Local Hero

“I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together. And til this day, the events that followed all still seems like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever.” (Alabama Whitman)

 Tony Scott (21 June 1944 - 19 August 2012)

Tony Scott (21 June 1944 - 19 August 2012)

Five years ago today, I awoke to the news that Tony Scott, director of Top Gun, True Romance and Crimson Tide, had died. He had taken his own life by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, in the face of reportedly inoperable brain cancer. Now I’m not normally one to get sentimental about the death of a successful artist. My default reaction is usually one of profound respect and envy - respect for the life they’ve lived and envy that this equates to more lifetimes than I'll ever experience.

However this one did upset me. But not in the same way that I still mourn for Stanley Kubrick almost two decades on from his untimely death, for the future masterpieces we were denied. Tony Scott, while I’m most certainly a fan (I own all of his films, even the obscure ones), was different. To a creative, working-class kid from the northeast of England he represented the possibility, however remote, of living the dream.

 Hovis advert (1973)

Hovis advert (1973)

After spending eight years in art school, Tony semi-reluctantly followed his elder brother Ridley into the then booming world of advertising. Initially, Tony would shoot the close ups of the products (loaves of bread etc.) that would appear at the end of Ridley’s commercials. These were mini-works of art in themselves, thanks to his background in fine art. He soon went on to direct his own commercials, becoming hugely successful in his own right. “I was paid to film in exotic locations and meet the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen in my life", he later told the journalist and author Sam Delaney. While Ridley had a monopoly on the arty projects, Tony cornered the market in “sexy, rock ‘n’ roll stuff”, thus laying the groundwork for his future film career.

While the aesthetics of both Scotts overlap (I doubt casual observers could tell them apart), the younger brother eschewed the muted, neo-Gothic palette and melancholic aura of the elder in favour of vivid colours, faster cutting and a more upbeat tone. But together they would go on to reinvent American film aesthetics, perfecting a radical shooting technique involving anamorphic long lenses, smoke and hard backlight that’s long since been absorbed into the mainstream and influenced such heavyweights as James Cameron, Michael Bay, Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan.

 True Romance (1993)

True Romance (1993)

He was the local boy made good. He made the horizon and the stars feel less distant and more reachable, so for him to take his own life felt like the end of the dream in a way. But the dream was real. After all, didn’t the hero of his finest contribution to cinema insist that there's nothing more cool than "rockin' and rollin', livin' fast, dying young and leaving a good-lookin' corpse"? 

Ironically, Tony Scott lacked the courage of Tarantino’s conviction in this ethos when he changed the original ending of his True Romance script so that Clarence survived the apparently fatal gunshot wound near the end of the film. Having the outlaw couple survive beyond the end credits may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but judging by the film's beloved cult status he made the correct decision, and I respect him for that. Ultimately, Tony Scott embraced the romantic rock 'n' roll myth in life, and I envy him for that.

 Boy and Bicycle (1965)

Boy and Bicycle (1965)

Dunkirk Review

"You won the war. Now we're fighting the peace. It's a lot more volatile."

(Enemy of the State, 1998)

 

 Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017)

My initial reaction upon seeing Dunkirk was 'I look forward to seeing the final cut'. It felt unfinished, a work in progress, what's known in the industry as 'the suicide cut' - the term given to the rough assembly of footage following completion of principal photography that's so disheartening for the filmmaker to watch after all of their dreams and hard work that it makes them want to kill themselves (I feel that way after some of my final cuts). It's at this point that the hard work to salvage the movie begins - to 'fix it in post'. Seasoned filmmakers can at least reassure themselves that this is a perfectly normal part of the process. Or, in the case of mega successful filmmakers who have amassed so much power and self-regard, not even bother to fix it because screw conventional narrative, I'm an Auteur dammit. But Dunkirk is not Nolan reaching the heights of Stanley Kubrick. It's a boy playing with his toy soldiers while Nanny prepares a picnic of jam sandwiches and lashings of ginger ale.

