Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
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Classic Movie – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Silence. A black screen. Then the rumblings of a strange, atmospheric music; a brief overture that spells ominousness, uncertainty. Then, more music – the thumping opening to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. On-screen, a shot of the shadowed moon. On cue perfectly, the powerful, stirring rise of the earth behind the moon, and the sun behind the earth. As the music builds to a dazzling crescendo, emphatic words are emblazoned before our eyes:

METRO-GOLDWYN MAYER PRESENTS

A STANLEY KUBRICK PRODUCTION

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Such is the opening to perhaps the greatest example of science-fiction in the history of cinema. Avant-garde, visually and aurally glorious, 2001 remains the most ambitious of Stanley Kubrick’s films; a paean to human evolution and discovery that has inspired vast hordes of filmmakers. Yet for some the film can be trying; a willingness to forsake convention is certainly required for its more protracted, uneventful sequences. Even so, despite its status as a ‘classic’ movie, the deeply modern aesthetic of 2001 surely ensures that it will continue to endure, whether or not we ever reach its optimistic predictions for the fate of the human race.

Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The genesis of the film lay in a creative partnership practically matchless for its genre, between director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick had just mercilessly satirised the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove and had subsequently become interested in the possibility of the existence of extra-terrestrial life. After much creative pondering, Kubrick and Clarke began to develop a story which would track humanity’s relationship with the universe, from early evolution to space colonisation, and then beyond. Clarke developed his novel at the same time Kubrick was making his film. While Clarke allows the reader a clearer telling of this vast narrative, Kubrick’s creation is more mysterious and subjective, relying on the power of imagery and suggestion – though it is by no means impenetrable.

We begin on a beautifully rendered, arid prehistoric earth, as a collection of apes live out a relatively untroubled existence – that is, until the arrival of a large, black monolith, accompanied by a terror-filled strain of music. It is this eminently alien object which reoccurs throughout the film, guiding the progress of man. Indeed, soon afterwards, one the apes soon discovers the first human tool – an animal bone – a joyous moment of advancement that marks one step closer to modern man. What comes minutes later is utterly unprecedented. Kubrick cuts from a shot of an airborne bone to one of an object in space. Millions of years of war, empire-building, human advancement and space exploration are encapsulated in a single cut. Whether or not you believe in evolution itself – I am personally sceptical – Kubrick’s cut is a breathtaking coup de théâtre.

1.
From this…
...to this.
…to this.

The eternally graceful Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss suddenly fills our ears as we begin to explore the weightless precision of colonised space. We follow Heywood Floyd, one of the men behind the discovery of an artificial, buried object on the moon. But little sooner than that we again leap settings. Several astronauts, only two actually conscious, are on their way to Jupiter, though they know little about why they are going. Also on-board is the HAL 9000 computer, the mechanical patriarch of the ship. He is the pinnacle of technological advancement in that he exhibits human characteristics. After HAL begins to show some anxiety about the mission – with tense and devastating results – we arrive at Jupiter. The final movement leads us into the unknown, into a potential future for mankind as terrifying as it is unexplained.

The film thus exhibits a variety of different narratives and characters, all the more surprising considering the leisurely delivery of some of its episodes. A measure of the audacity of Kubrick’s approach can be found in the ways the director subverts film convention. The most interesting character of any turns out to be not human at all, but machine – the HAL 9000. Represented visually by a single, unmoving red dot, he is voiced with uncanny ambiguity by Douglas Rain; the transition from quiet amiability to malice is the only real character arc of the story. Many of the humans, by contrast, are curiously cold. Without wanting to spoil any of the film, it should be noted that there is one moment which casts some doubt on astronaut Dave Bowman’s sympathy for his colleague Gary Lockwood. By enacting such ventures, Kubrick poses a vital question of what it essentially means to be human, while also conjecturing the potential for technological progress. This only makes the ensuing man-machine conflict more vital and exciting.

The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.
The ominous HAL 9000 watches one of the astronauts.

