In Memory of Michael Parks

 From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

As I write it is the day after the announcement that Michael Parks had died. In a curious instance of synchronicity, today in the post I received a Blu-ray of John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning... in which a young Parks played Adam, while this evening I reached episode 10 of Twin Peaks - a series I’m in the process of re-watching - in which Parks makes his first appearance as Jean Renault.

If you don’t know the name it’s likely you will have seen some of Michael Parks' work. My first exposure to him was in the aforementioned The Bible, which I first saw as a child and is that rare thing: a biblical film that isn’t moronic. It’s more faithful to Scripture than most and visually spectacular. Parks makes a dramatic entrance as a nude Adam emerging out of the red clay earth at the edge of Eden, while his reaction the morning after his first experience of 'being fruitful' with Eve is rather charming.

 The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966)

The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966)

However, I only really became aware of Parks as a performer via his roles for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino: he had a memorable cameo in From Dusk Till Dawn as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a role he would reprise in Kill Bill (which I happened to watch at the weekend) and Death Proof. I consider him the equal of Samuel L. Jackson in terms of his ability of elevate Tarantino's dialogue beyond good to great. Parks was one of those character actors who rarely played the lead but would improve every film he appeared in, no matter how small the part. He could chew scenery or be understated but was never less than compelling. He will be missed.

 Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Sentimental Narratives

There’s been much said in recent times about the rise of 'binge-watching', a by-product of streaming and the Netflixisation of viewing habits. Lately the debate has been dominated by the inevitable backlash against the phenomenon. Damon Lindelof, never shy to express his opinions, recently came out against the habit, imploring viewers to watch his current show in the traditional manner, one episode per week, in order to savour it. While the convenience of having hit TV shows practically on tap has certainly had an impact on my own viewing habits, I do try to savour the experience by restricting myself to one episode of a series per weeknight, which technically isn't binge-watching, it's more of a happy medium. Let’s call it binge-savouring.

Curiously, I’ve found that watching shows in this compressed manner really forces me to be more objective about the overall direction of a show, to see the macro as well as the micro. For instance, I recently discovered Parks and Recreation. (I’m unfashionably late, I know. But thanks to Amazon Prime, I’m over halfway through the fourth season and increasingly of the opinion that it may be the best sitcom ever.) Season 1 was a short season - only six episodes - and was noticeably edgier than subsequent seasons and almost uncomfortable to watch with the benefit of hindsight. It seemed to capture the average American's antipathy towards government whilst naively failing to anticipate how this would soon lead to the rise of Trumpism. I experience similar discomfort rewatching pre-9/11 movies.

 Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Season 2 onwards is a much more palatable affair, a clear product of its time - the Obama years - and it’s obvious the intention was to make the characters more tolerant and likeable. Fortunately, the quality of the writing and casting is so good that it works. At least until lately when I’ve begun to notice an unwelcome softening of the two edgiest and arguably best characters. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) are the latest in a fine tradition of diabolical double-acts, from Lord Henry & Dorian Gray to the Underwoods. You root for them because they're smart and don't suffer fools - there's vicarious thrills to be had in their aloof refusal to conform to social norms. This brought to mind other shows I’d recently ‘binge-savoured’ that also imposed a sentimental softening on ball-breaking characters: Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager and Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica.

Of course, American entertainment is awash with sentimentality. Indeed, it’s been said that sentimentality is a major aspect of the American temperament (that and ruthlessness - a potent mix). In contrast, the best British shows are much less likely to make this mistake. Fawlty Towers, Peep Show and The Thick of It didn't and Blackadder merely hinted at a hitherto unseen sensitive side in the final scene of the final episode but given the supreme pathos of the situation it felt pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the later episodes of The Office succumbed to mawkishness and perhaps that’s part of the reason the Americans went for it. Generally, we Brits are suspicious of sentimentality, although to be fair British shows typically have far fewer episodes than their American counterparts and this is probably significant.

 Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth

Ultimately, watching shows like Star Trek and Parks and Rec has really thrown into sharp relief what may be a key disadvantage to the traditional US television format in which long seasons are broadcast weekly whilst still in their development and production stages, unlike the new model of 'dumping' shorter seasons in one go, which spawned the binge-watching culture. The old school method is a gruelling treadmill for the staff; barrels get scraped, continuity is compromised and the line between actor and character becomes blurred. For something like Parks and Rec, where the dramatic stakes are relatively low, some narrative looseness is acceptable, even advantageous. But although popular characters can certainly grow, their essential integrity mustn’t be compromised. While it may not be quite on the same scale of creative entropy as jumping the shark, a product of desperation as opposed to success, it's effectively a bit like jumping the shark by stealth.

This year sees the welcome return of two iconic TV shows. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery will consist of one block of 13 episodes with a serialised arc, rather than the typical 26 episodic format. I’ve just completed a two year stint of watching every series of Star Trek to date (bar Enterprise), comprising 24 long seasons in total, and the quality is plainly inconsistent. Granted, it’s a notoriously tough show to write for. But a major reason for its enduring success is the strength of the characters.

Now, a major character who is odd-looking and emotionally stoic is practically inviting pressure to be softened, to make him or her more ‘likeable’. Yet Spock was popular precisely because he was odd-looking and emotionally stoic. Suddenly the nerds had a hero. That wasn't the original intention, it was Captain Kirk who was the hero. At first, Spock's cold logic was used for exposition and as a dramatic device by which to illustrate the superiority of Kirk's more 'human' approach to problem solving. Gradually, over the course of the original series his character was enriched without ever being compromised - even during the campy third season - which is a credit to the integrity of the writers and the late Leonard Nimoy. By the time Star Trek reached the big screen, Spock's character arc reached its zenith when he saved the day as a result of his stoic commitment to logic in the face of certain death. The devastated reaction of his grieving friend provided all the sentiment the moment called for.

 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Twin Peaks, on the other hand, despite its paradigm shifting impact on television, was always watchable but only truly great when David Lynch was in the director's chair. Its second season suffered greatly in his absence after he absconded to make Wild at Heart. He did eventually return to salvage the final episode but it was too late to save the series; entropy and sentimentality had set in - Major Briggs being a particularly egregious example of character softening - the ratings declined and the show was cancelled. Thankfully, this time around, Lynch has co-written (with Mark Frost) and directed all 18 episodes, so we can likely expect a more coherent vision (or at least as coherent as Lynch can be). Although, personally, I'll probably be happy just to hang out in the red room again and luxuriate in Angelo Badalamenti's music. 

 Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

It's natural to be nostalgic for the TV rituals of our youth, back when we had to wait a whole week until the next episode of our favourite shows, in an endless cycle of anticipation, savouring, and dissecting. But maybe binge-watching has its advantages too. The small screen has a bigger picture now; it's more likely that sentiment is earned and great characters never lose their edge.

 

Elle Review

 Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc

"It's sick... twisted, diseased." ~ Michèle Leblanc 

Paul Verhoeven is quoted as saying that shooting Elle in Europe presented an opportunity to do "something very different to anything I've done before.” Certainly, on a surface level, it eschews the intricate blocking and slick tracking shots that underpinned his Hollywood films in favour of a more simple, hand held approach that subverts the potentially trashy elements in the material. This aesthetic, combined with the Parisian setting and casting of Isabelle Huppert, lends a patina of arthouse respectability to the proceedings but make no mistake this is at heart very much a film in Verhoeven's wheelhouse.

It seems to me that Elle is fundamentally a fusion of Basic Instinct in terms of narrative structure (troubled hero becomes wilfully involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a sexually deranged psychopath), and Showgirls in its characterisation of a strong-willed, overtly libidinous protagonist with a checkered past who refuses to play the role of victim. This thematic kinship would have been far more evident, I suspect, if the film had been produced in America with a bigger budget and a more famous lead actor, as per the original intention (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Sharon Stone were all considered but turned it down).

 Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Much has been made of the controversial premise and the inevitable handwringing over its sexual politics (again, nothing new), but more intriguing, I think, is the role that Christianity plays in the narrative. It terms of screen time it’s a minor one, and yet significant. In his 2008 book, Jesus of Nazareth, a personal interpretation of the gospels based on research for a proposed film, Verhoeven downplays the supernatural aspect of Jesus Christ while extolling him as “revolutionary in the field of ethics”. This invites a re-evaluation of Verhoeven's oeuvre, particularly his seminal Hollywood phase in which the behaviour on display is anything but ethical. Perhaps that’s the point. 

 Robocop (1987)

Robocop (1987)

While Robocop’s Christian overtones have been well-documented (Murphy is crucified, resurrected and appears to walk on water), Showgirls too contains several allusions to Christian iconography (in one scene a neon sign proclaims that 'Jesus Is Coming Soon'), which is contrasted with animalistic passions - at various points Nomi Malone wears tiger or leopard print costumes (as one character remarks, "she prowls"). A lurid satire of the American Dream, Showgirls depicts America as a nation of ruthless, backstabbing strivers where sex is power and ethics are conspicuously absent. The only apparent redemption occurs in the form of selfless love between women, a theme that recurs in Elle, as does the animal motif - via Michèle's cat.

 Showgirls (1995)

Showgirls (1995)

Elle is being marketed as a psychological thriller and this is apt since it’s ultimately about the human mind and its twisted ambiguities. In a key scene towards the end, Verhoeven's camera lingers over the bloodied brains oozing out of a battered head, as if to say This is what we are, mere flesh - animals prone to savage cruelty yet also capable of compassion and, perversely, sometimes both at the same time.

Relics

I'm drawn to abandoned places - castle ruins, disused tunnels, derelict buildings. Spaces where my imagination can roam free. Around fifteen years ago I got the chance to access the iconic ‘Get Carter car park’ in Gateshead, famous for featuring prominently in the classic Michael Caine gangster film and infamous for its white elephant reputation locally. It's a unique example of the ‘brutalist’ style of architecture briefly in vogue in the late 60s/early 70s, and this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, not that you can expect much in the way of celebrations.

The story goes that the top level, a glass enclosure, was intended to be a rooftop restaurant which never opened as they couldn’t install the necessary plumbing to supply it. So it remained dormant for decades and left to rot, the subject of periodic articles in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle running the same old story about a proposed demolition favoured by local residents, with a counter argument for preservation made by representatives of the Get Carter appreciation society.

However, my own interest in it was only tangentially due to Get Carter, a film I do admire (my second favourite British gangster movie) and appreciate as a relic of a bygone Newcastle (my hometown), as in fact it was a location I'd earmarked for the opening scene of a feature film that I'd written (my first). Fallen Angel, a Hitchcockian psychological thriller loosely inspired by the myths of Orpheus and Oedipus, was essentially a fusion of The Conversation (1974) and Body Double (1984). It was also very much a project of its time, the late 90s, concerned with probing the dark recesses of urban white male identity. The car park wasn't hugely pivotal to the plot, it's significance was as a symbol of the protagonist's state of mind, an Apollonian prison.

On a glorious sunny day around the turn of the millennium, armed with a cheap disposable camera and accompanied by a Gateshead council worker who clearly did not want to be there (philistine), I entered the space I had for so long fantasised about. I took a ton of photos - shot on film before it was fashionable - a handful of which I've included here. It turns out my timing was fortuitous, not just because of the unusually fine weather but because the council soon began charging entry, no doubt due to the volume of requests from Get Carter fans and wannabe filmmakers.

Sadly, for cinephiles if not for locals, the car park was eventually demolished in 2010. Perhaps art is the only true means of preservation. Life goes on but film will outlive us all. Although I never did shoot Fallen Angel as by the time I was technically qualified to I no longer really wanted to. I've moved on and so has the world. It would be supremely tedious to write/shoot a film about surveillance in the age of Google and smartphones, while there’s no longer an appetite for films about the sadism of the male gaze. The internet has changed how we interact, psychologically and technologically, breaking down the old barriers, while erecting new ones yet to be fully explored.

