Monthly Archives: April 2010

  • Escape from New York

    Escape from New York, John Carpenter, 1981

    Screened at the Star and Shabby Cinema

    Set in 1997, so the opening intro voice informs us, the entirety of New York has been turned into an open prison incarcerating the very worst of criminal society. Give us a break John. Sure the place was run down in the seventies and had many social problems, but are we expected to believe that Wall Street is going to relocate from all that prime real estate without a fight. I don’t think so.

    So what is the story. Well it can be sumarised in the title “I’m a celebrity. Get me out of here” Following the hijacking of the US presidential airplane by a group of suicidal freedom fighters, with the Pres and his entourage on board, it is crashed into the hell hole that New York has now become. Ideas for 9/11 here folks? The Pres survives by ejecting in his escape pod, a rather unconvincing red egg shaped module which ejects from the doomed plane, but, unfortunately for him, into a chaos in which as head of state he has the honour to preside over. Hint of schardenfreude here?

    Being the indispensable person that all right thinking, read brain washed, Americans believe him to be he must be rescued at all costs from this hell hole. Surely Mr Carpenter the story could have been more interesting having him try to assert his authority in what still is his rightful domain and let the outside world go to hell.

    Enter the rescue party, organised by Hauk, Governor of this prison, and one assumes responsible for the lack of humane conditions which exist and Snake, ex war hero turned villain, but whose skills as a infiltrator into enemy territory has been successfully tested in Leningrad, so presumably we were at war with the USSR. Although given the proliferation of nuclear weapons had such a war occurred there is likely to have been little call for the services of Snake, before he turned bad.

    Casting Kurt Russel as Snake Plissken and Lee Van Cleef as Hauk, Carpenter appears to be trying to recreate the Eastwood –Van Cleef relationship of a Few Dollars More. However this fails to materialise as there is limited interaction between the two roles to establish any rapport between them. Russel however does give it a go, paying lip service homage to Eastwood by hissing his lines through gritted teeth in the initial dialogues with Van Cleef. Perhaps this was the snake element of his character, although much later it is revealed that he has a tattoo of a hooded cobra, which is a more likely reason for the appellation.

    Offered a pardon for all his past crimes, does that include all those killings in Russia on behalf of the state?, of course not, he was an American hero then, Snake agrees to rescue of the Pres from the nick. However there is a catch he has to do it in 24 hrs because the Pres goes on air then.

    To keep him to the deadline he is provided with an incentive. A biological inserts in the neck which will explode in 24 hrs unless neutralised and a fancy digital watch which will tell him how long he has to do it.

    Flying in on a glider he lands on the twin towers, so that’s why the presidential plan didn’t target them, using some nice green graphics little more sophisticated than the original Space invaders graphics of those days.

    Dressed in Rambo style, minus the bandana, he shorts out some electrical wires to get the lift working and descends into the darkness, well they had power to the twin towers lifts but no street lighting.

    How does he find the Pres. So, as well as being chained to his brief case the Pres has a gadget on his wrist the size of an alarm clock which transmits his location as well as his pulse. Snake with the latest technology, the size of a house brick, has a Pres locator. Come on John, even the Men from UNCLE had miniturised gadgets.!!! The loudest laugh resonated from the audience when Hauk picked up what used to be called a walkie-talkie hand set, twice as large as ever the real thing was. Even the weaponry looked like 70s hardware with scope sights attached. When it comes to futuristic gadgetry Carpenter falls flat on his face.

    Following various escapades and escapes from the Crazies, a tribe of troglodytes who live in the sewer systems, Snake meets Cabbie, Ernie Borgnine, a greasy Yellow Cab jockey, at the camp, take that literally, concert party in a run down theatre and is taken to meet Brains, a former accomplice in crime and Maggie, who dresses in what appears to be a satin night gown and has a 70 porno star hair perm the main thrust of her character being the prominent embonpoint and generous cleavage. Both of whom agree to help in his rescue of the Pres.

    The Dook, [Issac Hayes] that’s the Duke to you or I, is the evil black overlord of the prison with a nice line in 19th century cavalry jackets , references to Idi Amin and the Emperor of the Central African Republic who has captured the Pres with a view to getting the prison more open to the outside world. Is Carpenter making a statement about the taste for the gaudy and taudry by blacks, particularly when he shows the Duke driving his car adorned with chandeliers on the front wings and a disco glitter ball suspended in the front wind screen?

    Donald Pleasence, playing the Pres, looks as myopic as he did in his part as the prison of war master forger in “The Great Escape”, only that he has been on a course of steroids. One could almost hear the echo of those famous words he uttered in that film, “I can see, I can see perfectly. Take me with you, I won’t be any trouble”, as he pleads to be included with the escapees.