Another technique Kubrick insists upon is the reliance on image and sound rather than dialogue. There are no spoken words for vast sections of the film, notably the entire opening and closing movements. The frenetic dogfights and swift pace that would be championed in Star Wars nine years later, and which now seem commonplace in mainstream Hollywood cinema, are entirely absent. Instead, we are given a more balletic, measured pace in keeping with a classical soundtrack; this is a slow waltz rather than a sprawling jive. This can seem ill-fitting to some who expect it to move more quickly, but this approach in reality only adds to the film’s greatness. Kubrick forces us to properly appreciate the majesty of that vast starry silence that is the solar system, rather than pass it by with a mere indifferent gaze.

The best indication of the strength of Kubrick’s cinematic derring-do, however, is to be found in his use of special effects. Even after forty-six years, virtually nothing in the film appears aged; first and foremost the scenes in space itself, Kubrick capturing its black eternity and danger brilliantly. The interior scenes too remain impressive, with the astronaut Dave Bowman appearing to jog all the way around a circular ship in an utterly seamless fashion, the imperatives of zero-gravity pinning him to both floor and ceiling. But arguably the most stunning use of effects comes right at the end, a fifteen-minute swirling neon fantasy that well and truly transcends worlds. In short, the film is utterly extraordinary from a visual perspective, and further commendable when considering how much of it was performed practically, without CGI; the influence on Christopher Nolan is transparent. Though Kubrick’s only Oscar was for the special effects in 2001, the protean visual work of Douglas Trumbull should be acknowledged; he would later be able to make his own film Silent Running in 1972. Indeed, emerging into an iridescent Leicester Square after seeing the film, my friend turned wide-eyed to me and declared: ‘That film just messed with my mind.’

The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.
The effects work by Kubrick and Trumbull was pioneering for its time.

For such a gaping, ambitious evocation of space life, it seems impossible to completely comprehend everything in just one viewing. I didn’t entirely ‘get’ 2001 at first; I had no problem with its pace, but did find the lack of a definite explanation a questionable inclusion. What caused the stratospheric rise in my opinion of the film? Partly, a growing interest in the aesthetics of cinematic image and a realisation that classical music is not just for upper-class Telegraph readers. But mostly, it was to do with seeing 2001 in a cinema. Only that way could I properly contend with Kubrick’s vision, could I gaze open-mouthed at the bewildering detail of its visuals and the cathartic splendour of its music. Only by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey this way could I gain a greater recognition of cinema’s ability to transform and minds through the miraculous fusion of image and sound. Finally, only be seeing the film this way has it remained so strongly in my thoughts for days afterwards – including now, as I write this, my fingers and hands trembling at the memory of the closing image, a final tribute to the exploring potential of man throughout the ages, and in the future.

Past reviews

Before I started this wordpress business, I used to write a lot of reviews of films both recent and old. I’ve carefully trawled through a great load of them (a lot of them aren’t very good) and selected what I feel most represents my stunning body of work as a professional writer. Enjoy, therefore, a presentation of my unparalleled reviewing skills.

I know, I’m not really a professional writer. It’s just a joke.

Review – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first major screen appearance of the sensationally jingoistic Marvel superhero Captain America is an enthralling mix of villainy, patriotism and gunfire. Set in World War Two, it tells the story of the scrawny Steve Rogers who, after being deemed unfit for regular military service, volunteers for a secret experimental project which transforms him into a muscle man with superheroic abilities. Though Chris Evans’ performance lacks emotion, the film benefits from its supporting cast which includes a spectacularly creepy Hugo Weaving as arch-villain Red Skull and a dazzling (and English) Hayley Atwell as SSR Agent Peggy Carter. The set-pieces are better than ever, each explosive scene transitioning to the next with almost no break, and there are some excellent fight scenes between the American soldiers and the disintegration-gun-equipped followers of Nazi cult HYDRA.

