Cinematically Kubular

Ramblings about cinema and whatever else I'm thinking at the time!

A Cinema of Broken Dreams

Watched The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941, US). Was like looking through a window to a time when films were rendered in shades of silver, the stories had twists and America knew how to make them well. ‘Noir’ has always attracted me, it has a kind of bodily honesty to it. Love is mostly painful and very rarely works out, corruption is the norm (as opposed to a deviation) and our ‘heroes’ are always just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer deals with it, far as I can tell, by dealing bloody vengeance to those who murder his friends – of which he has many, and happens often. At the other end of the spectrum is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who in the labyrinthine The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946, US) is more interested in solving a riddle – and, ultimately, getting paid. When I use the word labyrinthine I mean that I’ve watched the film innumerable times, read the novel and still couldn’t tell you what actually happens in it (except that a kid is murdered and left in a car, there’s a porn racket involved and one of the babes did it).

What’s mostly interesting about these films though, isn’t the plots (though they do hold plenty of attention). It’s the characters and the wonderful dramas that play out in their relationships. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, US) tells the story of a young writer, Joe, trying to make ends meet – who through luck or misfortune finds his way to wealth and attention of a famous actress. What’s fascinating about Sunset Boulevard however, isn’t really the plight of Joe but rather the obsessive dreams of the  indomitable Norma Desmond. It’s Norma Desmond’s fascination with the limelight, celebrity and the glamour of the silver screen that takes the focus of the tale, and the form in which her dream is eventually realised which is the film’s destination.

Historically, these stories were part of an economic recession in America. Which may partly explain why themes of love, fame and fortune are always coupled with pain, heartbreak and corruption. There are no clear heroes in this genre, hell, Mike Hammer borders on being a homicidal maniac and Spillane’s handling of morality is about as subtle as a sledgehammer through plate glass (and his prose carries about the same momentum too).

If you want a British example of the Noir anti hero you need look no further than Ian Fleming‘s James Bond. Written during the same era, the novels follow the same dark, earthy, violent sense of adventure; the only difference being the lush, opulent settings – though always hiding a dark and perverse heart. It’s that Noir heart of 007 that defines Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond, it’s just a shame the writing and the characters fail to live up to the standard that defined the genre 70 years ago.

Anyway, I’m rambling! Plus, I need to save something for when I get round to seeing the new entry to the James Bond franchise.

PS

The intention of this post was to recommend The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard. If you enjoy reading and don’t mind a little violence here and there, I particularly recommend you read I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (available on Kindle or as part of the Mike Hammer Omnibus on Amazon).

 

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The Beautification of Women

This isn’t about cinema, so I probably shouldn’t be posting it here. However, it is something I care about and informs well regarding my perspective on cinema and why I mentioned gender in writing my ‘About’.

I recently read a post from my friend Becca’s blog which really got me thinking again about the expectations our culture has from girls and the pressures put on them when they hit adolescence (and before). I’ve always found it somewhat disturbing that quite a number of girls feel they have to wear makeup… it’s just something I don’t understand – skin is far more attractive than powder (and imperfections are generally what makes things interesting).

To a certain degree, this is something I know I don’t really have to write about, after all, the press is already well aware of the hypersexualisation of women in music videos (I’ve heard people rant about frequently on Radio 4). I also understand (to a degree) the usefulness of certain gender ‘constructs’ and why girls may have a natural leaning towards beautifying themselves (to attract a mate) and how toys such as Barbie and Cindy (remember her?) engage and potentially educate from a young age.

Reading Becca’s post however, reminded me of all those occasions where i’d heard other people (pimarily women) put girls/women down because they don’t ‘put in the effort’ to glam themselves up. Or watching a girl apply makeup because if she doesn’t the people she works with will think there’s something wrong with her.

Yet, as a man, I’m not expected (nor would I know how to) apply eye shadow or liner, nor do I really care about foundation, blusher, or any other coloured dust someone might want to apply to their face. Also, for the record, skin tastes better. There’s nothing worse than getting a little carried away and being assaulted by the bitter flavour of face-chemicals to ruin the mood. 😉

Most of the girls I know (if not all of them) look far better without the damn stuff. Aside from which, plugging your pores with dust can hardly be good for your skin!

I’m reminded of my time at uni and the semester I spent studying fashion. Most of my focus was spent on the development of punk – which was a rejection (more or less) such ideas and Madonna as a ‘feminist’ icon (and her eventual fall from grace). I only hope that people such as Lady GaGa can avoid the same pitfalls as Madonna, and avoid taking the power through sex/glamour route and bring the next generation of girls back down to earth.

Perhaps once the aforementioned girls have made it back down here, they can come to terms with being naturally beautiful and that they really were born that way.