My second reaction was 'I suppose UKIP will love it' (as would the late Bernard Manning no doubt), thanks to its palpable nostalgia for a stiff upper lip Anglo Saxon monoculture, like a war film made by a lobotomised Richard Curtis. So it was no surprise when Nigel Farage tweeted his endorsement. For all its War Is Hell trappings, Dunkirk is a paean to a lost Edenic England, set during the last hurrah of the British Empire, prior to the decisive intervention by America that would usher in a period of US domination that is only now being usurped by pesky foreigners. Why make this film, I wondered, in an era when seven decades of relative peace is at risk of being undermined by rampant xenophobic machismo? Especially since Nolan's last film, the flawed but superior Interstellar, whilst similarly an elegy for a bygone era - the space race - was ultimately a hopeful film about anachronistic men passing the baton onto women as the future pioneers of enlightened civilisation amongst the stars.

 Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014)

A possible answer manifested itself almost immediately. Dunkirk ends on a young soldier reading a newspaper containing Churchill's iconic "We shall fight them on the beaches..." speech, a poignant moment that we in the audience grasp with hindsight signals a turning point in the War. Upon leaving the cinema, I opened a news app on my phone and the first headline was about a man convicted of rape. The contrast was sobering. Dunkirk is a counter-myth of masculinity, harking back to a more innocent time when men were heroes and women were grateful.

The Name's Bond. Jane Bond.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the recent casting of a woman in the role of Dr. Who was a welcome victory for diversity - a minor victory perhaps but these things all add up. However, I feel more ambivalent about the subsequent calls for a female 007 AKA ‘Jane Bond’. Why would you even want that? Merely for the sake of subverting a traditionally male archetype? If so we may as well demand a James Eyre for parity. Maybe it's just that I have a closer affinity to Bond as a character. I’ve enjoyed Dr. Who at various points in the past - the Tom Baker era and the often ignored Peter Cushing films in particular - but it’s not something I have a strong attachment to. Bond, on the other hand, is slightly different. I’m not wildly attached to the series but it’s definitely had a greater presence in my life, partly I suspect because my dad's a fan.

 Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No (1962)

As a child of the late 70s/80s I was inevitably drawn to Roger Moore - the gadgets and the goofy charm suited my childish imagination. Then in later years I grew to appreciate that Sean Connery was of course the superior Bond. Goldfinger was seminal but I think Dr. No is my personal favourite; less camp and mannered than subsequent instalments, it's essentially a Boy's Own adventure yarn that strikes a nice balance between grounded espionage and escapist fantasy. The series eventually became a parody of itself, until the Daniel Craig era when Casino Royale and Skyfall recaptured former glories - the climax of the latter curiously signalling a nostalgic regression to the patriarchal milieu of the pre-Judi Dench era, with a male M once again ensconced at MI6 and Miss Monnypenny dutifully back behind her desk.

Apparently we’re due one more installment with Daniel Craig and then they’ll recast the role. I think it’s much more likely that they’ll cast a non-white male than a female, and I'm sure that’s entirely appropriate. Idris Elba would be a fine choice in theory but he’s clearly too old. He’ll be touching 50 years of age by then (Craig was 38 when he did Casino Royale) and they’ll want someone who can commit to what is a very physically demanding role for at least a decade. Oddly, given there’s more to ethnic diversity than black or white you rarely hear calls for a Bond of Asian descent. Popular culture is already blessed with a growing number of iconic black men, but an Asian 007 could be just the hero we need for these times - "The name’s Bond. Jamal Bond."

 Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters (2016)

So why not a female Bond? Why not indeed. I actually find myself increasingly drawn to female-led stories. My favourite films of recent years include Lost in Translation, Mulholland Dr., BirthFrances Ha, and Gravity; and it's been a good year or so for women on television with Girls, The Girlfriend Experience, Glow and I Love Dick, not to mention the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Inevitably, there are exceptions. The recent Ghostbusters reboot, while it had its moments, was not a good film but that's not because of the female cast, who did a fine job. If anyone is to blame it’s the director, Paul Feig. Likewise with The Force Awakens and Rogue One - both mediocre films in my opinion but not because they had female protagonists, but because they had mediocre (male) directors.