    True to Carpenter’s plots there is the obligatory overlong fight scene. This time a gladiatorial combat ,reminiscent of the Coliseum of ancient Rome, between Snake and the Duke’s champion. Not content with mere baseball bats to knock the shite out of each other the have to up the tempo with base ball bats with six inch nails sticking from the end. Needless to say the bad guy, who looks like a cross between a Victorian strong man and Genghis Khan, gets nailed by Snake with one of those six inch nails.

    Time is running out for snake as the glances at his personal timer tell us and he needs to get the Pres back to the outside world to get those explosives neutralised which following the demise of all the other characters, bar the Pres, he manages to do with only 2 seconds to spare.

    Phew! A close shave that. Which is what the Pres is having as Snake gets his thanks and a job offer from Hauk.

    So did the Pres have a change of heart over the conditions in the American penal system and vow to improve them. You betcha he didn’t.

    What message did the film make about US attitudes to criminals and their reform. . Lock em up, throw away the key and let them rot in hell

    Is the US President second only to God. You betcha he is and like God isn’t in the habit of getting his own hands dirty.

    Cue credits to the end of to film to the sound of Carpenters’ music “Its Yesterday Once More” but not like I knew it John.

    Phil Eastein

  • Brief Encounter David Lean (UK 1945) Script: Noel Coward: Celia Johnson; Trevor Howard

    Brief Encounter David Lean (UK 1945) Script: Noel Coward: Celia Johnson; Trevor Howard

    Viewed: Riverside Studio London; 12 April 10; Ticket:: £7.50 (double bill with Letter from an Unknown Woman)

    Adrin Neatrour writes retrocrit: Love in a mechanistic country

    In filming Brief Encounter, David Lean (DL) took Noel Coward’s play Still Life, and re-cast it as a dream, a dream subjectively experienced as one of those bitter fairy tales. Dl worked his material so as to make the idea of a hallucinatory ‘world’ the centre of the film. In concept and design Brief Encounter (BE) is imagined as a world, or rather worlds. Brief Encounter is designed as a vehicle for a female voice and following Laura’s the voice (Celia Johnson) we track her migration through the different states of mind triggered by the film’s zoning. Lean’s decision to realise BE through the creation of worlds gives Coward’s moralistic fable of Middle Class mores a nightmarish emotional depth that endows the original material with a mythic quality.

    BE is fashioned around the three distinct loci as witnessed through ‘Laura’s voice’: the trapped, represented by Laura’s family home; the station which is the transitional dream zone; and the town/country locations, hallucinatory spaces, Arcadia, where Laura and Alec are together, and like spirits released from Hades, allowed a short respite from their doom.

    The heart of the film is the railway station. A conceptual area realised in the creation of a number of different discrete spaces. The station works as a setting that mediates a dream world. A fairy tale which creates intensifies and transforms the impossible notion of two comfortably married people falling desperately in love. The sets, the atmospheric effects the composition and camera movement are all exploited creatively to extend the viewers’ perception from the surface of the film, the dialogue and voice over, through to the psychic forces underlying the action: primal instinct and repressed desire.

    The opening shot comprises a slow track along the counter of the tea room to find figures of Laura and Alec sitting together at a table. The gliding camera immediately introduces a dream quality into the film and comprises a sequence that will be repeated at the end of the film. The tea room is a purgatorial space, a zone where the lost and damned must wait to discover their fate; an antechamber to the unspeakable that recurs in dream and nightmare. It is where Laura meets Alec for the first time as he restores her sight to her by removing the mote from her eye. Outside the tea room lies the subterranean passage to Arcadia through which you must pass to enjoy the illusion of freedom; and the terrifying mechanics of the platforms where the business of the station occurs mired in hissing steam and smoke: a diabolic region of flesh eating monsters The station functions like some terrible in-between place, a diabolic machine that processes peoples lives and determines their fate. Woe to the soul trapped here.

    Laura’s nightmare does not only trap her in space. She is also trapped in the mechanics of time: a tyranny

    of clockwork timetables and rigid temporal matrices. In dreams, time is never an ally; it is always a fiendish element. In dream there is never enough time and it is always too late to avoid fate. In BE time is an enforcement agency cut into the grain of the film. DL resolves the structure of film about the railway system: the iron hand of its clock formatting the schedules and timetables that drive everyday life. Centred on the station Wilford Junction, Laura and Alec are depicted filmically by DL as pawns in a mechanised system of dispatch delivery and retrieval. They have no will of their own but are products of a linear temporal programme, a steam driven conveyor belt system which summons and calls them at set and specified times; there are serious implied penalties for non compliance. The couple’s fear throughout the film is centred on ‘missing the train’: you have to catch the train, it will save you. The railway timetable as an apparatus of course extends through life itself. Laura and Alec are tightly controlled by schedule. She can only come to town on Thursdays; he can only work in town on Thursdays. They both live by inflexible temporal imperatives, deeply internalised and unquestionable.

    BE works as film because of DL’s interlayering of a mechanistic temporal structure over a filmic creation of worlds. The effect is make a fairytale out of Laura’s subjectivity. The form of BE has the necessary elements: time, as an enforcer is often a critical feature of the fairy tale (Cinderella for instance). And fairy tales are also set in particular worlds or series of worlds: the forest the palace the cottage ( the Twelve Swans). Lean’s filmic vision led him not to centre BE about the somewhat everyday (but very well written) melodrama of an unrequited love affair, but to resolve the story about the setting and timetables of the railway system. Instead of focusing attention on the social and personal moral dilemma of Laura and Alec, he uses film to transform the material into a fairytale set in the dark restless world of the of the railway station where yearning spirits live in fear and trembling of the span of mortal days. BE as an updated and rejigged Little Mermaid.

    adrin neatrour

  • Birth of a Nation D W Griffith (USA 1915) Lillian Gish Mae Marsh

    Screening at Star and Shadow 23 May 2010 Ticket: £4 ; £3(c)

    Retrocrit: What’s in a name….

    The Birth of a Nation wherein we see white men ‘black up’ and pretend to be niggas. . What’s it all about? The Clansman was the original title of the film which is about Ku Klux Klan and their heroic and daring do deeds in lynching assaulting and intimidating blacks jews and stupid whites who didn’t know their place. Of course what was at issue was the place of the Klan in history, and soon after the release of The Clansman the movie’s name was changed to Birth of a Nation. With the stroke of a pen the film became something more than grown men dressed up in white sheets with traffic cones over their heads, riding out to attack blacks. With its title change the film was claiming for the Klan a critical role in the history of the nation; it was a calculated attempt to justify racism by showing white supremacists as ‘the saviours’ of the Nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. It also held out a promise to its white protestant audience.

    The movie did not get away with peddling its racist story without opposition. On release Birth of a Nation (sic: which nation) was seen as an unacceptable portrayal and vilification of blacks; an interpretation of US history that deliberately misrepresented the role of Afro-Americans in the development of their nation. In particular in the industrial towns of the North where there was strong black political and social organisation, the film’s opening was met with riots violence and protest for its shameful insult to a people. The film was banned in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Kansas and St Louis.

    D W G professed surprise and shock at this reception, but perhaps he did protest too much. His expression of bewilderment at the response by blacks to his movie looks like a pose of cynical innocence. Viewing the film with its overt racist message makes it hard to credit that this experienced and urbane director would have been unaware of the film’s effect on Afro-Americans. The title change may have been motivated by the need to ensure the success of the film. Using the idea of ‘Birth’ as part of the title and linking it to the fate of the nation, Griffiths was subliminally pitching the idea of ‘Birthright’ to the majority white audience. The film’s title became a overt promise to the whites that their supremacy over and superiority to the Blacks (and other races) was a legitimate part of their American ‘Birthright’. Opponents picked up this claim both in title and content, and little wonder bitterly opposed it.

    If the promise of supremacy of whites was part of DWG’s audience contract in re-titling the Clansman then this ploy was an undoubted success. DWG was almost bankrupted in producing the most expensive movie ever made, but was rewarded by the biggest box office returns in the history of cinema. Of course publicity a few riots indignant black objections all helped to sell the movie to the whites: who of course saw nothing wrong with it.

    It is a magnificent epic movie, with superbly orchestrated battle scenes. A film that was innovative in many ways: its use of close -ups, tracking shots, parallel editing and other areas. But it is most conspicuously a social product of a milieu where racism was embedded deep in the grain of America’s psyche and social structure. As such this is something to understand and assimilate as you watch the film. And O yeah those ‘blacked up’ whites playing niggas? The reason for this was probably that Hollywood 1915 was as strictly segregated as anywhere. This means separate toilets, separate changing rooms, separate canteens perhaps even separate entrances for blacks Without segregated facilities white actors and technicians would have refused to work. It’s likely that DWG’s production company didn’t have segregated facilities, so the easiest solution was not to employ black actors, but get whities to ‘black up’.

    adrin neatrour