It’s undoubtedly cheesy, but in a more comfortable, familiar way, a way that is often associated with Marvel, so it’s forgiveable. The 3D, however, is not. The whole film appears flat in its entirety, even when our nationalistic protagonist tosses his painted shield at the camera with considerable force. Never mind. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a good bit of old-fashioned, very American fun, which succeeds in whetting our appetites even further for the forthcoming “Avengers” film. Just make sure you stay until after the end credits.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s “Batman” ultimately reincarnated the renowned comic-book character with great style; from the campy, tongue-in-cheek days of the 60s to the brooding, dark shadow we know today. With elements of Frank Miller, Burton brought into existence a Gotham city overrun with dangerous criminals and menacing streets. It is into this unholy world which Batman grapples his way in, ridding it of thieves and murderers. Yet a far more intimidating, lethal villain is rising and could soon rule over the city. As Batman begins to uncover more secrets about himself, photographer Vicki Vale becomes more and more susceptible to this great enemy’s lure.

The art direction in this is simply astonishing. Burton chose not to shoot on location, but instead to craft his Gotham out of extensively complicated sets which would be erected at the time of filming. And the film itself looks stunning. Although “Batman” is dark, it’s full of colour too. The character bringing that colour is unquestionably Jack Nicholson’s Joker – making snappy one-liners, he kills people with crude ‘toys’, such as a lethally electric hand buzzer, whilst laughing manically. Although there are funny parts, this is in comparison to earlier efforts a very serious comic book movie, full of stark imagery and thoroughly explosive action sequences. Although there’s not a huge amount of character development, especially in Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, Danny Elfman’s score is terrific and this will always be remembered as the first truly exciting, tense and sinister Batman movie.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’ thought-provoking directorial debut, Moon, is one of the greatest science fiction films of the 21st century. Sam Bell is an American astronaut who, in the last few weeks of his 3-year contract on Moon, has a very personal encounter that makes him question reality. In a Hollywood smorgasbord of sci-fi rip-offs, remakes and sequels, it’s gratifying to find something utterly fresh, stimulating and original as this, even if Kevin Spacey’s robotic assistant GERTY is somewhat reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sam Rockwell carries the entire film on his shoulders – a hefty job, but he adapts perfectly and gives a thoroughly powerful, emotional performance. It’s a wonderfully entertaining film with some great set-pieces, but it’s also a poignant tale of growing industrialisation and human greed.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Hard Boiled (1992)

John Woo’s last Hong Kong film before his unfortunate shift to Hollywood delivers much more than any American filmmaker can with about a tenth of the budget. Hard Boiled is action cinema at its very, very best with its intense shootouts, deafening explosions and, in general, its colourful flamboyance. It’s one of the most elaborate and awe-inducing films you will ever experience.

Chow Yun Fat stars as “Tequila”, a tenacious, agile cop who is determined to track down and annihilate a malevolent mob boss (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his associates. Also in the picture is Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) – another gangster… or is he?

Despite the trouble of culture clash, one can distinguish how good the two main leads are. Even through the most extravagant gun battles they convey the deepest emotions – the undercover man, yearning to break free from his vice, and the loyal, aging cop who believes he’s misunderstood. It seems, when directing his own countrymen, Woo can achieve much better performances.

Although the film in its entirety is pulse-pounding, the real sensations come at the end in the climatic hospital scene. Thousands of bullets are sprayed around as cops go up against terrorists and flames are everywhere in a sequence that only further shows Woo’s utter pyrotechnical genius. In one instance, the camera follows Tequila and Tony around as they shoot people in an impressive long take lasting almost three minutes. It’s a unique and fantastic addition that you never really see in an action film, making it all the more flabbergasting. Woo’s extensive use of slow-motion shots and quick, brutal dispatching of characters has become something of a genre in itself as it truly does stand unparalleled.

It’s often been ranked in the same vicinity as his other masterpiece, The Killer (1989). While Hard Boiled doesn’t have as much of a story, the action is certainly on a much higher level. It’s really up to the viewer to decide which they prefer, but one thing is for sure on both sides; that Hard Boiled, the last film John Woo made in Hong Kong, is not to be missed under any circumstances.

5 stars out of 5

And there you have it. I hope you enjoyed reading these as much as I enjoyed writing them (which for one of them wasn’t very much. See if you can guess which one). I’ll be trying to write more review on here especially of more recent films, such as the upcoming Tintin film (which I just happen to be seeing early). Stick with it, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.