The Rear-View Mirror: Dispatches (1977)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a slim book, but it’s so densely written that I couldn’t get through it in one day. It’s his own personal diary from the Vietnam war, condensed into such sparse prose that you will have to set it down eventually. Herr throws you into the the mess of war and explains only what is crucial for the rest of the text so that the reader is set to feel very much like a newly drafted soldier joining the conflict – you have basic training, but no clue about the area they drop you in. The reason for that immediacy might be that Herr is not really a novelist, but a journalist. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, joined the reserve there in 1967, returned to the US, had a nervous breakdown, couldn’t write anything for five years and finally published this book in 1977. Continue reading

Enter the Zone

Ever since I spent a few months in Glasgow in 2000 and fell in love with the Glasgow Film Theatre, I’ve been hoping that a good repertory cinema would open a bit closer to home. Last autumn, that wish came true, when a local cinema that before had mostly shown B movies along the lines of The Core and The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen was refurnished and turned into a cinematic time capsule. They show some current arthouse fare at the Kino Rex Bern, but mostly they show classics, whether American, European or otherwise, and organise series on particular themes or filmmakers.

Stalker Continue reading

We need to talk about Christopher

I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.

I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.

There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.

At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.

As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.

P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.

Obsession, by Kubrick

Room 237 is a strange beast. The documentary consists entirely of people talking about their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, set mostly to clips from the film itself as well as of other Kubrick movies – and by and large the theories they espouse seem to have a shaky grasp of the process of film analysis, charitably put. Some of the speakers make interesting points and they don’t go out of their way to tie their observations into a grand theory of What The Film Actually Is About, but the majority come across as the film studies equivalent of conspiracy theories mixed with a flair for fabulation. The Shining is about the Holocaust! It’s about the genocide of the Native Americans! It’s Kubrick’s coded admission that he faked the moon landing footage for NASA! The poster of the skier is actually a minotaur!*

... and what kind of creature roams the labyrinth?

What is strange about the film, but partly accounts for how intriguing it is: it doesn’t overtly comment on any of the theories. Apart from the film clips, there is no voice in the film other than that of the Kubrick enthusiasts – which has prompted some film critics to read Room 237 as endorsing the theories, or at least as doing that relativist pomo spiel of flattening out hierarchies, so that any interpretation is as valid as any other. While Room 237 is subtle in its criticism, though, it trusts that the juxtaposition of the enthusiastic theories and the images from the film speaks for itself. There is no need to criticise or mock the Overlook Hotel’s conspiracy theorists: while their tones are engaging, their takes on The Shining are so obviously Through The Looking Glass that it’s unlikely any moviegoers will come away from the documentary thinking that Kubrick had indeed airbrushed his likeness into the Colorado clouds.

Fill 'er up...

Having said that, I do wonder whether the average film audience will discern much of a difference between Room 237‘s theories and the analyses of poststructuralist, psychoanalytical or any other modern film criticism. As much as I enjoy Slavoj Zizek’s jazzy flights of fancy on film, I expect that to many they wouldn’t sound any less insane than the theories presented in Room 237. I do think there’s a difference, namely that most of the protagonists of Room 237 see The Shining as a puzzle to be solved, a spooky Rubik’s Cube of a movie, whereas critics at their best show how art – and yes, that includes the film adaptation of a Stephen King novel – can mean more, not less, through the act of interpretation. There’s a reductiveness to the theories: The Shining means this, and only this – and why doesn’t anyone believe me? This is where Room 237 is immensely effective: in hinting at the sadness that exists alongside the exuberance of obsession. Some people spend such a long time staring at the clouds that they start seeing Kubrick looking back at them, and at that point it may be more frightening to admit that the bearded guy isn’t actually in the clouds, he’s in your head.

Come and tricycle with us...

*There are at least two speakers who don’t quite belong in this line-up of craziness: the topography of the Overlook is indeed very strange considering Kubrick’s own obsession with details, and one speaker’s screening of   superimposing the film played back-to-front makes for an intriguing video installation, which is something that is categorically different from the outlandish theories.

Let’s face the oil well and dance…

There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.

On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:

There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.

Is it better to rule in Hell…?

I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.

Prince Valiant, the Cleaner

P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!