30 May 2008

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Dir. John Huston, 1975, US) - Imperialist Adventures

Adapted from Rudyard Kipling's short story, John Huston's clever and deeply intelligent film is best viewed as a political satire but the genre that we associate with this kind of film making is that of the epic adventure, and though this is how the studio marketed the film so they could target an audience, it is both misleading and a problematic way of trying to categorise the film.

Made in 1975, the film brought together two of Britain's biggest stars and best actors - Michael Caine and Sean Connery, and together they bring a charm and ease to the characters of two misfit ex-British soldiers who are seeking the typical male aspirations of adventure, wealth and power. The universal quest for fortune and glory has defined male heroism in contemporary American cinema for a long time and Huston's biggest asset was his ability to secure the commitment of Connery and Caine who are given equal screen time and are especially likable in roles that may have been rejected by audiences if faced with the possibility of relatively unknown actors.

This is a film in which star power and recognition really does matter and affects our relationship with the film, particularly in light of today's elevation of Connery and Caine as icons of British cinema and two of the most respected actors working anywhere in the world today. The magic of Caine and Connery's on screen pairing is equivalent to that of De Niro and Pacino in Heat because their careers run parallel with each other and both of them come from working class origins that make the implausible and escapist nature of the characters altogether more convincing. Both Connery and Caine made their names from the espionage genre, producing classics like 'Dr No' and 'The Ipcress File' which were both incidentally produced by Harry Saltzman.

I don't think this film could have been made without Connery and Caine's presence and Huston's imperialist adventure uses their working class humour to undermine any attempts of seriousness affecting the overall satirical tone of the film. Caine plays Peachy Carnahan, a cocky and arrogant British soldier, who recollects the adventures of himself and that of Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) to Rudyard Kipling, detailing their journey and conquest of Kafiristan and their reverence as Gods by an indigenous tribe made up of idol worshippers.

Peachy and Daniel's story is the story of the British imperialist adventure in India, and it is difficult not to interpret this as a biting satire on colonialist attitudes, foreign occupation and the brutal war like conquest of culture. Daniel's speech on the dubious and contradictory nature of the British empire is not only an indirect criticism of the failure of foreign occupation and the use of direct force as a means of exercising control over the population, but instructs us that even though Daniel acknowledges such an arrogant policy is flawed, he is still adamant in pursuing the goal of implementing such a policy because he knows ultimately it is the only way of attaining wealth, fame, fortune, and power.

Gods are not born, they are made by people so that they have a deity to worship and to use as a social tool for controlling the collective attitudes of society. Later when Daniel is elevated to the status of a God, and designated the auspicious title of 'The Son of Sikander' (known to the West as Alexander the Great) he is seduced by the power of his own propaganda and lies, revealing the beguiling and consuming nature of hegemonic cultural assimilation.

Beautifully shot, great storytelling and a wonderful use of locations (shot in Morocco) makes this a joyous cinematic experience and extends the oeuvre of John Huston. It is a film that shares many similarities with Huston's classic 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre' especially in it's exploration of how greed and arrogance can destroy the ambitions of those who desire too much.

FAIL SAFE (Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000, US) - An effective adaptation and successful remake

Directed by the British film maker, Stephen Frears, who recently won many awards for his film, The Queen, Fail Safe is an adaptation of the cold war novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, brought up to date for a contemporary audience.

George Clooney is credited as one of the producers and this seems very much like a dry run for the recent black and white study of McCarthyism, Good Night and Good Luck, that was directed by Clooney and co written with Grant Heslov who appears in Fail Safe as one of the pilots responsible for nuking Moscow.

This was a live televised production and it has a powerful ensemble cast that do justice to a tense screenplay which continues to hold significance in today's age of nuclear proliferation. Split into different acts, the film itself comes across like a theatrical play and the use of digital cameras makes the events unfolding before us seem as though they are beyond the control of all the politicians and leaders.

Lumet's 1964 version with Henry Fonda as the President is a fearsome and chilling account of cold war political madness, and is a film that has always stood in the shadow of Kubrick's satirical and populist, Dr Strangelove. This time the President is played by Richard Dreyfuss who acquits himself superbly in his nervous exchanges with the Russian Premier. The notion of mutual destruction is a political concept that has become overshadowed by the fact that only one formidable superpower exists now. The fact that we are living in the age of terrorism makes the calculated and pre-emptive foreign policy advocated by both Russian and America in the film seem particularly relevant in light of today's post 9-11 rhetoric.

28 May 2008

THE SUN (Dir. Alexander Soukrov, 2005, Russia) - A revisionist look at Emperor Hirohito

Alexander Soukrov, is recognised as the most important contemporary Russian film maker working today, and though his work is virtually unrecognised in his home country, he like many other reputable auteur's have attracted a wide following on the festival circuits. Soukrov's biographical snapshot of the Japanese emperor, Hirohito is the 3rd part of his study of power - he has tended to focus on world leaders who have been historically influential in how they have helped to shape the attitudes of today's society especially towards political ideology in the aftermath of war.

Apparently, Soukrov spent ten years visiting Japan in preparation for this undertaking and such dedicated research and grasp of the subject matter comes through in his intimate and considerate examination of Hirohito, the man. Soukrov's personal fascination with Hirohito has little to do with his position as a political figure and this is why he opts to concentrate on the human aspects, emerging the spectator into his ambiguous relationship with his mother and his nerdy love of Marine Biology as an obscure hobby.

At times the pace is deadening and Soukrov's expert manipulation of temporal dimensions effectively conveys the paralysis that took hold of Hirohito as the war was coming to an end and Japan realised that they could do nothing but surrender. Hirohito's every pregnant pause and hesitant gesture is painstakingly captured in the use of excruciating and gruelling long takes that unfold in a claustrophobic and anemic mise en scene. The religious pledge and defiant preoccupation with the rules and rituals of internal protocol is played out by Hirohito's docile servants with a level of over commitment and slavish perversion, symbolising the inner moral decay of a Japanese empire which was totally out of step with the people.

One of the most poignant and graceful sequences in the film is when General McArthur and Emperor Hirohito meet for the first time. What is so intriguing about this scene is that as a spectator we are presented with such a historically definitive situation as it holds the potential for violent confrontation but Soukrov handles the scene as if it was a Chaplinesque moment particularly in the humour generated by Hirohito's arrogance and adherence to ancestral traditions that seem to alien to General McArthur. On their 2nd meeting it transpires that not much differs in terms of ideology between the two men; they appear almost as mirror images.

Soukrov has become somewhat of an expert at utilising digital cameras and many of his recent films like Russian Ark are vivid adverts for the cinematic possibilities of digital film, ironic considering he is Russian, and that digital film is more akin to Hollywood. Like Downfall, The Sun is a revisionist attempt, and a successful one at that, to re imagine a controversial figure and represent him as somebody who is ultimately a vulnerable, intelligent and pathetic individual.

26 May 2008

SHOTGUN STORIES (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2007, US) - A beautifully understated debut feature

Hate can be self destructive to a community and it is a theme that has been explored in many different ways by film makers from across the globe. The immediate film that comes to mind is Kassovitz’s 1995 masterpiece, La Haine. In La Haine, hate comes from the divide between the hard line police state that patrols the Parisian ghetto and the unemployed, disillusioned youth who have become marginalised within a deeply unequal French society.

Shotgun Stories is the directorial debut of Jeff Nichols and has been produced by the award winning American independent film maker, David Gordon Green. This is most definitely a mood piece and reminded me of a lyricism captured in recent indie films like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.

When three brothers attend the funeral of their dead father, the oldest brother, Son Hayes, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon gives a short speech on his father’s virtual absence in their lives, accusing him of serious neglect, he sets in motion a vengeful feud with the children of his father’s second marriage that leads to uncontrollable rage and a spiral of reprisals.

This is a film about parental neglect and ignorance being passed onto and displaced into children who not only grow up to become emotionally distant in forming relationships but have no way of preventing repressed feelings of hate coming to the foreground and simply exploding into acts of violence. When Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) visits his estranged mother after having lost his younger brother in a bloody confrontation, she stands on the lawn outside her house and listens as her son tells her about how they were brought up to hate. It is a brutally powerful scene, probably the defining moment in a film filled with understatement, and the emotional logic comes from the mother's refusal to speak because when she faces her children she sees the self reflection of hate, bigotry and ignorance that is generational and natural. Her children's incapacity to show compassion and understanding is all about social conditioning.

Michael Shannon is without a doubt turning into one of the best actors of his generation and he has already shown a remarkable range in the characters he has portrayed in films as diverse as World Trade Centre, Bug, and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. His restrained and controlled performance style references Christopher Walken, Billy Bob Thornton and Robert De Niro - he is one of those rare actors who knows how to convey anger as an emotion without making it seem forced and exaggerated.

The famous scriptwriter, William Goldman, has written extensively about how Hollywood films find it very difficult not to give everything away in the first ten minutes. The need for over exposition is something that Jeff Nichols avoids sincerely and thus his film is deeply enigmatic in how it preserves the mystery of key characters and does not divulge details about a back story involving the buckshot marks on the back of Son Hayes. Goldman is right, the less you reveal about the key characters past, the more you will be able to control the spectator.

Unlike a thematically similar film like La Haine that is very pessimistic in its representation of the prospects of the youth, ending on a violent note, Shotgun Stories constructs an ideological position that advocates the need for reconciliation and understanding so to avoid perpetuating yet more feelings of hate. Whilst most Hollywood films would have got on their soap box and preached to us such liberal sentiments (the recent Paul Haggis film, Crash, comes to mind - this was both preachy and contrived), Shotgun Stories does it in such a way that we don't feel awkward or scornful towards the talented artists involved in this beautifully understated film.

25 May 2008

Science Fiction Cinema

The expansive spectacle that the science fiction genre provides audiences with makes it a point of repeated interest for film-maker’s when exploring contemporary social and political anxieties and concerns. The difficulty with approaching science fiction and attempting to provide alternative interpretations of a film that appears from the outset closed and limited lies with the problems of foregrounding special effects so that they make the film appear more superficial than it really is.

Like the horror genre, science fiction rests in the domain of fantasy and is distantly removed from notions of realism that usually make a film worthy of analysis. It took science fiction a long time to be taken seriously by film culture and even though it is still largely associated with a male oriented audience, the genre has diversified and reinvented itself over the decades in a number of innovative ways – the most recent example is the development of the popular sub genre referred to as ‘cyberpunk’ which was influenced directly by science fiction literary writers like Philip K Dick and William Gibson. The Cyberpunk movement in terms of science fiction cinema seemed to find it’s culmination in The Matrix films that presented a bleak dystopian vision of the future in which mankind is a slave to the machines and the only hope for humanity comes from an alienated computer hacker.

Unlike other genres, it is still expensive to finance science fiction films as budgets are dominated by special effects that can be costly for those involved, and this continues to be one of the main reasons why Hollywood prefers to back romantic comedies or horror films as they have always represented the cost effective alternative. Hollywood has never paid much attention to the appropriation of language in order to sell films, and the divide between science fiction and sci fi underlines a distinct way of looking at the genre as a whole. A sci fi film is one that is escapist in nature and purely fantasy based with an emphasis on comic book movies like Superman and Spiderman – a sci fi fan is one who does not search for subtext in a film like The Fantastic Four. On the other hand, science fiction cinema is grounded in contemporary reality, and usually the social or political issues being represented are an identifiable part of society.

If we were to use such discriminate categories then it would be much more problematic to classify films like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Alien’. However, such a divide exists within the genre and therefore this list of ten greatest science fiction films tries not to make a distinction between sci fi and science fiction, even if the majority of films I have selected would come within the parameters of science fiction cinema. In addition to Hollywood, the science fiction genre has also interested and challenged film maker’s in countries like France and the UK, and so I have compiled an alternative list of non Hollywood science fiction films that represent somewhat of a distinctly personal and perhaps even avante garde approach to science fiction cinema.

TOP 10 HOLLYWOOD SCIENCE FICTION FILMS (in no particular order)

1. BLADE RUNNER (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

On it's release Ridley Scott's dystopian masterpiece was dismissed but however over the years it has attracted a considerable cult following and the recent release of the final cut has cemented the critical position of this film as probably the greatest science fiction film made by a Hollywood film studio.

2. ALIEN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

Though everybody has a favourite 'Alien' film and many consider 'Aliens' to be a far superior film, the original slasher in space is not only more frightening in it's depiction of the Alien creature but even today it's ideological examination of corporate power and feminism means it still holds a great deal of contemporary significance.

3. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Dir. Robert Wise, 1951)

Most of the science fiction produced in the 1950s were vehicles for anti communist sentiments. Robert Wise's 1951 masterpiece was a leftist science fiction film that advocated a message of peace in an age of nuclear stand off between East and West. Much of 50s science fiction had dated but this film has stood the test of time. A classic.

4. THE MATRIX (Dir. The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

A breakthrough in special effects with the innovative use of bullet time somewhat damned the release of Lucas' eagerly awaited Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, and helped to make the Matrix into one of the finest science fiction films in a long time. Inspired use of Keanu Reeves, Rage against the Machine and beautifully choreographed action sequences made this a special cinematic experience.

5. SOLARIS (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2003)

A remake that does justice to the original Russian version by Tarkovsky. Directed by Soderbergh on the back of the international success of Traffic, this was another collaboration with George Clooney and is a devastating emotional study of the metaphysical nature of the universe. Memories are such a potent thematic motif that appears in many of the best science fiction films and the use of special effects and a beautiful score by Cliff Martinez transforms this into an extraordinary piece of cinema.

6. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Dir. Don Siegel, 1956)

A devastating anti communist allegory that also can be interpreted as a critique of post war conformity and the loss of individuality. Don Siegel's low budget adaptation of Jack Finney's novel has been adapted several times, but this is still the best adaptation, precisely because the studio imposed ending sums up the hysteria this film may have caused if they had allowed it to end at the highway with Miles Bennet screaming, 'They're here, your next!'.

7. ROBOCOP (Dir. Paul Verhoven, 1987)

This is still Verhoven's American masterpiece - a tough and violently expensive exploitation picture that attacks the vacant ideals of the 80s like consumerism, the mass media and the militarisation of society. Borrowing one of the oldest science fiction themes of the Frankenstein myth when the monster turns on the creator, Robocop presents a fatalistic vision of American society that has morally and socially collapsed.

8. STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE (Dir. George Lucas, 1977)

Star wars revolutionised the special effects industry and transformed the reputation of the science fiction genre, and embedded Star Wars into the cultural fabric of Hollywood cinema and American society. Lucas' legacy and probably the only good film that Lucas directed.

9. THE TERMINATOR (Dir. James Cameron, 1984)

Not only one of the best time travel films but perhaps the greatest B movie ever made. Made on a virtual shoe string budget and utilising primitive special effects, The Terminator is a classic night movie that launched the careers of James Cameron and more significantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is an exercise in economy and how storyboarding can salvage the reputation of a film. A gem of a movie.

10. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1977)

1977 also saw the release of Spielberg's first science fiction film, and alongside Jaws and Duel, this is one of Spielberg's finest films. A great score by John Williams combined with a superb performance by Richard Dreyfuss pushes this film into the territory of humanity's interaction with extra terrestrial life forms.

10 GREAT NON HOLLYWOOD SCIENCE FICTION FILMS

1. Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1927, Germany)

An inspiration for a thousand science fiction films and the crowning achievement of the German expressionist movement. Bold, daring and highly politicised; this is film making that is pioneering cinema and gave us one of the earliest visions of the future.

2. Alphaville (Dir. Jean Luc Godard, 1965, France)

Made on a low budget, this is the only science fiction film Godard directed and it is the closest he came to Hollywood genre film making. Brilliant use of Parisian locations, elliptical editing and a wonderful noir feel makes this a genre bending experience.

3. Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006, UK)

Famously dumped by Universal Studios, Cuaron's visually inventive and topical vision of a nightmarish totalitarian society uses the conceit of infertility to explore the state of things today. A bold experiment with an amazing 10 min long take sequence makes this one of the best science fiction films in recent times.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1986, UK)


Kubrick's groundbreaking science fiction pioneered the use of special effects and introduced the much abused theme of the pathological computer that controls the ship and becomes emotionally intelligent. Marketed at the druggie crowds of the 60s, 2001 became an instant cult classic.

5. La Jetee/The Pier (Dir. Chris Marker, 1962, France)

Marker's beautiful short feature was the inspiration for Gilliam's time travelling 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis. Though both experimental and avante garde in its use of still images and sound design, this is one of the great short films that has an ending which is pure genius in its conception and execution.

6. Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979, Russia)

Tarkovsky would return to the genre on two occasions and produced genuinely startling and original masterpieces. Stalker not only benefits from one of the most imaginative and intelligent sound designs for a science fiction film, it also takes the genre into a radically new direction, one that repositions the genre as an arena for exploring the relationship between individuals and the metaphysical dimensions of the universe.

7. Solaris (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, Russia)

Another Tarkovsky masterpiece but one of those films that deeply divides critical opinion, mainly because of the deadening pace of the narrative. Some say it is a pretentious three hour philosophical lecture but others would refute such a claim, proclaiming it as provocative and minimalist cinema.

8. Brazil (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985, UK)

Gilliam's best film and one of the most chilling representations of Thatcher's Britain. Brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce and a memorable supporting role by De Niro, this was the film that brought Gilliam's name to an international stage after his run in with Hollywood over the final cut of his fascinating homage to Orwell's 1984.

9. Akira (Dir. Katshuiro Otomo, 1988, Japan)

Still the best Anime avaliable ever made and shortly due for a Hollywood live action remake. Set in a post apocalyptic Tokyo, Akira's power is largely derived from a engrossing and intelligently written screenplay and animation techniques that provided a real advancement towards the end of the 80s.

10. Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence (Dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2004, Japan)

Oshii's follow up to his influential Ghost in the Shell anime film is far superior and a magnificent achievement. This film has more ideas and imagination than the majority of Hollywood science fiction films ever made. It is also creepily effective in it's critique of the symbiotic relationship between machine and man.

24 May 2008

DIE HARD (Dir. John McTiernan, 1987, US) - Is this the greatest Action Movie of the 1980s?

‘When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer’, so says the super suave and sophisticated terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as he outlines his intentions to the soon to be dead, Takagi, the head of Nakatomi Corporations.

Alan Rickman had the British writer Tom Stoppard (another overpaid Hollywood script doctor) rewrite most of his lines and it is of little surprise why Rickman walks in and simply steals this film from Bruce Willis, making his character one of the most charismatic and enduring screen villains for a long time.

2007 saw the post modern reboot of the Die Hard franchise and though the film triumphed in terms of it’s international box office appeal, it was a disappointing addition to a series of what are regarded by many as superior action films – particularly Die Hard & Die Hard with a Vengeance which were helmed by the under rated mainstream director for hire, John McTiernan. Die Hard 4 could not resist opting for the dumbed down version of screen violence and colourful swearing that had defined the earlier films and the addition of the youth element was purely a cynical ploy on part of the producers to widen the demographic appeal of the film.

The other elements severely lacking from Die Hard 4 was the absence of Michael Kamen’s wonderfully bombastic score for the first 3 films (unfortunately he has passed on) and a competent director who simply was not being told where to point the camera and come up with ridiculous ways of crashing cars and blowing up helicopters. The other major problem with Die Hard 4 was that unlike the earlier films, this was made within a post 9-11 context and the producers could not help extenuate jingoism as some kind of defining characteristic associated with McClane’s hardened personality.

Alongside Predator and The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard formed a trilogy of action films all directed by McTiernan at the peak of his creative powers and they helped set a remarkable precedent in terms of intelligently crafted mainstream entertainment. Die Hard continues to stand out as McTiernan’s best film simply because it was able to redefine the conventions of the adult action oriented action film by presenting us with characters who were not only deeply flawed but for once, given room to develop and breath, becoming more than just devices used to advance the narrative so that the film could get to the next action sequence.

Though Die Hard has some superbly executed set pieces, it is the mutual relationship between Hans Gruber and John McClane that prevents the film from becoming just another empty concept. The constant exchange of dialogue between them that borders on the disdain is used extensively to sustain dramatic tension and manipulate audience expectations. Alan Rickman’s pulsating and dynamic performance ensures that the spectator is never entirely sure if they should only identify with McClane’s romantic and idealistic cop.

Die Hard helped to make Bruce Willis a major star in Hollywood and he was cast against type in a role that we would traditionally associate with more conventionally physical actors like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. The film has been unfairly compared to the 1960’s disaster film, The Towering Inferno, and the only similarity is location as both films are set in high-rise buildings. In the age of green screen CGI fakery, the age of traditional stunt work is gradually becoming an extinct way of accomplishing an action sequence.

In Die Hard, McTiernan constructs a series of beautifully staged and intensely choreographed sequences that are not only boldly operatic in their use of editing and sound, but illustrate how violence is endemic to how we judge a great action movie. Other than straight to DVD action films, very few mainstream Hollywood action films are being produced for an adult audience as producers feel nervous about the chances of a film that has high levels of violence. But isn’t that the whole point of making an action film? To represent violence on screen and then test what kind of reaction it provokes within the audience, and subsequently to determine what violence says about today’s society.

The plot of Die Hard centres around a group of German terrorists who on the eve of Christmas take over a corporate building and hold hostage the people who work there and then go about staging an elaborate bank robbery that involves stealing negotiable bonds which can be exchanged for money anywhere in the world. Of course, this being a movie and this being a Hollywood movie, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) fails to take into account the presence of John McClane, a New York police detective who takes on the challenge of bringing down the bad guys and reuniting himself with his estranged wife turned corporate executive.

McClane’s embittered cop persona is very much in the tradition of the Hollywood gunslinger present in the Western genre, and the references to Gary Cooper and John Wayne suggest an affectionate link to images of stoic masculinity. Released in 1987, Die Hard is a film that reflects the attitudes of a Reaganite America, and a number of real life ideological issues like the break up of the nuclear family, the rise of hostile corporate Japanese take over’s, and the role of the media’s sensationalist approach to reporting real life crime are buried within the subtext of a hugely entertaining film.

The most accomplished and breathtaking sequence is the roof sequence – this is when Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) gives the orders to detonate the roof of Nakatomi Plaza which has been prepped with explosives. The sequence is visceral cinema and relies greatly on dynamic editing that juxtaposes a number of parallel plot lines together to create the idea of an apocalyptic spectacle.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger seemed to dominate the action film in the eighties but whilst many of their films lacked any real substance, Die Hard rewrote the rules by returning to the traditions of the ordinary citizen who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes. Though I am not a huge fan of dumb Hollywood action films like The Transformers Movie and XXX with Vin Diesel, Die Hard illustrates how certain films are able to transcend the limitations of a genre that continues to hold very little cultural credibility except in terms of escapism.

23 May 2008

STREET KINGS (Dir. David Ayer, 2008, US) - It's official, Keanu Reeve's can act.

Genre film making comes naturally to Hollywood and nobody can quite match their appreciation for formulaic cinema. Street Kings is the latest film from David Ayer who wrote the screenplay to the Denzel Washington Oscar winning, Training Day. David Ayer made his debut last year with ‘Harsh Times’, this time starring Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriquez. Street Kings is David Ayer’s third foray into the crime genre, and he directs again but this time from a screenplay penned by the famous crime novelist James Elroy.

Aside from a weak plot that involves the familiar corrupt cop betrayed by those closest to him and a poorly directed film, (David Ayer is a writer who thinks he is an inspired director – somebody needs to give him a reality check), the one and only strength of this genre piece lies in the surprisingly effective and career best performance from the typically wooden Keanu Reeves. Yes, that’s right, Keanu Reeves can act, and he puts in a wonderfully troubled performance as a corrupt police detective who wanders the wastelands of a noirish Los Angeles.

Film stars have always sought to be recognised as credible film actors and Keanu Reeves is someone who has never been able to escape from the jibes to do with his surfing lingo and robotic performance style. The Matrix films have grudgingly given him a place in film history and the impressive action film, Point Break, is today considered to be one of the best contemporary examples of the genre, but none of these films are really referred to in terms of the quality performances on display. (Let's not forget the classic 'Speed' and the recent 'A Scanner Darkly') The problem with making three crime films in a row means that the likelihood of falling foul of repetition is very high, and of course, this is the case with Street Kings as it feels too similar to Training Day and Harsh Times, and thus it does not say anything new about corrupt cops.

So what is it about this performance that stands apart from the rest of Keanu Reeve’s career? Well, to begin with, Keanu Reeves has reached a point in his career where he has accepted his position as a competent performer who is limited in the types of roles he can take on, and that he will never be able to be taken seriously as an actor. Another aspect that makes critics and audiences slowly accept stars as actors has to do with age – this is the first film in which Keanu Reeves shows his age as an actor and he in no way tries to disguise this aspect, and by showing his age it is much more convincing for us to accept him portraying a corrupt cop. However, he is disadvantaged by a largely unfulfilling narrative and a poorly written screenplay that is dominated by superficial and empty lines of dialogue, mostly reserved for Forest Whittaker’s weakly underwritten role.

Overall, Street Kings is a disappointing film because it adheres strictly to our expectations and the film ends with an absurd confrontation between two cops in which the audience is bludgeoned to death with dreary speeches on ethics and rules, all of which belongs in the confines of TV melodrama. It seems as though almost any crime film that is made today by Hollywood will continue to stand firmly in the shadow of HBO's masterful crime series, The Wire.

20 May 2008

BRUTE FORCE (Dir. Jules Dassin, 1947, US) - Reactionary Politics & Exile

Prior to being made an exile in France after the McCarthy witch hunts in the 50s had conveniently conjured up a name and shame blacklist of Hollywood artists who had supposed communist affiliations, the director Jules Dassin was considered a talented and formidable film maker who had made a series of influential film noirs with a blunt socialist agenda - Thieves Highway, Night & The City, The Naked City and Brute Force are all recognised as some of the finest examples of film noir. Jules Dassin spent much of his post Hollywood career extending his grasp of the noir universe by making crime thrillers in France. The most notable example in this period of exile is the much revered and influential heist film, Rififi (1955).

Much of Dassin's work has been rediscovered on DVD and Criterion's release of Dassin's 1947 noirish prison movie, Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster as an embittered inmate and criminal up against the tyrannical rule of an unjust prison system is yet another film that has been given the five star treatment with a remastered print transfer and additional supporting extras that provide some weighty historical context and indispensable commentaries.

Ideologically, Brute Force is confirmation of Dassin's emboldened leftist political beliefs, and his scathing and damning critique of prison life is indicative of the corruption he felt was rife in public institutions that were merely used as agents of social control by the government at large to deny prisoners any chance of reformation and redemption. The notion of a second chance society was something that did not chime well with society at the time, especially a post war conservative society that did not want to face the social realities that underlined a time of economic prosperity and youthful idealism. The title of the film refers to the authoritarian hard line tactics used by the prison guard, Capt Munsey, (Hume Cronyn) who is depicted as a corrupt public figure intent on using his power to subject inmates to bouts of verbal and physical violence - Dassin through the figure of Munsey seems to say that control in society can only be exercised and accomplished through a routine of fear, intimidation and direct physical coercion.

Considering this film was made as a studio film and in an era of strict conservatism, Dassin's confrontational politics seem to be openly critical of the establishment and the inhumane prison policy that was advocated and enforced at the time. Such a radical ideological position confirms how Dassin would quickly become an obvious target for the HUAC and eventually lead to him being made a virtual outcast. The McCarthy witch hunts truly were a moment of shame and outrage for Hollywood and though these events have now been well documented in all forms of popular culture, it is still difficult to overlook how communist red baiting was such an accepted part of mainstream life.

Though Burt Lancaster was limited by the range of roles he took on over his career, his performance style was characterised by a remarkable physicality, and he was a true contortionist in the way in which he could manifest the physical attributes of the characters he played through either costumes, props or gestures. A noir regular, Burt Lancaster brought a grittiness and realism to many of the noirs that he starred in and made the trait of wounded masculinity seem altogether more acceptable within his profession.

Effectively, the producers could not allow this film to have been simply another social problem movie so they were eager to ensure the narrative held a significant entertainment value, and this is why Dassin was forced to work in the plot about a prison break that ends in bloody chaos and death. Dassin also objected to the studio's imposed flashback sequences for each of the inmates, (detailing how they ended up in prison), as they offered a forced sense of morality that contradicted the deeply pessimistic and fatalistic tone of the film.

CRONOS (Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 1993, Mexico) - a revisionist vampire tale

Considered a minor work in the visually impressive ouevre of contemporary Mexican film auteur, Guillermo Del Toro, Cronos is best described as a revisionist vampire film, and features a thematic preoccupation (that of immortality) that Del Toro would return to again in Blade II: Bloodhunt. The recent international success of Del Toro’s award winning Spanish civil war fairytale, Pan’s Labryinth, has catapulted him into becoming one of the most sought after and in demand film-makers working anywhere in the world today.

Alternating between personal projects and more commercial mainstream ventures like the Hellboy films, Del Toro has successfully navigated his way through rampant commercialism whilst staying true to his original art house roots. Del Toro’s Hollywood films (Hellboy, Mimic, Blade II) are arguably more interesting than the personal projects (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) aimed at a niche art house festival audience because they reveal a tension between genre conventions and auteur traits that is characteristic of some of the best film makers working within the limitations of the Hollywood mainstream. Paul Greengrass and Ang Lee are two film makers who have also taken a similar split career approach, producing superior examples of high concept film making with the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum and The Hulk. Though Hellboy (an unusually dark comic book adaptation) performed disappointingly at the box office and rather than find a replacement, Hollywood were cautious not to alienate the artistic affections of Del Toro and provided him with a significantly larger budget for a Hellboy sequel that is due out later this summer. Even if Hellboy II is not a commercial success, critics are looking forward to the prospect of a Hollywood blockbuster film with a $75 million budget being directed by one of the more imaginative film makers working today.

It was the success of Pan’s Labyrinth that ensured Del Toro’s credibility as a versatile director who can successfully alternate between art and commerce, and a film like Cronos, which was directed by Del Toro in 1993 acts as the perfect introduction to the themes and issues that have come to define much of his work today. Vampires have always fascinated audiences and before they were resurrected by Hollywood as a staple genre, the vampire myth haunted much of European literature for a long time. Like the zombie, the strangely alluring figure of the Vampire has been used by film makers as an allegorical vehicle for tackling an array of issues like sexuality, the Aids crisis, capitalism, death and most significantly, religion.

Del Toro's take on the vampire myth is somewhat revisionist because he steers well clear of the traditional conventions, opting for a narrative that seems more interested in examining the contemporary crisis of old age. Featuring a brilliantly naunced performance from Frederico Luppi as an elderly antiques dealer who becomes both a slave and victim to the promise of youthful regeneration, the film is also notable for Del Toro's sympathetic depiction of a mute girl, Aurora, who forms a sensitive relationship with her grandfather. The nightmarish journey taken by the child into an unknown world that seems to befriend her is a theme that would be fully realised by Del Toro in Pan's Labryinth, and on reflection this seems almost like a precursor to the hauntingly memorable character of Ophelia.

Del Toro helped design the visually enigmatic cronos device used in the film and his direct involvement in the aesthetic design of many of his films including the sets, costumes, make up and creatures is another characteristic that defines much of his work. This aspect of his film making is clearly evident in the rich imagery and fairytale creatures that occupy the landscape of his most recent feature film, Pan's Labryinth, which was genuinally imaginative in it's use of special effects.

Cronos ends quite conservatively, suggesting that eternal damnation becomes an unavoidable price for those who choose to pursue the unrealistic dream of immortality - Del Toro invokes the traditions of those classic early horror films that outlined a strict morality and in this case, he seems to indicating that growing old is something that should be accepted gracefully but not completely without any kind of questioning.

VEXILLE (Dir. Fumihiko Sori, 2007, Japan) - Style Over Substance

Vexille stands alongside contemporary Japanese Anime films like Appleseed and Sky Blue that are stunning visual spectacles and easy on the eye but lacking in terms of narrative, characterisation and content. Vexille, the most recent film of the Anime wave, is another standard science fiction genre film that presents us with a dystopian vision of a Japanese society that has become completely isolated from the rest of the world. A military corporation that manufactures humanoids has turned Japan into one giant fortress. The use of digital animation is simply breathtaking but the technical achievements are somewhat shadowed by a dodgy plot, poor characterisation and an absence of emotions. Vexille runs through science fiction themes like technology’s enslavement of mankind and corporate power with such a degree of conventionality that the film becomes purely formulaic. The makers behind Vexille need to be weary of the fact that it is simply not good enough to allow the spectator to gasp in awe at the wonderfully crisp digital landscapes on display whilst feeling nothing whatsoever for the narrative or characters. It has been a long time since somebody came up with an original and involving Japanese Anime – the most accomplished effort that comes to mind was Oshi’s Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence, a sequel to his influential Anime film released in the 90s.

17 May 2008

BICYCLE THIEVES (Dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italy) - De Sica’s Masterpiece

The famous film critic, Andre Bazin, regularly referred to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as the most important film produced in the post war era. Though such a sentiment may have been clouded by Bazin’s obsessive desire for cinema to reflect reality authentically as possible, he was right to position the Italian neo realists as the first film-makers to use cinema as a collective force of personal expression that was directly related to their own experience with the social, political and economic context of Italy after World War II.

It has often been said that the media including film has never really be able to capture reality as it is because the reality being represented is usually tainted by the film makers need for subjective interpretation. Bicycle Thieves is deemed a ‘realist’ film purely on the basis of an aesthetic approach that favoured a documentary look, a rejection of artifice, and a belief that the ideological value of the film had the radical potential to ferment revolution and externalise the marginalised sentiments of the working class people. The film is ‘real’ because the crisis faced by the central protagonist, that of unemployment and poverty, were social problems that had traumatised the Italian working class in the post war maelstrom of self destruction. European society had imploded, and nations like Italy had not only been ostracised from the world community for their collusion with the rise of fascist sentiments, they were trying in vain to desperately find an articulate and honest means of expression that would allow them to reconstruct and reinvent the tarnished image of a deeply divided and unequal nation.

The greatest asset film makers like Rossellini and De Sica had at their disposable was the genuine lack of resources available to them – the destruction of CineCitta, the major hub of Italian film making at the time made way for reinvention and improvisation. The dire economic situation of the post war era in Italy was not only indicative of the widespread collapse of economic power, it also inadvertently laid the groundwork for a new approach to cinema, one that would dispense with the orthodoxy, traditions and the conservative rhetoric of an Italian cinema which had ensured the alienation of the working class from mainstream film making.

The political gap left by the fall of the fascists seemed for a short lived moment to furnish the left wing communist parties with the initiative to seize cinema and utilise it’s ideological potential for political education. Key figures and theoreticians who wrote extensively about neo realism as political movement were inspired by the writings of Antonio Gramsci who had been the leader of the Italian Communist party in the 1950s. Imprisoned by Mussolini, Gramsci’s notebooks were smuggled out of prison, detailing his political thoughts on how and why working class revolution had failed took hold as a widespread ideal, thus being unable to prevent fascism from taking hold of Europe. Gramsci came to the influential conclusion that the ruling elite not only used military force as a means of coercing the masses and maintaining their hold on power but also used ideological means of propagation to circulate ideals and values that were grotesquely representative of the elite.

The political theory of hegemony influenced Zavatinni who strongly advocated that cinema should be used as a tool for addressing the inequalities that existed within society, thus encouraging film maker’s to shift the focus away from the narratives of middle class lives to those of the forgotten working class people especially those who inhabited the rural lands of Italy. Unfortunately, the political momentum the neo realist movement had generated was faced with a series of oppositional challenges from voices of dissent that accused the movement of misrepresentation and despair. Such an accusation was supported by the right wing political parties and as the situation in Italy started to improve, the Christian Democrats swept to power, sealing the fate of the communist’s desire for political revolution and re education.

The Andreotti Law demanded that all film maker’s who sought financing were asked to submit their scripts in order to seek approval from the government – such institutional impositions reflected an attempt at censorship and helped shape the demise of the movement. The influx of American films seemed also to have an effect on the neo realist film maker’s and contributed to undermining the potential of a culturally significant indigenous film movement from radically transforming an industry that had always sought to imitate the genres and trends of Hollywood. De Sica collaborated with Zavanitti, an Italian Marxist and left wing political radical, on the screenplay for Bicycle Thieves. Zavattini’s contribution to the film is strikingly evident throughout a story that see’s a despondent and impoverished Antonio come up against a society that is morally bankrupt.

The poetic beauty of Bicycle Thieves remains with a linear and very simple story – the theft of a bicycle and the consequences it has for an ordinary man trying to survive and maintain some sense of moral dignity. The comedy of the film originates from the burlesque humour produced by the pairing of father and son which reverses traditional roles and underlines De Sica’s fondness with using children as a sentimental technique to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Many characteristics would come to define the neo realist movement including stylistic techniques like natural lighting, location shooting, improvisation, episodic plot less narratives, non closure, and ideological ones – emphasis on the working class and humanism. The film opens with Antonio Ricci, a symbol of the working class, alone and despondent on wasteland, framed by a devastated landscape. Antonio is not even present at the call for work as he feels finding work is a futile exercise, and such was the case in Italy at the time – unemployment seemed to largely affect the working class who De Sica chooses to depict as a mass, and the motif of the crowd as a metaphor for the collective unity of the working class is repeated throughout the film.

Unlike classical Hollywood narrative that works immediately to establish a central goal which the protagonist typically achieves by the end of the film, Bicycle Thieves initial narrative goal of finding the bicycle later transforms into the ultimate goal for Antonio. Antonio never does track down the bicycle as it becomes irrelevant in the wider context of human relations.

Another key scene that is overlooked in the film takes place when Antonio takes Maria to see the local fortune teller who predicted that Antonio would find work. This moment seeks to illustrate the ideological differences that exist between Maria and Antonio. Maria places her trust and faith in the powers of destiny, fate and superstition whilst Antonio ridicules the fortune teller for exploiting the fears of working class people who have nothing left to hope for. Antonio’s rejection of religion, superstition and society was indicative of a deeply leftist ideological position that was a manifestation of Zavattini’s Marxist preoccupations.

The restaurant scene is not only crucial in terms of strengthening the affectionate bond between father and son that forms the social humanism of the film, but it also brings to light how the ruling elite appeared unaffected by the crippling poverty faced by Antonio and Bruno. It is at this point in the film that we also discover the abject humiliation and shame felt by Antonio towards poverty, and he even makes Bruno share his sentiments when he emphasises the relative cost of buying a meal in an expensive restaurant.

The final sequence in which Antonio is forced to steal a bicycle and then caught, berated in front of a crowd of people and eventually set free with the aid of his son, Bruno, illustrates a number of crucial ideological points. Antonio learns why somebody would steal his bicycle as he is forced into the position of a thief – finally his poverty consumes him and is reduced to tears.

Bruno’s intervention suggests how humanism becomes a form of redemption, and this is appropriately symbolised in the sentimental gesture of Bruno taking his father’s hand, reinforcing how their relationship is so much important and valuable to society and to them than a bicycle which can only provide a temporary answer to this poverty.

Without Bicycle Thieves, Godard would not have been able to further his own political ideals regarding an oppositional/counter cinema in the 1970s, and without the Italian neo realists contribution to world cinema, the French Nouvelle Vague could never have adopted many of the principles pioneered by De Sica and Rossellini. Most importantly, the neo realist film makers provided cinema with the much needed inspiration that traditions could be challenged and that alternative perspectives had the potential to make the spectator take up a position of political empowerment.

Bicycle Thieves is De Sica’s masterpiece and one of the great works of cinema, and stands alongside Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ and Loach’s ‘Kes’ as cornerstones of the neo realist tradition.

16 May 2008

THE RAVEN (Dir. Louis Friedlander, 1935, US) - Lugosi meets Karloff

The Raven was produced just as Hollywood was making the difficult transition from silent to sound, and though the Raven is clearly a sound film it nevertheless plays like a virtually silent piece of cinema. Produced and distributed by Universal Studios, The Raven brought together for the first time on screen the two biggest horror stars of 30s era; Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The film itself is a deeply escoteric mood piece that manages to strike a madenning note with the demented and unhinged performance of Bela Lugosi who plays a sadistic neurosurgeon, Dr Vollin, who spends much of the movie pulling hideous facial expressions at the audience with an acute degree of campness. Produced purely to give audiences the chance to see both Lugosi and Karloff in the same film, the story is bizarre and as weird as the over the top performances. This is an odd film but in today's age of postmodern torture porn, the Raven's sadistic streak seems restrained and quite tame.

15 May 2008

HONEYDRIPPER (Dir. John Sayles, 2007, US) - Another Masterwork from a True American Independent Film maker

Most film maker’s careers are shaped by either good or bad films, and most film makers are judged on what is commonly known as consistency – this is a pertinent question that is asked by many critics when evaluating the oeuvre of a certain film maker in an attempt to determine if they can be classified as a credible film auteur. However, such criteria somehow seems to become irrelevant when we study the collective body of work associated with the independent American film maker, John Sayles, who by the way truly is an ‘independent’ working outside the Hollywood major studios.

I can’t ever recall John Sayles making a bad film or an even average come to think of it, and in terms of creative consistency he occupies a uniquely singular position within American cinema, and is undoubtedly one of the few original independent film makers to emerge out of the Indie scene in the 80s not to have become subsumed into the mainstream. His contemporaries like The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee made the decision a long time ago to run in tandem with the tastes of populist mainstream cinema and approach studios for financing and distribution deals.

John Sayles, not only stars in Honeydripper in a small walk on role, he is also credited with writing, directing and most unusually editing – this is strange in that though most seriously inclined film makers are involved in some way in the editing process, John Sayles completely edits his own films, and this is a signature that not only confirms his status as an auteur, but as a film maker who has complete creative control over the entire production process from start to finish. This is perhaps why John Sayles is one of the few film makers working within American cinema today who can lay claim to the term independent, a term that has lost it’s original sense of cultural worth, hijacked by frightened Hollywood studios and now used inappropriately as a marketing tool to push so called superficial ‘indie’ films like the recent ‘Juno’.

Honeydripper is the name of a club run by a black owner called Tyrone (Danny Glover) who is trying to come to terms with his violent past and pursue his musical ambitions of running a successful club that plays real live music. Set in 1950s Albama, Honeydripper is a film that celebrates the potency of black music and how it was used by the African American community as a means of collective unity and a powerful expression of a freedom that was denied to many of them in a racially segregated post war society.

When Tyrone is threatened with closure for being unable to pay outstanding debts to the people who own the club, he comes up with the idea of bringing ‘Guitar Sam’, an emerging musical sensation, to his club in an attempt to revive flagging interest. The youthful figure of Guitar Sam’s shadowy imitator, a drifter and talented guitarist called Sonny, appears magically and his presence throughout the film seems at times like a figment of Tyrone’s imagination. Sonny’s arrival is carefully juxtaposed to the death of a local legend, Mable John, who symbolises the traditions of early rhythm and blues. This is a film that is also very much about the emergence of the electric guitar that would radically transform musical conventions and perceptions throughout America.

Sayles refuses to play to our expectations that we bring with us to a film strongly associated with music, and this is evident when Sonny arrives in town as we immediately expect a series of colourfully well-edited musical montages extenuating his brilliance as a musical poet. Instead the film takes considerable time to get to the moment when audience expectations are fulfilled and fully satisfied, and this occurs in the final sequences as Sonny’s energetic singing and guitar playing is endorsed by a largely African American audience who provide a reaction that amounts to euphoria.

Getting to the end of the narrative has never really been a defining characteristic of Sayles as a film-maker, but Honeydripper appears to end with a greater degree of closure than typical Sayles’ films like ‘Limbo’ and ‘Lone Star’. Look closely at any film directed by Sayles and the characteristic that is most strikingly apparent is that of ‘simplicity’ – characterisation is gracefully understated, the camerawork is uniformly unpretentious, no easy moral judgements or ideological positions are explicitly signposted, and the editing does not draw attention to itself.

The films of John Sayles are closer to the work of major European directors like the Dardennes and even some of the Iranian masters like Abbas Kiarostami come to mind when attempting to position his work in some kind of wider auteur context outside of American cinema. Some critics have already stated that Honeydripper should be considered a minor work in the overall oeuvre of John Sayles but even if this is the case, he has very little to worry about when many consider his minor films to eclipse the major films of many film makers working within the severe social and political constraints of contemporary mainstream American cinema.

With the recent loss of Robert Altman, I feel Sayles alongside Jim Jarmusch is one of the few film makers left within American cinema who can be considered a maverick. His films not only seem to celebrate the forgotten social groups of America, but try to present us with an alternative perspective of American history, one that Hollywood would rather see relegated to the documentary medium.

13 May 2008

The Curse of the Golden Flower (Dir. Zhang Yimou, 2006, China) - A Visual Spectacle

Costing up to $45 million, Zhang Yimou’s historical epic about political intrigue set to the stunning backdrop of a decadent and corrupt Chinese Dynasty, is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, and in my opinion has to be one of the most expensive melodrama’s ever brought to the big screen. Having succeeded in mastering with a superior degree of majestic brilliance the martial arts genre in his previous two offering; Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou turns his focus to the Shakespearean power struggle that is contested by the embittered relationship between a ruthlessly malicious Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) and his grief stricken wife and Empress (Gong Li). Nobody can quite match Zhang Yimou’s bold energy that he regularly expresses through his daring use of colours and visual design, and The Curse of the Golden Flower is a glorious spectacle in terms of it’s sumptuous production design that authentically and meticulously brings to life the smallest of period detail. The sets, costumes, props and landscapes are simply breathtaking and though the film does make use of some computer generated imagery, it is deeply satisfying to see a film that largely places it’s faith in reconstructing the sense of an ‘epic’ spectacle through traditional cinematic means.

Zhang Yimou has worked closely with the Chinese Actress and film star, Gong Li, for a number of decades now, and together they have produced an eclectic and broad range of films that have firmly chosen to favour a female narrative which have dealt with the consequences of patriarchal society on a number of occasions. Gong Li was recently seen in her first Hollywood film, Miami Vice, playing the classical archetype of the hard-nosed business woman who allows herself to form a self destructive emotional attachment to one of the undercover detectives. It was a typically uninvolving role for an actress of her remarkable range and characteristic of how Hollywood has limited the types of roles available for credible actresses.

In Curse of the Golden Flower, Gong Li’s exquisitely multi layered performance seems to dominate a film that unfolds like a melodramatic soap opera. Gong Li plays an Empress who seems to live only in the confines of the palace walls, in fact, that is the only context in which we see her in the entire film, as she is subjugated by the abusive and demeaning constraints imposed upon her by the Emperor who is desperate to maintain his power. When she discovers that the Emperor has been trying to poison her so that she will go insane, she conspires with her son to overthrow the Emperor’s rule, but her plans for seeking revenge are short lived as the final battle reveals the untold military might of the Emperor is too much for the Prince. By the end of the film, the Empress realises that no matter what she does, patriarchal ideology is a natural rule of law in a society that treats women as property, and will continue to do so as long as the struggle for political power consumes anyone who dreams of challenging the status quo.