Cameron's Inferno

jake neytiri.jpg

"George Lucas popularized space opera; Steven Spielberg has perfected awe. Cameron’s movies, soaked in sweat and blood and scorched by apocalyptic flames, have romance at their molten cores." ~ The New Yorker

 

A new year means new speculation about when and if we will see those fabled four - that’s four - Avatar sequels. The latest reputed (since debunked) release date for Avatar 2 is December 2018. That’s almost ten years after the first film. But then Cameron enthusiasts have grown accustomed to waiting. It’s invariably worth it. For me, James Cameron has never disappointed. I can honestly say that no other filmmaker has consistently given me as much pleasure at the cinema. In fact, he may be the only filmmaker whose entire filmography I’ve seen in an actual cinema, in some cases several times (T2 x 7).

Yet despite its status as the highest grossing film of all time - not adjusted for inflation - the first Avatar is not held in high esteem, somewhat unfairly in my view. While it probably wouldn’t make my top five Cameron movies, I was in awe of its technical accomplishments and engrossed by its story and characters. I agree that the noble savage and white savior narrative tropes are problematic, but arguably its allegorical Wild West revisionism is mildly progressive for a Hollywood blockbuster.

 Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

America was founded on the myth of the white man as victim, that is, intrepid European pioneers under siege from ‘savage’ natives. This was supported by the Judeo-Christian notion that the land was their rightful property by divine providence, a 'promised land' free to be claimed, exploited and traded with scant regard for ecological impact. This self-serving colonial myth became embedded in the national consciousness, informing domestic and foreign policy and cultural identity. So for a major American film - the highest grossing of all time - to present a counter myth is worthy of note - perhaps even more so given the current political climate in the U.S.

However, more intriguing at this point, for me, is just what stories Cameron plans to tell in his sequels. Avatar was - ten foot tall blue aliens aside - fundamentally a fairly conventional love story, but Cameron would be the first to admit that there’s little mileage in repeating that formula. But nor do I expect him to resort to straightforward action spectacle, because despite his reputation for macho sci-fi action, all of his films to date are ostensibly love stories. By which I don't mean action films with a love interest tacked on in a cynical attempt to 'humanise' the hero and/or appease the female members of the audience. Rather, love - whether romantic or maternal - is the principle motivation for the action. Consider:

 

The Terminator (1984) Soldier in future human resistance crosses time for love.

Aliens (1986) Bereaved mother saves surrogate daughter.

The Abyss (1989) Estranged husband and wife save their marriage.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Estranged mother and son are reunited and form a nuclear family with a surrogate father-figure.

True Lies (1994) Husband and wife spice up their marriage with a little counter-terrorism.

Titanic (1997) Forbidden love ends tragically but echoes across time.

Avatar (2009) Interstellar lovers transcend prejudice and become bonded for life.

 

The core of Cameron's aesthetic lies in the conflict between mechanical militarism and empathetic emotionalism. The fact that the latter unfailingly prevails makes it easy to dismiss it as a sentimental narrative with a commercial imperative. But his fixation with emotionally impoverished hyper-masculinity (battle-hardened soldiers; cyborg assassins; callous corporations) and man-made catastrophes (nuclear, aquatic and environmental disasters) suggests an existential anxiety beyond Hollywood formula.

 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

His films are clearly very personal, auteurist even, reflecting the aforementioned aesthetic dichotomy both in his plotlines ('the war against the machines’), characters ('part man, part machine'), and in his visual grammar (cold blue metal or moonlight contrasted with warm skin tones or fire), and is very likely an expression of an internal duality. Is it a coincidence that he's the child of an electrical engineer and an artist?

Ultimately, Cameron understands that for an action film to be truly effective, the action has to be driven by the characters. I wonder then what characters are driving him to return to Pandora four more times? Cameron has hinted in interviews that the stories will focus on Jake and Neytiri’s children. Are we to expect a Godfather-style saga spanning several generations of a single family? As usual with Cameron, we’ll just have to wait and... wait.