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I have finally got around to watching Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (2015), which was released last year, but, like a number of his recent works, has not been as widely distributed as the films such as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) that established him in the 1990s as an internationally significant film-maker. The film, which was written and directed by Kitano and in which he acts in a minor role as a detective, has received rather ambivalent reviews, dismissing it as ‘slight’ and over-long, but it is a very enjoyable film and an interesting development of themes that run through his work.

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Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen tells the story of a group of elderly, retired and incorrigible yakuza who decide to form a new ‘family’ to confront the young gang, Keihin United, that now operates in the area of Tokyo they used to control. In an invocation of The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954), and The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), and with echoes of films about ageing characters revisiting their past glories, such as The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969), Robin and Marian (Lester, 1976), Space Cowboys (Eastwood, 2000), or Stand Up Guys (Stevens, 2012), the protagonist Ryuzo assembles a group of old friends each of whom possessed signature skills that are now more or less redundant – especially in the wake of anti-yakuza laws introduced from 2011 onwards. The henchmen include Mokichi ‘the toilet assassin’ whose revolting modus operandi of hiding inside a pit latrine and stabbing the user through the opening is of no use in the age of flushing toilets, Mac ‘the quick shooter’, a Steve McQueen obsessive who can no longer hit anything, Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ whose skill was throwing nails, but is similarly incapable of hitting the target, and Taka ‘the razor slasher’, who is now unable even to shave his own face without slicing it up.

 

Although it eschews the more uncompromising experimentation of Kitano’s recent films such as Glory to the Filmmkaker! (2007) and Takeshis’ (2005) or the systematic formalism of Kitano’s earlier films, such as the static framing and tableau shots of A Scene at the Sea (1991) or Kikujiro (1999), or the repetitive tracking shots of Dolls (2002), the film is nevertheless as crisply photographed and colourful as any of the director’s films. The film’s simple score recalls the pristine music of Jo Hisaishi, who composed the music for Kitano’s most well-known known films, as well as some of the most successful Studio Ghibli films, and the foregrounding of an accordion is a reminder of Kitano’s interest in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the nouvelle vague.

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The film is a fusion of a generic gangster film with farce and crude physical humour, an element of Kitano’s films (and his TV programmes or the uncompletable video game he designed for Nintendo) that has never translated very well. The ageing yakuza, who call themselves the Dragon One League – named after the dragon tattoo on Ryuzo’s back, but unfortunately also the name of a local restaurant – are described by the young gangsters as old farts, and in a running gag, Ryuzo farts repeatedly at inappropriate moments, such as when he undresses to display his impressive tattoos to an old flame. Casio Abe has suggested that the key film within Kitano’s oeuvre is Getting Any? (1994), a bizarre, incoherent and self-reflexive comedy about a young man who is fixated on acquiring a car in the belief that this will finally enable him to have sex. Getting Any? is far less well known internationally than any of his other films, and is hard to reconcile with the minimalism of a yakuza film such as Brother (2000). Nevertheless, comedy plays a crucial role within all of the films by this former stand-up comedian, highlighting more or less indirectly the absurdity of the protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. In this respect – in the systematic use of comedy to undermine the earnest self-importance and futile heroism of their protagonists – Kitano’s films are consistently engaged with a critical examination of Japanese masculinity, and Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is a particularly interesting example, since it eschews the nihilistic monumentalism of Brother or the fetishistic stylised violence of the yakuza thrillers, Outrage (2010) and Beyond Outrage (2012).

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Ryuzo, the boss of the family, is played by Tatsuya Fuji in a performance that is almost an impersonation of Kitano’s own impassive acting style. Fuji is best known outside Japan for his role as one of the two protagonists of Nagisa Oshima’s notorious film of an obsessive affair, In the Realm of the Senses (1976). In that film, which has been interpreted as a critique of the martial ethos of Japanese masculinity, Fuji’s character, Ishida, is ultimately strangled and castrated by his lover, and so the casting of Fuji inevitably invites us to read this film as a critical reflection upon (cinematic) masculinity. Kitano’s relationship with Oshima is significant given that it was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Oshima, 1983) that established Kitano as a serious screen actor, while Kitano also featured in Oshima’s final film, Gohatto (1999), and both films explore the relationship between male homosexuality and military or martial cultures. Incidentally, given the self-reflexivity with which Kitano’s films are shot through, the fact that Ryuzo is missing two fingers and is ready to slice off another at any moment in order to save face, may well be a comic reference to the conclusion of Oshima’s film. Although they have sometimes been marketed as slick exercises in genre film-making, from Violent Cop (1989)his debut as a director – onwards, the films Kitano has directed (and usually written) have been preoccupied with issues of mortality and purpose, illness and injury, ageing, the male body, and the loss of physical strength. In that sense, rather than a slight comedy, this is a key film within Kitano’s cinema, a summary of and reflection upon his films to date. The comedy is often unsubtle and scatological – the film concludes with a car chase during which Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ shits himself when the gang use their senior citizen passes to commandeer a bus – but as a film about ageing men by an ageing man, now 69, the film has a poignancy that is absent from some of his earlier films.