A few days before they announced Jodie Whittaker's casting in Dr. Who, though to far less fanfare, the producers of the Bond franchise announced that Blake Lively is set to star in a new espionage thriller. The premise sounds more like Jane Bourne to me but either way it seems that the Bond producers are looking to satisfy an apparent demand for a female super spy by creating a brand new franchise, rather than meddle with the current one and thus risk killing the golden goose. At least this way they don't have to worry about making her a sexist pig, I suppose.

The Boy in the Bubble

“The essence of life isn't comic, it's tragic. There's nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.” “l disagree. Philosophers call it absurd because, in the end, all you can do is laugh." ~ Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen; 2004)

 

I’ve been watching a lot of John Travolta films lately. It began with Urban Cowboy (1980), which I’d never even heard of until it was reviewed on the excellent '80s All Over podcast. I’m currently writing a neo-western so I’ve been researching the genre, but while Urban Cowboy is a fascinating snapshot of blue collar Southern culture, with some fine performances, I think I prefer the not dissimiliar Hard Country (1981), which I likewise discovered via '80s All Over. It’s less slick but feels more authentic than ‘Saturday Night Cowboy’, as co-host Scott Weinberg put it in the podcast.

 Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

This led me inevitably to Saturday Night Fever (1977), which I’d long been meaning to watch since I was too young to see it at the time it was initially popular. It then fell off my radar in the intervening years, despite my penchant for disco music when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed the film, it’s occasionally gripping and poignant and of course the soundtrack is sensational. The gender politics are dubious to say the least but arguably reflective of the era it was made and the milieu in which it was set. Ideally, there would be an alternate version of that story told from the point of view of the women. But then you could say that about a lot of classic films.

I never fully appreciated what a unique and charismatic screen presence John Travolta was in his heyday. I couldn't relate to him the way I could to more conventional symbols of heroic masculinity like Christopher Reeve or Harrison Ford. Although Grease (1978) was sort of a big deal - I liked the songs and it reminded me of Happy Days which I was fond of. But as a late bloomer growing up in an ultra-conservative environment, I was simultaneously piqued and intimidated by its heady atmosphere of adolescent horniness (I'm convinced I wouldn't have lasted two minutes in an American high school). Looking at it now, it’s less compelling than SNF, but the final scene at the fairground remains for me the most joyous celebration of sexual attraction in cinema, rivalled only by the balcony scene in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), but way more sassy. It's impossible not to get swept up by its charm.

Grease was directed by Randal Kleiser, who just a couple of years earlier had directed Travolta in a TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble - based on the true story of a boy born with an extremely weak immune system who's forced to live in a sterilised plastic room in order to survive. It's a tale which later inspired a Paul Simon song and an episode of Seinfeld. Upon learning of this film, I had a flashback to something with a similar plot which I vaguely recalled seeing as a child. The idea of a boy having to spend his life in an plastic tent to prevent exposure to germs was genuinely disturbing. One scene in particular always stayed with me: somebody passes some money into his tent which in turn leads to him contracting an infection and eventually dying. Tragic stuff. Out of curiosity I acquired The Boy in the Plastic Bubble on DVD and, sure enough, it turned out to be the same film I had remembered. I hadn’t registered at the time that it was John Travolta, but then it was made just before he became famous. He's hugely engaging in the film and you can see why he became a star.

 The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

Except... his character didn’t die. Yes, some money was passed into the tent, after he wins a bet with another boy, but then nothing comes of it. It’s a narrative loose end. Instead, the film ends with him choosing, against medical advice, to leave his bubble and take his chances in the outside world. He meets up with his childhood sweetheart and they ride off into the sunset.

