A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #40: Star-Spangled Paranoia

Ah, 2021. We expected so much of you, but you decided to one-up your predecessor. The events of the last week have made John Frankenheimer’s paranoia classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962) look surprisingly sedate – who needs one sleeper agent brainwashed by hypnosis into becoming a terrorist when you can mobilise thousands via Twitter and distorting reality? Nonetheless, The Manchurian Candidate retains all of its unsettling potency. Join Julie, Sam and Matt – and quite possibly exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party – as they talk about Frankenheimer’s seminal film and why it still works so well. (One part of the answer is obviously Angela Lansbury.) So, instead of passing the time with a game of Solitaire, why don’t you join us as we explore not only this classic film of political and personal paranoia but the rich seam of paranoia that goes through American cinema?

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The Miami boys have lost their pull

It had to happen eventually, but still… for the first time in months, the top post in this blog isn’t the one about Crockett and Tubbs. What will I attract readers with now? According to the search terms used most often to get here, Hellboy’s become more of a pull. Sorry, Colin Farrell – some big red dude with filed-off horns gets the virtual punters in the seats these days!

We’ve now finished Jackie Brown (this blogger here is getting old – halfway through JB I realised that it was way past my bedtime… and that before midnight!), and it definitely more than holds up. The care Tarantino takes with his characters is wonderful, and not a little surprising: I’m more used to Tarantino caring about his lines and close-ups of feet than about characters.

More than anything, Jackie Brown is the most (perhaps even the only) mature film Tarantino has made. Now, his appeal doesn’t necessarily lie in his maturity – in fact, his adolescent hyperactivity is part of his appeal – but it’s beautiful to see his talent put to the service of a story that is not just a fun ride. In our youth-obsessed pop culture, it’s rare to see such a perfectly executed, entertaining film that is essentially about getting old but that takes its older characters seriously.

P.S. for all the Hitchcock fans out there: Vanity Fair has done a photo shoot of iconic Hitchcock scenes with today’s actors. People might ask what the point is – I don’t. I think the photos are eminently cool. The lighting, the painterly, expressionistic colours, the actors chosen… it’s perfect. Check all of ’em out here.

Okay, the seagull on her head may hamper the effect a tad for some…

Second chances

Yesterday I started watching Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s recent film update of the quintessential ’80s neon series. I’d seen it at the cinema, and while I’d enjoyed the gorgeous visuals, I’d been rather underwhelmed on the whole. Now that I’m seeing it on DVD (in a slightly longer version), I like it a lot more. Some of that is probably down to the lack of expectations on my part. (I’ve talked about my Mann-love here before), some of it may be due to the Michael Mann atmosphere: his films tend to have a strong streak of loneliness going through them, which may not work as well in a packed cinema.

It’s rare that my appreciation of a film changes from “meh…” to something better on repeat viewings. The opposite happens a bit more frequently, but it’s still fairly unlikely. But sometimes I see a movie at the cinema and something about it stays with me. SOmehow my brain knows it needs to give this film a second chance. And sometimes it’s those films that I end up liking most.

Just for the record: 12 Monkeys was a film that I needed to see two or three times to like.

And now, for your appreciation, some more Mann love:

Brokeback Speedboat

Why you, you doidy rat…!

There’s exactly one thing I would change about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: the last thirty seconds or so. The rat on the balcony railing. To me, at least, it felt like an insulting wink to the audience: “This is what the movie’s been about. Get it? Get it?”

 I probably found it more insulting because the rest of the film is nearly perfect: the casting, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the choice of music. I haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, the original Korean movie that Scorsese’s film is based on, so I won’t say anything about remakes at this point, except for this: if a remake is this good, what does it matter that it’s a remake? That’s a discussion about cultural imperialism, perhaps, but it’s not what I’m interested in here. I’m interested in what may be Scorsese’s most enjoyable movie ever.

Of course, there were lots of people who complained when Scorsese was awarded the Oscar for this film, and indeed, he should’ve received the Academy Award for some of his earlier work too. But what gets up my nose is that most of those who complained felt that The Departed is somehow less good a movie because it isn’t deep – and by deep they mean existential, or perhaps they mean, “If you can enjoy it, if you can have fun watching it, chances are it isn’t that good.” Which is silly, pretentious snobism. I don’t want every single one of Scorsese’s movies to be Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. True, these films have more social depth, they’re more tragic, but I hate the knee-jerk equation of ‘tragic’ with ‘good’ or ‘important’. Please note that I also hate the reverse snobism that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re so la-di-dah with your Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut, elitist gits! Go and jerk off to your boring, black-and-white arthouse bullshit, while I enjoy Die Hard!” Just like I don’t always want The Seventh Seal, I don’t always want Star Wars or The Rock either.

And I appreciate craft. In my opinion, there’s a lot to enjoy about, say, Die Hard, because it’s one of the best crafted films in its genre. There’s a lot to enjoy about the deft lightness of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake, just as there is a lot to enjoy in Jules et Jim. The things you’re enjoying are simply very different, but all of these films are by filmmakers who are amazing craftsmen. And quite often it’s genre cinema where you get great examples of the craft: Blade Runner, The Godfather, Out of Sight, Aliens.

And it is in terms of craft that The Departed absolutely excels. From the first few shots in the movie, you know that this was made by people who know what they’re doing. When I saw the film at the cinema, it was the first time that I had an inkling what critics mean when they talk about “muscular filmmaking”. In spite of the clumsy allegorical rat at the very end, I left the cinema energised and wanting to see it again. So, for all those who thought that the film wasn’t ‘deep’ enough, here’s another clip. It expresses quite neatly what I think about arrogance towards genre cinema. Enjoy.

P.S.: I am not saying that all quality is relative; I hope you understand that. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Citizen Kane, or indeed between Raging Bull and The Departed, isn’t one of quality. It’s not that one film is better than the other – it’s the subject matter and its treatment that are different. Arguably one is deeper than the other, but in the end depth is something I can take or leave. Sometimes I want an intricate seven-course meal, and sometimes I want a hamburger… but I want a good hamburger.