of the bucolic richness of the Shire, the horror and damnation of Mordor, and the timelessness of Rivendell (albeit in a kinda hippyish way) in the Bakshi film. Jackson’s vision of Mordor seems to be a place where your face gets dirty.

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More could easily be said. But my fundamental faulting of Jackson’s films are that they are action films, sword-and-sorcery epics. They fundamentally miss the archaic tone and atmosphere of the book, the freedom, the sense of maps with areas not yet explored. The films do the action sequences remarkably well; the scene at Helm’s Deep is astonishing, and the race through Moria, and the collapsing bridge, a remarkable piece of cinema. But I expect more than that from any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, of which Jackson only ever captures the surface. For such a thorough, all-encompassing, deep book, that has to count as an failure.