PS
Would rally appreciate any comments/anecdotes that people may feel they’d like to share. It’s a topic of worthy discussion!

Don’t Torture a Duckling

Don't Torture a Duckling

Don’t Torture a Duckling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a stressful few weeks… interview after interview. Finally found myself a breather where I wasn’t having to prepare too much though and got around to watching Don’t Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, Italy, 1972).

In short Don’t Torture a Duckling is a film about the liberal, experienced values of modern culture colliding with the naively superstitious values of rural Italy, with childhood innocence being caught in between. I don’t want to say too much more about it, in fear I may reveal too much. It’s both chilling and quite touching in it’s own way and concludes with one of the most tense fist fights that I’ve ever seen committed to film.

I recommend it to anyone interested in Italian cinema – especially someone who enjoys the films of Dario Argento (such as myself) or the giallo genre in general.

The Card Player

Cover of "The Card Player"

Cover of The Card Player

This’ll be quick.

The Card Player (Dario Argento, Italy, 2004) is widely reported to be an awful film. To be honest, it’s probably deserved. It’s a really strange (but actually very tense) picture with both interesting and predictable moments.

Having said that – the concept itself is genuinely quite interesting. The film discusses fate – or at least our approach to decision making when there are no certainties and chance is the real decider of any outcome. It’s this that generates the tension throughout the film – and the behaviour of the characters is genuinely quite at interesting at times.

If I’d ever seen a film that deserved a remake it would be this. Not because it’s good – but rather the opposite. It has some interesting moments and ideas but would be fascinated to see it further developed into something with a little more punch.

Having said all that, it’s a reasonable thriller – probably more interesting to watch than most made for TV offerings. Just don’t expect too much.

Halloween meets Vertigo in The Stendhal Syndrome

So, The Stendhal Syndrome (Argento, 1996) is, more or less, a film about art an

d rape. More or less. It’s also awesome. It’s the kind of film Argento’s best at – a dark, tense thriller with somewhat intense moments of horror to break up the drama and help propel the narrative. Again, the dubbing can be flat – and there’s a wonderful character who looks like Alec Guinness after putting a bit weight on who’s voice is unfortunately completely mi

scast – ie, not at all like Alec Guinness. Asia Argento had me more or less completely convinced she can actually act too, which is quite impressive after Trauma (1993).

Unfortunately, the end is poor. I can kinda understand why it’s the way it is. But it’s a huge disappointment. The film could have ended about 2 minutes earlier (roughly) and would have been (pretty much) perfect. With some clever voice acting. Oh

, wait…

Anyway, it’s a film that discusses rape and what I want to call gender politics (but is probably more like the politics of sex – are they the same thing?) quite well. It’s genuinely an interesting watch and a really good, solid and involving thriller.

Stendhal Screencap

Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera

Well, just watched The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and felt I really needed to post something before I cooled off and lost the motivation. As any regular readers will be aware, I’ve been on a bit of an Argento kick recently, working my way through his full directorial back catalogue (or as much of it as I can get my hands on) and I’ve read a few reviews here or there too. Everything I’ve read has implied that his films became pretty weak after Phenomena (1985) and every review I’ve interpreted to say that The Phantom of the Opera is one of the weakest.

Having watched both Trauma (1993) and Sleepless (2001) this week I can say with all my heart that The Phantom of the Opera is certainly not is worst film – by a long way. Within the first 20 minutes (during minute 18, to be exact) I was hooked, it was clear that Argento had made something genuinely special. However, I’ll issue one warning, don’t watch The Phantom of the Opera if you’re expecting a straight horror/slasher/giallo. It’s none of these. Much like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) this is a romantic tragedy with a gothic horror flavour.

The Phantom of the Opera has some beautifully comic moments – the chief rat catcher serves as fantastic comic relief (a scene in which the rat catcher has a wounded thumb dressed had me actually laughing). The films also beautifully shot and designed – one of Argento’s strong suits. Also, this is possibly the only Argento film in which the dubbing isn’t horribly obvious (and no one’s performance is outright ruined by it). This is probably the only Argento film I can think of that everyone’s vocals were actually in sync. And in terms of acting, I feel I should give a nod to Asia Argento, who genuinely gave a good performance. Nothing spectacular perhaps, but certainly better than Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

However, the really big thing for me is that The Phantom of the Opera really managed to show off what Argento is still capable when not limiting himself to operating within a certain style or handful of conventions. When Argento started out with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) he was making thrillers – sure these thrillers contained horror elements (and some pretty scary murders) but they were all primarily thrillers. Yes, these thrillers contained some wonderfully stylish sets and set pieces but at the end of the day they were just thrillers – which became progressively more gruesome.