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Turning on the radio on Monday morning and hearing about David Bowie’s death was probably the first time I have been truly upset to hear about the death of a public figure. I have been listening to his music since I bought a cassette of Let’s Dance when I was 13, and his importance to me and to others was that this public figure represented a set of possibilities, holding open other, better, more interesting, but also frustratingly contradictory and excitingly uncertain ways of being. What is upsetting about his death is the sense that, with it, they have been closed off.

This sense of closure was underscored by the fact that it was only when I heard David Cameron talking about him on BBC Radio 4 that I realised Bowie had died. Under the guise of fiscal ‘austerity’, Cameron’s neoliberal government is engaged with the radically destructive  anti-democratic project of dismantling the welfare state and public services, raiding and selling off the country’s assets to private investors and foreign governments, and exposing every area of British society to the rapacious and devastatingly wasteful market. One of the immediate consequences of this disaster capitalism is greater poverty and accelerating inequality, and so there was a particularly sour irony in listening to this privileged, callous, intellectually limited man who is responsible for making the lives of many people much harder, and for shutting down the opportunity for millions of people to make better lives, affecting to care about the death of a man whose speculative work imagined and evoked utopian, optimistic, colourful and progressive futures.

I wrote a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Bowie’s distinctive work on screen as part of a suite of pieces they are publishing to mark his death. That piece can be found here.

This is a slightly longer edit of the piece with a number of additional links:

A rogue performer: Bowie on film

‘I’m not a film star’ – Blackstar, David Bowie (2015)

Although eclipsed by his music, David Bowie pursued a fascinating parallel career as an actor, appearing on stage, television, and in films by a diverse range of directors that includes Nagisa Ôshima, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Jim Henson, Julien Temple, Tony Scott, and Christopher Nolan in roles that range from the ‘Goblin King’ in children’s fantasy film, Labyrinth, a rapidly ageing vampire in Hunger, a captured British army officer in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, through to Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ and Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

 

The critical response to his performances was generally mixed, but considered together they are of a piece with the restless, experimental, collaborative approach he applied to his music. They represent a consistent attempt to move beyond the medium in which he was comfortably successful, bravely exposing rather than concealing his limitations.

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His first significant role was as the extraterrestrial protagonist in the 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth by British director Nicolas Roeg and it is the film that makes by far the best use of his performance style and played an important role in shaping his subsequent persona since images from the film were appropriated for his next two album covers, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). Adapted from a 1963 novel, this bleak, beautiful, formally playful eco-film tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth in search of water to save his drought-ridden home planet. Despite struggling with the heat and stronger gravity of earth he is able to pass as human, and exploits superior alien technology to become extremely wealthy, setting up a global corporation in order to build spaceships that can travel between earth and his home world.

 

Roeg recounted that while he had initially wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton for the role, (since he, like the alien in the novel, was extremely tall), and also considered Peter O’Toole, he decided to offer Bowie the role, despite the musician’s lack of acting experience, after spotting him in a BBC documentary. It was undoubtedly a financially smart move to employ one of the most famous musicians on the planet in the lead role, and the casting cannily invokes the apocalyptic science fiction scenarios of his albums, Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. However, what drew Roeg to Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t a professional actor. In this film and others, when viewed alongside the confident, expressive, naturalistic performances of experienced screen actors, Bowie’s understated delivery of lines, approximation of accents and hesitant bodily presence can seem awkward and self-conscious, or even technically incompetent. It is an example of what Richard Maltby terms ‘autonomous performance’ – a performance that can make us aware that we are watching a performance – by contrast with an ‘integrated performance’ style in which a technically skilled actor is convincingly subsumed into a character. Watching David Bowie on screen, we are always watching Bowie playing a role, even when he is playing himself. Of course, it is also the case that when we watch actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, we are always invited to study and admire their masterful displays of technically accomplished acting as well as the characters they portray, but for Roeg, who had previously worked with Mick Jagger in the brilliant, uncategorisable Performance, and went on to direct Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing, the attraction of a rock star is that they can act in a way that is simply impossible for a conventionally trained actor.

 

As Roeg explains in his autobiography,

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

 

The same is true of Bowie’s exceptional performance in this film. Placing his naked, pale, skinny body on display, he portrays the alien as a fragile, wry, anxious, lustful, polysexual and tragically lonely character who is steadily brutalised – brought down to earth and humanised – by an indifferent, paranoid, consumerist society. The producers at Warner Brothers were sceptical about the casting, but as Roeg explained to them, this was a film about an alien pretending to be human. In this respect, Bowie’s sometimes stilted performance was the perfect realisation of this character. However, what gives the unforgettable portrayal a greater poignancy is the sense that this figure stranded in a strange, confusing and hostile environment is really a description of Bowie himself. As Roeg recalled, ‘He wasn’t putting it on, it was who he was […] For example, Bowie has a marvellous laugh. It was just left of centre. It was like [Bowie had thought], “Isn’t that how they laugh on earth?”’

 

Reference:

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

 

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I’ve just written a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Christmas films.

This is a slightly longer edit of the piece:

 

The nightmare of Christmas – five films that capture the real Christmas spirit.

‘It’s like Christmas – except happy’

  • Ben Cafferty, The Veep (2015)

 

Christmas, it goes without saying, is a particularly grim time of year. Rolling around with grinding, Groundhog Day relentlessness, it is an interval of dark days and long nights, kitsch music, clothing and décor, enforced jollity, stilted family gatherings, over-consumption and end-of-year lists (detailing the films, books, exhibitions and cultural events you missed during the last year). As is demonstrated by Christmas with the Kranks (Roth, 2004) – the John Grisham adaptation in which a couple whose kids have left home decide to avoid Christmas by going on a Caribbean holiday only to find themselves shunned by their appalled neighbours and children – participation in this ritual is not optional.

 

Moreover, as US folk-singer, Loudon Wainwright III observes in the song, Suddenly It’s Christmas, the joy goes on for weeks:

 

‘When they say “Season’s greetings”, they mean just what they say: It’s a season, it’s a marathon, retail eternity.’

This sense of the endlessly protracted festivities is captured most effectively by the last episode of the UK TV series Black Mirror, ‘White Christmas’ (2014), which places the protagonist, Joe Potter, in a new circle of hell. This modern morality tale ends with Potter trapped forever in a snow-bound shack on Christmas Day, while Wizzard’s 1973 single, I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day, plays repeatedly on a radio that cannot be turned off.

 

Christmas films are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself. Perhaps the first, directed by Brighton film-maker George A Smith, dates from 1898. This is, therefore, a highly selective list of five films that really capture the Christmas spirit.

 

Big Business (McCarey, Horne, 1929)

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Laurel and Hardy are particularly closely associated with Christmas in the US since their musical, March of the Wooden Soldiers (Meins, Rodgers, 1934), has been screened every year on network TV at Christmas since the 1960s. Big Business, a silent two-reel short, offers a more critical take on the period. The premise is that the hopelessly inept pair are selling Christmas trees door to door – in sunny California. In attempting to sell a tree to one reluctant customer, they quickly become embroiled in a battle that culminates in the enraged customer smashing their car to pieces while they destroy his house and garden. It is a brilliantly economical example of slapstick comedy, and functions as a metaphor for the self-destructive escalation of armed conflict. It also works as a metaphor for the ritual of present-giving at Christmas. Following the study of gift economies and potlatch rituals by anthropologist Marcel Mauss and philosopher Georges Bataille, we might understand the gift, not as a generous, altruistic offering, but as a self-aggrandising demonstration of a superior wealth and power, expressed as the capacity to waste. The gift is an aggressive challenge to the recipient to respond with a more extravagant gift, to waste more. To give is, in effect, to demand, and this film captures the accelerating violence of gift-giving beautifully.

 

Jingle all the Way (Levant, 1996)

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The violence associated with gift-giving is also the theme of the superficially light comedy, Jingle all the Way, released in the US, with bare-faced irony, in an extended ‘Family Fun Edition’, and which film critic, Roger Ebert found depressing for ‘its relentlessly materialistic view of Christmas’. The film tells the story of a workaholic businessman, Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has neglected to buy his son a present and sets out at the last minute to buy him a ‘Turbo Man’ doll, only to find out that this year’s sought-after toy has sold out everywhere. In the course of the film, Langston – played perfectly by the improbably muscular Schwarzenegger as a character bubbling with barely contained rage and panic, and ready to snap – encounters vicious shoppers, contemptuous store-workers, a criminal gang of counterfeit toy-makers all dressed as Santa Claus, aggressive police, and an unstable postal worker who inadvertently delivers a bomb to a radio station, while his creepily lascivious divorced neighbour tries to seduce Langton’s wife and befriend his son. In a syrupy conventional ending, Langston’s son realises that his father is the real ‘Turbo Man’, but it is the satirical account of the abject, desperate desire to consume, that is the film’s principal theme.

 

Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003)

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The abject quality of Christmas is depicted even more directly in the black comedy, Bad Santa. The film’s central character is Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a safe-cracker who passes himself off as a department-store Father Christmas so that he and his accomplice can rob the stores after closing time. A foul-mouthed, racist, lewd, chain-smoking, incontinent alcoholic who hates all children, but especially the sweetly ingenuous young boy, Thurman Merman, who is convinced, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that Willie is the real Father Christmas. ‘What is it with you, anyway?’, he asks the boy at one point. ‘Somebody drop you on your fuckin’ head?’ The film is a satirical retort to the classic Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947), which centres on Kris Kringle, a kindly New York department-store Santa who, it is implied, is the real Father Christmas. However, whereas in the earlier film, the question of Kringle’s identity is treated as a matter of the importance of belief in the face of rational evidence – a theme that is explored with chilling single-mindedness in the animated film, The Polar Express (Zemeckis, 2004) – Bad Santa exposes the gap between the pious, traditional image of Christmas epitomized by Norman Rockwell magazine covers and soft drink adverts, and the ugly reality of contemporary commercial culture. In his laziness, his selfishness and vindictiveness, and in his unconstrained appetites, Willie is the monstrous embodiment of the spirit of Christmas as a nauseating interval of excessive consumption.

 

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Helander, 2013)

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This Finnish horror film takes the monstrous figure of Father Christmas as a rather less comic device. Derived partly from Alien (Scott, 1979) and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), the film’s premise is that an American archaeological operation has located something deep below a mountain in the snowy wilderness of Finland and is blasting the mountain in order to uncover it. As reindeer and children begin to go missing, the local villagers begin to hunt for the culprit, and find themselves besieged by Santa’s helpers, the elves who are stealing and kidnapping children to offer to the giant, horned Santa who was unearthed by the dig and is encased in a block of ice. At the film’s droll conclusion, the locals set up a lucrative business exporting the captured elves for service as department-store Santas. The film proposes that the European origin of the Santa Claus myth lies in this much darker story of serial killing and kidnapping and in so doing highlights the deep strangeness of the story we tell to our children – that they are watched over continually by an invisible elderly man who can see everything they do, and, having judged their moral worth, enters their houses and bedrooms secretly to reward them with gifts.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)

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In a discussion of the populist, sentimental and nostalgic tendencies of Frank Capra’s films, Jeffrey Richards describes this classic Hollywood film as the director’s ‘last, great, triumphant affirmation of faith in Individualism’ (77). The film is typically remembered fondly as a hackneyed, feel-good film, an example of a group of films that have been termed dismissively ‘Capra-corn’, but in some respects it is one of the bleakest titles on this list. A reworking of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the film tells the story of George Bailey, who is about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but is persuaded not to by his guardian angel who demonstrates to him how important he is to other people in the town despite his failure to realise his personal ambitions, by showing him parallel realities from which Bailey was absent. As Richards observes, the film is ‘an allegory of post-war America’ in which the small picket-fenced town, Bedford Falls, ‘represents the nation’, and ‘George Bailey the spirit of individualism’. However, as film critic Ronald Bergan argues, ‘although it is a fine example of a well-crafted, well-acted classic Hollywood movie, it is also a deeply reactionary one.’ Bailey is an everyman who has comprehensively failed to realise his ambitions to travel the world, go to college and become an architect. Instead circumstances have left him trapped in Bedford Falls – an environment as claustrophobic as Joe Potter’s hellish shack in Black Mirror – in a boring job, watching time pass.

 

Bailey decides not to kill himself after he is persuaded by the angel that he has played an important role in stopping the predatory financier, Henry F. Potter, from taking over the town. We might read the film’s message positively as an injunction to be happy with your lot, no matter how meagre it may be – to ‘put up and shut up’. More broadly, in its celebration of capitulation and compromise, the allegorical film is a defence of the status quo of American finance capitalism. As Richards observes, ‘In the film, it is George Bailey who triumphs, but in fact it has been Henry Potter’. Or, more bluntly, as Bergan observes of the film, ‘It’s a wonderful lie.’

 

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

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A review of my monograph on the director Michael Winterbottom in the student-led journal, Film Matters, which describes the book as an ‘in-depth investigation’ of his work, and ‘a fruitful examination of a filmmaker who has spent years honing his craft and who still consistently manages to surprise his audiences’: winterbottom%20review

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A short piece on the political rhetoric of aspiration and its appropriation by the left, co-written with Imogen Tyler for the UK think tank, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies. This was included in a report entitled ‘What is Aspiration? How should progressives respond?’, published on 21st August and available here: http://classonline.org.uk/docs/What_is_aspiration.pdf

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I learnt recently that I’ve been awarded a 12-month research fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust to undertake a research project on the history of cycling in cinema, exploring the changing relationship between these parallel industrial technologies. The project begins with the early experiments with cinema during the Victorian period and tracks the development of screen cultures of cycling through to the present post-cinematic moment.

The project is outlined in the latest newsletter published by the Leverhulme Trust: https://www.leverhulme.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Publications/May2015_Newsletter.pdf

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I’m very excited to see that a ‘special dossier‘ of critical essays on the Hollywood film-maker Michael Bay that I co-edited for the open-access online Film Studies journal, Senses of Cinema, has just been published. This project emerged from a conversation with a couple of friends at the SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) conference in Boston a couple of years ago about the current dearth of academic engagement with high-grossing, big-budget spectacle cinema.

The dossier includes my own essay, ‘The Cinema of Michael Bay: An Aesthetic of Excess‘, which centres on a close reading of Bad Boys II (Bay, 2003).

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The first review of my book on Michael Winterbottom, published in Media International Australia, no. 154, Feb. 2015. Flatteringly, the reviewer deems it ‘essential reading because it provides an original and individual insight on an unclassifiable British director’.

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La Roue

Frame from La Roue (Gance, 1923)

Since the Christmas vacation I’ve found myself so stretched with teaching and admin duties that I’ve been unable to write very much, but have nevertheless continued watching films at every opportunity. This is a crucial aspect of the mundane discipline of film scholarship, and I usually keep a notebook to jot down details and thoughts about films I’ve seen, but even this has been more than I’ve been able to manage. However, I’ve kept a list of what I’ve watched over the last two and a half months and, laid out like this, I’m surprised to see how much I’ve actually managed to view. Some of these I’ve watched before of course, and this is not fully comprehensive since it also doesn’t include all of the films I’ve re-watched with students for modules I lecture on. It’s perhaps not a fantastically diverse range of titles and there’s a great deal of American cinema there, but there are some fascinating, beautiful, and very funny films among them.

  • Any Old Port! (James Horne, 1932) USA
  • Bastards (Deborah Perkin, 2014) UK
  • Below Zero (James Parrott, 1930) USA
  • Bicycle (Michael B. Clifford, 2014) UK
  • Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014) USA
  • Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis, 2015) UK
  • Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) USA
  • Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919) USA
  • Bumping into Broadway (Hal Roach, 1919) USA
  • Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014) USA
  • Chickens Come Home (James Horne, 1931) USA
  • City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930) USA
  • Clueless (Amy Heckeling, 1995) USA
  • Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013) UK
  • Filth (Jon Baird, 2013) UK
  • The Fixer Uppers (Charley Rogers, 1935) USA
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) UK
  • The Freshman (Fred C Newmeyer, 1925) USA
  • Gamer (Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor, 2009) USA
  • Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) USA
  • Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011) USA/UK/Germany
  • Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011) USA/UK/Germany
  • Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014) USA/UK/Canada
  • Jingle all the Way (Brian Levant, 1996) USA
  • John Wick (Chad Stahelski, 2014) USA/Canada/China
  • Joy Division (Grant Gee, 2007) UK/USA
  • The Lady and the Beard (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931) Japan
  • The Live Ghost (Charley Rogers, 1934) USA
  • The Man who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) UK
  • Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Shawn Levy, 2014) USA/UK
  • Paddington (Paul King, 2014) UK/France
  • Parade (Jacques Tati, 1974) France
  • The Pixar Story (Leslie Iwerks, 2007) USA
  • The Playhouse (Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton, 1921) USA
  • Pusher III (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2005) Denmark
  • La Roue (Abel Gance, 1923) France
  • Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) UK
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzak, 2015) UK/France
  • Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton, 1924) USA
  • Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952) USA
  • They Live (John Carpenter, 1988) USA
  • Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) UK/USA/France
  • 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, 2014) USA
  • Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) UK/USA/Switzerland
  • Upside Down: The Creation Records Story (Danny O’Connor, 2012) UK
  • Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013) USA/Canada
  • We are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson) Sweden
  • What we do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2015) NZ

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Introduction to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University) Dukes Cinema 5th Jan, 2015.

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of this film as part of the current season of SF films distributed by the BFI, ‘Days of Fear and Wonder’).

The Man Who Fell to Earth is the fifth feature film directed by the British film-maker, Nicolas Roeg who produced a series of remarkable films from the late 1960s onwards that extend from the horror film Don’t Look Now (1973) starring Julie Christie, a made-for-TV movie of Samson and Delilah (1996) starring Dennis Hopper, a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1993), through to the children’s film The Witches (1990), his very dark adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel that starred Angelica Huston. Roeg is 86 now, but is still working – his autobiography was published in 2013 (taking its title from a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth) and his last feature film, Puffball, an adaptation of a Fay Weldon novel, was released in 2007. It’s a fascinating film, a strange supernatural fantasy about the Irish countryside, birth and women’s experience that starred Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham and Donald Sutherland. The Observer film reviewer Philip French described it accurately as ‘A curious mixture of Cold Comfort Farm, Straw Dogs and Rosemary’s Baby’, and it explores a number of themes that are present throughout his films – sexuality, subjective experience, the irrational – and has an immediately recognisable visual style, but sadly, it was never properly released in Britain and disappeared almost without trace (French 2008).

Although his films are marked by an interest in experimentation, Roeg’s route into film-making was quite conventional. At 17, after the war, he joined the army as a paratrooper and then left after two years to take up an apprenticeship in Marylebone Studios, a small production company in London where he made the tea and ran errands. Over the next few years he moved from one studio to another, working his way up from the bottom, learning about editing, producing, screenwriting, sound design, and the industrial process of commercial film-making. As he’s observed, at the time there were no film schools or books on how to make films, so the only way to learn was from the inside, picking up trade secrets and techniques from others in the business. He graduated to working with a camera crew at MGM first of all as focus puller, then camera operator and eventually rising to the position of director of photography (or Lighting Cameraman) – the woman or man whose job is to work with the director and production designer in devising the overall look of a film. He was Director of Photography on a number of striking films in the 1960s including Roger Corman’s lurid treatment of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s SF film, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Richard Lester’s experimental melodrama, Petulia (1968), also working on David Lean’s epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Having worked his way up through the industry, Roeg was keen to move to directing, which he did in 1968 with the extraordinary film, Performance (1970). Roeg was approached by the film’s screenwriter and director Donald Cammell to work as Director of Photography, but negotiated a co-directing role, and since Cammell was a novice, he was happy with this arrangement. The film stars Mick Jagger as a wealthy, dissolute rock star, and was commissioned by Warner Brothers to exploit a new youth audience, but they were so unhappy with the resulting film, which is a queer, sexually explicit hybrid of British gangster film, European art-house film and psychedelic pop musical, that it was shelved for nearly two years and finally released with almost no publicity. Warner’s apparently threatened to sue Roeg and Cammell for failing to deliver the film they’d promised and a film reviewer in Life magazine described it as, ‘the most completely worthless film I have ever seen since I began reviewing’ (Preston 2013). However, their collaboration on the film seems to have been extremely important for both directors, who went on to make a series of distinctive, compelling films. Cammell was far less prolific, completing just another three films in an unhappy career in which he struggled for financing and control over his work, before shooting himself in 1996, but there are lots of parallels between their films. In formal terms, both directors’ films are often marked by a quite radically fragmented, non-linear narrative structure, vivid colour, and hallucinatory images that undermine the realistic elements of their films. Thematically their films are difficult to place within genres and are marked by a frank, unsensational depiction of sex, and a refusal to explain fully what is taking place.

Roeg’s films have always hovered around the mainstream but they are characterised by a tendency towards ambiguity, which can make them perplexing and challenging experiences, but the intention is not to confuse or frustrate the viewer but to draw her or him in. He suggests in his autobiography that the problem with much film and TV is the tendency toward redundancy or over-explanation to ensure that viewers are engaged with the action. On the contrary, he argues, ‘the more you explain something, the less interested the audience. The less said, the better’ (Roeg 2013:44-45). One of the particular attractions of the medium of cinema for Roeg is its economy, its minimalism, the way that a complexity of meaning can be crystallised in a single image.

Also, in some ways cinema is the medium best suited to representing the experience of thought. Roeg has said, ‘My mind is drifting the whole time; various things are popping into my head’, and the films often reproduce this sense of ideas and associations cropping up unexpectedly by inserting shots into scenes without explanation (Roeg 2013:150). For Roeg, this is not a matter of gratuitous experimentation, or self-consciously avant-garde pretention, but rather it is an attempt to convey the way that in our heads we are continually jumping backwards and forwards rather than living purely in the present: ‘that’s how I always imagined how people feel about time, how they review their lives: moving between memory, the present moment and their hopes or fears of what’s to come’ (Roeg 2013:152).

So, although Roeg is a highly competent technician who understands a great deal about the craft and logistical challenges of commercial film-making with major studios, he is nevertheless fascinated by unconventional ways of assembling a film. As he explains, ‘There’s not a right way of doing something and a wrong way. There’s a right way – and another way. So let’s take a chance on the other way’ (Roeg 2013: 17). This comment may be the key to understanding his approach to film-making, that these films are exercises in doing things ‘another way’, in seeing things ‘in another way’, and also in examining characters who experience the world in another way.

The Man who Fell to Earth is adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, which were adapted into Paul Newman films. The novel tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth from a dying planet, in search of a refuge his people can escape to. Although he struggles with the heat and the stronger gravity of earth, like an anthropologist he has studied earth’s culture from a distance by watching television and so is able to pass himself off more or less successfully as human. The film is a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation, and follows the narrative of the novel closely, foregrounding some of the book’s allusions to the second coming, to Greek myth, and to colonialism. It is a science fiction film, but like many of his films, it has quite a loose relationship to the established conventions of the genre. However, Nicolas Roeg’s style is perfectly suited to telling the story of a stranger in a strange land. The film is marked by startling, ambiguous images, including a number of mirror shots – an image of intimate exposure that Roeg says is ‘the very essence of cinema’ – an interest in bodies, desire and sexuality – something that is left implicit in the novel – sometimes disjointed editing, and a striking use of music and sound in conjunction with the images (Roeg 2013: 175). The experience of alienation and disconnection from one’s environment and from other people that is a constant preoccupation of his films is realised most directly in this film which attempts to depict another way of being in the world.

This is expressed perfectly through the casting of a rock star in the central role. As with Performance, and Bad Timing, which featured Art Garfunkel playing an obnoxious, narcissistic psychoanalyst, and which was described by the disgusted head of Rank, the distributors, as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’ (Preston 2013), this is no doubt partly dictated by commercial considerations; casting one of the most famous musicians on the planet as the lead was a financially smart move, but Roeg claims he chose Bowie because he thought he would suit the role. He had wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton after meeting him at a dinner party since Crichton, like the alien in the novel is extremely tall, and apparently Peter O’Toole was also considered, but after seeing a BBC documentary about Bowie, Roeg decided he’d be ideal for the role. Like those of Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel, Bowie’s performance has an awkwardness and self-consciousness, which can come across as technical incompetence when placed alongside the confident, naturalistic performance style of a professional screen actor, but this difference is precisely what drew Roeg to working with him:

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

Similarly, what Bowie produces in this film is a very unusual performance but one that perfectly suits the character since, as Roeg pointed out to executives at Warner Brothers who were sceptical about the casting, this is a film about an alien pretending to be human. Thus, like many science fiction narratives about aliens and monsters, this film about what it is to be an alien, is in fact a film about the strangeness and implausibility of being human.

References:

Philip French (2008). ‘Puffball’. The Observer. 20 July 2008 (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/jul/20/drama2)

John Preston (2013). ‘Nicolas Roeg Interview: the director who fell to earth’. The Telegraph. 19 July 2013. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10185575/Nicolas-Roeg-interview-the-director-who-fell-to-Earth.html)

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

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