Now, my mother has on several occasions bemoaned my allegedly selective memory, claiming I only recall the negative aspects of my childhood at the expense of the positive, but this was a step beyond that and it perturbed me somewhat. How could I have remembered something so vividly yet inaccurately? As it happens, I've just re-read John Higgs’ seminal book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which features a short section dealing with the unreliability of memory. In it Higgs describes how people “slowly absorb events into their own narrative, losing the loose ends and unexplained incidents and making sense of what they can with respect to their own lives and prejudices.” Apparently this drift of memory into error is “so precise and predictable that it can be plotted on a graph, known as the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting.” According to Higgs, the role of the ego is like a "spin doctor explaining the action afterwards in the best possible light" - or in my case, worst.

 Ebbinghaus curve

Ebbinghaus curve

Evidently I'm prone to pessimism. For me optimism is an act of will, something I've learned to cultivate out of a sense of pragmatic self-awareness, as opposed to an inherent character trait. I’m neither a psychologist nor a philosopher but I’ve long suspected that we each inhabit our own bubbles - mental not plastic - in which subjective perception distorts objective reality. These bubbles are like private cinemas projecting our lives in real time. We're both the audience and the director, drawing from the same common source material but interpreting it in a way that's unique to us. For some people life is a gritty melodrama, for others a romantic comedy. Some of us, through luck or force of will, may get to choose which.

It Doesn't Suck

"Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you." ~ Oscar Wilde

 

Sometimes I find myself idly scrolling through old text message conversations. Not regularly, I must add. In fact very rarely. More often than not it's due to a key word I’ve searched for on my phone turning up in an old text message and curiosity getting the better of me. The weird thing is I barely recognise myself in the texts - where’s the punctuation? or the passive aggression? The sheer fact that I texted in the first place is somewhat discombobulating since these days I barely text at all, as a result of the enforced solitude that comes with being in a writing phase. But I recently came across this brief conversation from a few years back and despite the inconsistent punctuation it seemed less dated than usual.

The film in question was Ridley Scott’s Legend, a film I do think about from time to time but not as often as Showgirls - a subversive neo-western/neon glitterfest featuring a wilfully defiant heroine, filmed on undigitised celluloid back when there was still a viable arthouse film industry. Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn't suck. In fact, there's a lot to admire about it. I see it as a flamboyant parable about the perils of being creative and ambitious, of trying your luck in a highly competitive, commercial environment and being torn between self-expression and giving the punters what they want ("Sooner or later you're gonna have to sell it").

Is it a satire, as some have claimed? I'm not entirely sure. While Paul Verhoeven has proven masterful with satirical material, chiefly Robocop and Starship Troopers, it's hardly Joe Eszterhas' specialism. His screenplay treads a fine line between earnestness and irony, clumsily at times, but I think that's part of its charm. It's certainly a lot of fun, with its shiny costumes and outrageously vulgar humour, and I'll admit to feeling nostalgic for that era of cinema when films with an independent spirit could be produced with A-list talent and craftsmanship. Showgirls playfully merges the big-budget (lip)gloss of late 20th century mainstream Hollywood with the camp, underground wit of John Waters. But I think the main takeaway for me is its liberating repudiation of an earlier Joe Eszterhas scripted fairy-tale.

 Flashdance (1983)

Flashdance (1983)

The central message of Flashdance, enshrined in the lyrics to its theme song, is that 'if you take your passion and make it happen, you can really have it all' - a typically banal Reagan-era aspirational conceit. Alex Owens manages to have her cake and eat it, namely independence and a knight in shining armour. Whereas, at the end of Showgirls, Nomi Malone has sacrificed everything - fame, success, intimacy - for the sake of her sense of identity, her conscience even. In other words, she forfeits the world to gain her soul. This is the culmination of the film's Christian subtext - a recurring motif in Verhoeven's oeuvre of which I've written about before.

More superficially, within the context of the film's neo-western tropes, the finale places her in the tradition of lone gunslingers (Malone/lone - geddit?) who ride into town at the beginning of the movie, administer justice, then ride off into the sunset. So while Showgirls has, with some justification, been described as 'All About Eve in a G-string', it's also Shane (not that I care to imagine Alan Ladd in a G), and in that sense is fundamentally a paean to individualism, with the caveat that this comes at a price. I guess the moral of the story is: you can't have it all, but you can at least own yourself.

 Showgirls (1995)

Showgirls (1995)