At some point after Profondo Rosso (1975) someone convinced Argento that he was a horror director and he seems to have decided that that is where he should concentrate his efforts. The Phantom of the Opera is a film in which he was willing to back off from that role and allow himself to make a film that tells a story. The narrative is supported by some pretty creepy (and gory) murders but all of these just help to highten (or release) the tension. Argento seems to have gone back to using horror style gore and murder as support for the film (as opposed to the point of it).

And finally (I’m getting tired and sick of typing), I’d just like to say that if someone tells you that The Phantom of the Opera is rubbish, it’s just because they didn’t understand it.

Peace.

Halloween to Sleepless

Well, kinda realised the thing about blogs is you actually have to write something and then post it. So here it is, this week’s update!

Over the last week I’ve actually been watching quite a few interesting pictures (each of them interesting enough to write a post about) but none of them had me motivated enough either, though some of them had me very close.

Interestingly the film that had me most motivated was that famous American film Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Not because I thought it was good, rather the opposite. It’s one of the most boring horror films I’ve ever watched. Which (some might say) is ironic, because it’s the only one I actually own a copy of.

Halloween actually starts off quite strongly, it’s creepy and generates a genuine sense of suspense as it leads up to the film’s first murder. It’s the first scene that I find the most interesting, not only because it spells out the film’s themes rather succinctly but also because it feels like Carpenter is making a genuine statement. Halloween‘s opening scene actually feels like it contains some genuine emotion… which is something I can’t really say about the rest of the film.

I wonder if Carpenter is making an artistic (and if he’s capable of it) statement too. Admittedly, I’ve been watching an awful lot of Argento lately but Halloween’s intro definitely feels to me like it’s referencing Argento stylistically. The way the point of view is shot combined with the way information is presented to us… the kitchen knife… Michael watching through the windows… the only thing that’s missing is an extreme closeup of Michael’s eye as he watches through the crack between some curtains (or something). Perhaps the release date supports that idea. After all, Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) was released only a year earlier. So Halloween came just at the end of Argento’s Giallo run. It definitely reads to me as if Carpenter was trying to put the Italian Giallos to rest in the opening, and signal to the audience that Halloween was something different, something new.

You could argue that the main section of the film is purposefully dull. Perhaps it’s trying to bore the audience enough so that the ghost train style ending is more shocking and (potentially) disturbing once it arrives. Personally I think that Carpenter didn’t really know how to play on the audience’s fears or sense of suspense. The idea of a mysterious stranger hiding behind bushes and stalking students might have seemed like enough without requiring any special attention. Personally, I feel the film misses a few tricks, and doesn’t do enough to be visually involving. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, since Halloween I’ve also watched Mask of Satan (Mario Bava, 1960), Trauma (Dario Argento, 1993) and Sleepless (Dario Argento, 2001). Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is a beautiful and fantastic film. For those readers that haven’t heard of it, it’s an Italian Vampire film that draws its inspiration from titles such as Hammer’s Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (another film I adore). Mask of Satan not only uses the same gothic and fantastical eastern European setting as Dracula but turns up the fear factor – and gore – to make a wonderfully suspenseful and tense experience. For those of you out there who also find the way Horror films interact with the viewer and comment on voyeurism, it’s certainly one for the watch (or research) list.

Trauma was probably on a par with Halloween when it comes to pace and excitement. It started off promisingly but quickly sank into a relatively dull (and somewhat unimaginative) narrative about a troubled and anorexic teenager and her relationship with an older artist (and surrogate father figure). The film does bear the distinction of being the only film I’ve seen about a killer armed with a handheld decapitation machine (an ingenious Garrot on a motor) and picks up a lot toward the end. The last act of the film is genuinely interesting and reminiscent of Argento’s earlier work. I don’t want to be overly harsh on the film, it’s probably more entertaining than Halloween, probably.

The blurb called Sleepless “a return to form” for Argento, which I felt promised a lot. Fortunately I wasn’t too disappointed. The film is far better than Trauma and probably would be even better if it wasn’t for some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard since watching VHS Manga releases in high school. The first major set piece in the film is almost ruined by the awful dubbing of the female lead (at this point) but is rescued by the awesome bass grooves looped throughout the film (which make a welcome change to the rather cheesy score in Trauma). Also, after the film gets going it drastically improves. Max von Sydow gives a wonderful performance as the ex Chief of Police Moretti, who suffers from amnesia in his old age. Sleepless is a wonderfully entertaining thriller which is genuinely tense but unfortunately doesn’t manage to recall the kind of skillful music video style set pieces of Argento’s early work. Having said that, if approached with lower expectations than might be held by those of us who are fans of Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975) and Suspiria I think it would hold its own. Especially if some characters could be redubbed.

Anyway, I’ll leave this, mostly, aimless waffle for now and go find something interesting to watch (or listen to). Please, feel free to comment.