Gong Li is a remarkable actress and one of the greatest performers working today in cinema yet whenever lists are compiled of the best actors, she is reguarly overlooked, and perhaps this reveals a certain level of western bias towards over rated Hollywood and British actors. Interrogate Gong Li's filmography and you will find an incredibly dense and powerful series of female characters that have in some way challenged dominant female representations that have existed in Chinese cinema and that Hollywood continues to perpetuate in high concept blockbusters. One only needs to watch Gong Li's unforgettable performance in Yimou's nineties masterpiece, Raise The Red Lantern, to appreciate how the notion of 'screen presence' has become somewhat of a forgotten star quality.

For a film with a relatively large budget and an eye firmly on the international market, Zhang Yimou presents us with an uncompromising ending, one that clearly demonstrates that the best way of silencing those critics who have accused him of selling out is by suggesting that feminist acquiescence is a theme that by no means solely belongs in the spectrum of the art house film which has unfairly defined the majority of his career.

The American Horror Film in the 1970s

The ideological values and messages of most films, even Hollywood mainstream ones, are shaped and influenced by the wider social and political context in which they are made. Focusing on the American horror film in the 1970s and its relationship to the shifting social landscape of American society at the time, it is clear to see how the messages and values of these films have perhaps little to do with genre conventions of the horror film and more to do with the film makers personal involvement and response to major social events of the late 60s and early 70s like Civil Rights, Feminism, The break up of the Nuclear Family and the Vietnam War. The social commentary evident in most of these horror films typically reflected the collective fears and anxieties of a nation that had started to undergo radical change in terms of political attitudes and social taboos.

Night of the Living Dead

Beginning with George Romero’s The Night of The Living Dead Zombie masterpiece in 1968, the emergence of the horror film as the most unlikely of genres to offer collective social criticism brought to the foreground of American cinema the potent issue of race relations. Romero’s film makes explicit references to issues like civil rights movement, lynching and black militancy, and his casting of an African American in the lead role was a rejection of the traditions of the horror genre and one of the few films in the 60s to offer us a radical reflection of the progressive gains that had been made by the civil rights movement. However, the bleak and fatalistic ending of the film in which Ben is shot dead, his body picked up with meat hooks (indicative of racism at the time), and then finally burnt was not only a devastating image of apocalyptic destruction, it was an appropriate reflection of the shock and horror that was inextricably tied up in the assassination of the key civil rights leader, Martin Luther King in 1968. The final moments of Night of the Living Dead recalls imagery of lynching that was still happening in the Deep South in the late 60s and the red neck white hunters (effectively supposed to be a lynch mob) who are on a search and destroy mission imitate the callous and apathetic actions of U.S soldiers in Vietnam that were being reported in the media at the time. Night of the Living Dead clearly positions itself as a left-wing film and offers no easy solutions for the moral and social breakdown within society, and the fact that Ben does not survive suggests that America was still a long way from abolishing segregation and promoting racial integration within society. As an allegorical figure, the Zombie has been Romero’s means of exploring the social and political changes within American society for over three decades now, and most recently he revisited the ‘Dead’ films in 2005 with ‘Land of the Dead’, a studio film that was Romero’s critique of George Bush, Oil and the War in Iraq.

Last House On The Left

In 1972, Wes Craven’s ‘Last House on the Left’ attracted widespread notoriety for its brutal and realistic depiction of violence that is inflicted upon a young teenage girl by a group of escaped convicts and killers. Wes Craven has talked extensively about how the extreme violence represented in the film was an attempt to reflect the rage and anger dominant within society at the time about war crimes like the My Lai Massacre that was committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. The execution of Mary at the lake makes explicit references to the Vietnam War and signalled a shift within the horror genre to deal with the War in allegorical and metaphorical terms. The Kent State Shootings and the anti-war movement struck a chord with the youth of America and Europe, and a widespread questioning of traditional roles of authority and public institutions revealed an unprecedented level of anxiety. It is obvious to see how Wes Craven uses the demented killers to embody the amoral nature of U.S soldiers. The film ends with the parents of the dead girl exacting revenge upon the killers in an equally sadistic way, implying that even the bourgeoisie when placed under attack, are likely to react in a similar, if not more, vitriolic and perverse manner.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used the figure of the Monster (leatherface) as an ideological metaphor for the conservative reaction towards the feminist movement that was very much in it’s ascendancy in the mainstream political spectrum of the 1970s. Extreme graphic violence against women in the cinema has tended to run parallel with the growth of the women’s movement, and Leatherface’s phallic purpose as he thrusts his chainsaw into the trembling bodies of young women is unmistakably loaded with gender anxiety. The film also shows the demise of the nuclear family, as the family that the ‘Final Girl’ comes across is not only devoid of a woman, it is entirely made up of a generation of men who have spent their lives working in a slaughter house. Though it would be wrong to suggest that most Slasher films promoted an extremely conservative message and tended to reinforce dominant female stereotypes, the ending to Texas Chainsaw Massacre sees the Final Girl fight back, transforming herself into somewhat of a contemporary heroine.

Dawn of the Dead

In 1979, Romero made what is arguably his most critically acclaimed dead film, Dawn of the Dead. Set within the confines of a Shopping Mall, Dawn of the Dead confirmed Romero’s reputation as an important figure within the American horror genre. The film uses the symbol of the oppressive mall as a means of criticising the rise of materialism and more importantly, consumerism that was taking hold of American society as it was slowly moving into the economic boom time of the 1980s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The image of zombies being drawn to the mall acts as a clever and satirical commentary on the drone like nature of a middle class American society in which consumerism has replaced religion as the new opium for the masses. Romero’s film predates much of the recent post modern discussion about how shopping malls make zombies out of us all, and though Dawn of the Dead came before Halloween, it signalled the demise of a cycle of deeply intelligent horror films that had been started by Romero in 1968.

Halloween

Halloween was the last major horror film to be released in the 1970s and the director of the film, John Carpenter, has said in interviews how his film is notorious for being the Slasher film that signalled the end of the sexual revolution. In the film, teenagers are punished for engaging in illicit sex, and many critics have interpreted post Halloween slasher films as puritanical in how they try and promote a stern morality about youthful behaviour. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween was also accused of objectifying the central female protagonist, by subjecting her to repeated acts of violence. The film opens with a disturbing sequence in which we see Michael Myers as a young boy, murder his sister with a kitchen knife. Though this sequence is much celebrated for it’s technical bravado, the ideological significance of this moment suggests how the children of feminism, in this case Michael Myers, seemed to want to put an end to the sexual permissiveness of the sixties, and this is chillingly summed up in the image of Michael Myers as a young boy standing on the porch of a quaint middle class suburban house with a large kitchen knife in his hand as his parents look on in horror.

Conclusion

Mainstream Hollywood cinema has constantly provided film makers with the means of using genre as a vehicle for ideological expression, and the tradition of 70s allegorical horror film making remains with us today. Recent Hollywood blockbusters like War of the Worlds (2005) and Cloverfield (2007) have used the traditions of science fiction to address the fears and anxieties of September 11. Approaching a film through a social perspective makes us reconsider the messages and values being conveyed, and forces us to question assumptions about certain issues and themes.