Here’s the trailer to Profondo Rosso, one of my favourite films:

What’s Gothic?

Just a quick one this evening.

Been reading Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento (edited by Chris Gallant – FAB Press, Surrey, October 2001) and the second chapter In the Mouth of the Architect: Inferno, alchemy and the postmodern Gothic starting on p21. It starts out by quickly sumarising how problematic defining what is Gothic. Admittedly, this is something that I’ve found myself struggling with often, and the first couple of pages more or less followed my thought process exactly (but better read).

The highlight is when it references the venerable Peter Hutchings from “Sage, Victor/Lloyd Smith, Alan: Modern Gothic (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1996), p89″. That’s Gallant’s reference, fyi. I don’t always agree with Peter but on this he pretty much marks the spot.

Quote from Art of Darkness:

Peter Hutchings has observed that ‘horror’ is frequently identified as “a vulgarised, exploitative version of Gothic” and that ‘Gothic horror’ cinema is often perceived as a genre or sub-genre which draws on the iconography of medievalism and feudalism (Roger Corman’s Poe films, for instance, or the Argento/Soavi collaboration The Church). Hutchings extends his argument to the slasher films of the 70s and 80s, with their emphasis upon the consequences of a repressed, hidden or forgotten past (the hit-and-run accident in I Know What You Did Last Summer, to cite a recent example) and the transformation of the familiar, domestic environment into a dark, alien space concealing imagined terrors, vengeful assailants or the threat of unfamiliar sexuality.

Peeping Tom – A Quick Peek

So, in the previous post I recommended Peeping Tom, a British film directed by Michael Powell and released in 1960. I’m conscious that I didn’t really go any deeper than link to a trailer I found on YouTube. If, after having watched the trailer you’re still unsure/not convinced I feel I should explain the reasons for my recommendation (my good taste obviously not being reason enough).

There are probably two reasons I recommended Peeping Tom. The first of those reasons is that it’s fantastic. The second is it’s historical importance to the development of ‘horror’ cinema. To be honest, I’m surprised it didn’t find it’s way onto BFI’s Greatest Films poll this year. Though it’s reassuring to see Michael Powell appear in the top 250 multiple times. Anyone who has seen Scream 4 (2011) will have heard it referenced along with Suspiria (1977), and Psycho (1960).

Peeping Tom shocked audiences and critics alike on release and received serious negative criticism – some sources claim enough to damage Powell’s British career. Even David Cronenberg’s Videdrome (1983) doesn’t attack/identify the audience in as direct a way as Peeping Tom. Through editing, symbolism and point of view the film not only identifies the audience with the role of the murderer but then proceeds to make the act of voyeurism equal to rape.

In today’s culture TV programs such as Big Brother are popular viewing and Paparazzi make a living by stalking celebrities to sate our constant desire for more knowledge/gossip of their daily lives. It’s my opinion that Peeping Tom is not only wonderfully entertaining, it’s also just as (if not more) relevant now as it was when it was released. And for those with an interest, Peeping Tom helped form the future of the slasher genre and laid the groundwork for films such as Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975) and OPERA (1987).

NB

Profondo Rosso and OPERA are usually released as Deep Red and Terror at the Opera in the UK, respectively.

First Post

So, it’s a while since I bothered with a website or blog… and it doesn’t appear I currently get any useful hosting services from my ISP (probably why they’re cheap) so here I am, on wordpress.com!

“But, whyyyyyy?” I hear you ask. Well, over the last few months I’ve been rediscovering my love for cinema (or film, if you prefer). Along the way I’ve found myself getting involved in some old arguments again such as “Is it fair to refer to Uma Thurman as androgynous?”, “How do we define androgyny?” and “Do we impose our own understanding of gender on the screen or is it imposed on us, by the film – or the industry?”

Firstly, in reference to the Uma Thurman question, personally, I don’t think it is fair. But it’s interesting how often I hear it or how shocked people seem to feel when I disagree. It’s made me wonder if there’s simply a film I haven’t seen or if my understanding/idea of gender and androgyny are somewhat out of sync – and if so, why? However, I don’t at all intend to deal with any of this immediately.

I’ve been far more interested, to be honest, in the films of Dario Argento. Over the last 2-3 weeks I’ve watched everything he has directed (excluding The Five Days (1973)) from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970),  to Opera (1987). Argento is a fascinating director, one that I would recommend to anyone interested in watching good films. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence I find him so interesting, when two of his key themes are the relationship between the audience and the film and also gender.

For now though, I desperately need a cuppa. So I’m off to put the kettle on and read another essay methinks.

Oh, also. If anyone’s interested in a recommendation, if you haven’t already seen Peeping Tom (1960) I strongly urge you to.

Here’s the trailer: