Monthly Archives: January 2018

  • Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri Martin McDonagh (UK USA 2017)

    Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri Martin
    McDonagh (UK USA 2017) Francis
    McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 Jan 2018; ticket £9.75

    MacGuffin land

    Hitchcock used to call the device he built into the beginning of his movies MacGuffins. The MacGuffin in the movie was a plot device that initially appeared important in the film, but in fact quickly worked itself out and was only a lure designed to lead the audience into the movie. It’s a measure of the psychic inflation attached to drama scripting that only an extreme value stimulus such a rape and murder can do the work of the MacGuffin.

    As scripted in McDonagh’s Three Billboards, the rape and murder of Angela Hayes is little more than a pretext for the actual concern of his film, which is assertion: self assertion. The core of the McDonagh’s film is the ascendant culture of self assertion specifically in America ( but world wide wherever the tentacles of Western imagery has penetrated). It is the ‘me too’ society where weaponised vulnerability has become the war cry of both the aggrieved and the those who wish to be aggrieved. Mildred Hayes is consumed by the logic of her own action, and Three Billboards gathers pace, the death of her daughter becomes a remote back story.

    The destruction or disintegration of community has left people bereft of the means either to vent or assuage their feelings. Hollywood movies legitimising the cult of individual violence have provided instructive models for those feeling disempowered, which is where Mcdonagh’s script picks up the cue as he joins the Coen Bros folk circus. Filmed in one of those small town rural settings, America profonde (so to speak), McDonagh scripts Mildred’s billboard interpolation as a mythic goad that unleashes a plot of spiralling reactive violence, absorbing the pathological imperative of the movie business that violence as an individual response is always justified. The more so if the protagonist is a woman, because women have an equal right to men to incorporate the mythologies of death slaughter and destruction.

    But of course the assimilation of violent mythic forms by individuals have their own circuits of amplification. And it is these circuits and their remorseless logic that trap individuals in the psychic matrices of particular aspects of Western culture that have driven moral film makers like Bunuel and von Trier. The spectacle of those consumed by their own desire.

    Hopwever McDonagh’s Three Billboards delivers nothing moral. Three Billboards is a farrago, a hotch potch of cross purposes delivering a movie that in the current mode wants to be all things to all women. McDonagh is unable to hold his film/script to its original course. He jump starts its protagonist Mildred with her provocation of employing three accusatory bill boards as a means to vent her frustration at the incompetance of the police. The bill boards serve their inflamatory function, triggering a series of violent shock waves both in the police and in herself as the situation escalates out of control. (interestingly though the police may be for one reason or another not competent, the rest of the community also seems relatively indifferent – even her husband – again highlighting the emotional isolation of individuals)

    But McDonagh having unleashed the demons of reaction, starts to tame them. Instead of holding to a probing of the dimension he opens up, he makes a film that cuts every which way; introducing a justifying discourse which degrades the film into soap opera attenuating the vision of violence and reaction pure that drive the scenario. Three Billboards becomes politically correct. Very British. Mildred has to be individually justified; fitted out with a politically correct back story: the abusive violent husband; her own complicit guilt in Angela’s death, her relationship with her son. Three Billboards bulks out its duration with material relating to Mildred’s relationships balanced but not opposed by Willoughby’s relationship with his family. These mitigations coupled with a script that picks up cheap laughs whenever it can as if McDonagh were an aspirant stand up artist, point to McDonagh wanting to make his film Janus–like: to point in two directions: the socio humanist face / the sociopathic face. But of course it dumps Three Billboards in the middle of no where: neither one thing nor another.

    Perhaps the fault lies in the way McDonagh has scripted the film. Three Billboards does not look it has been thematically inspired, a vision conceived. It feels like it has been reactively conceived, starting with the idea of the Ebbing billboards and working through each section bolting on the bits and pieces that comprise development and character: Mildred’s complicity in Angela’s death, her abusive husband, the scene in the hospital between Jason and his victim Jerome. It feels like a script held together by bits and pieces of politically correct and psychically appropriate material. This seems specifically true of the introduction of the racial angle / theme when the new man appointed to to take over Willoughby’s office, is black. McDonagh except for the scripted provocation seems totally at a loss about how to develop the black police chief and his place in the implicitely racist culture. Tarentino would have made something of this opportunity. McDonagh seems content to have made a gesture. One more gesture in a movie of gestures.

    The film’s integrity is undermined by cloying sentimentality of Willoughby’s last day, which is heavily scripted with good ol’ boy shit. Martin McDonagh might claim this to be black humour or parody, but it is so out of kilter with tone of the movie that this would be a feeble unconvincing defensive response. Likewise the three letters Willoughby writes to be delivered and read after he is dead. This three letter device (used in a different manner but very effectively by Mankievicz in Letters to Three Wives) is exploited by McDonagh as an indulgent opportunity for Woody Harrelson’s voice to purr and broadcast his folksy insights into life character and the importance of love!

    Ultimately Three Billboards is heavily compromised by McDonagh’s script that prefers cheap laughs to satire but loses track of its direction. This is characterised by the final script machination. It is a sort of anti climax where we see Jason and Mildred drive off on their revenge mission, but finally undecided whether or not to go through with their plan. Indecision that characterises McDonagh confusion about what type of movie he is making, except perhaps to make a film that has enough politically correct conceit to win an Oscar. adrin neatrour

  • Hostiles Scott Cooper (USA 2017)

    Hostiles Scott
    Cooper (USA 2017) Christian Bale;
    Rosamund Pike

    Viewed Cineworld Newcastle 9th Jan 2018; ticket

    Wedding rites or How the West was Won!

    Scott Cooper’s movie opens with a quote from D H Lawrence: “The American soul is hard isolate stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.” His film then proceeds to show that Lawrences’s thesis is too severe in its judgement. Given the right conditions and the right script a good woman and the wisdom of the native Americans, the white man’s soul can indeed melt.

    The Western is the most malleable of genres. Its naturalistic settings with their tendancy to isolate issues, create an abstract canvass that allow it to take on many forms and develop multiplicities of themes that can reflect developing social and psychic concerns as they arise in the social matrix.

    Scott Cooper, with a bent for dialogue that appropriately for Hollywood, imitates the clichés of Terrence Malick rather than the earthiness of Lawrence, has made a film heavily larded with tropes of new age sensibilities.

    ‘Hostiles’ set in 1892, and opening with images of a brutal Comanche raid and massacre of an isolated homestead, is a movie of seduction. Scott’s script chronicles how ‘Hostiles’ become ‘Friends’, as familiarity with the escorted native Americans softens grief stricken massacre survivor Rosalie, who develops love and solicitude for her co-travellers. Rosalie’s softening is accelerated by some female bonding when all the women are captured by a band of white trappers. Her seduction is shown in the film as she, like a Woodstock hippy, gradually turns native and adopts the dress look and coiffure of her new ‘friends’. Then, protagonist hard ass Joe, the ‘Injun hater’, as the odyssey of the trek across the West progresses, picks up on Rosalie’s example, and learns first to trust, then respect and finally to care about the natives with whose safe passage, against his will, he has been entrusted.

    As well as the personal journeys of Joe and Rosalie, Cooper’s script creates a contemporary pattern of social support for the increasingly dire and disastrous situation of America’s defeated and demonised tribes. Scott’s script draws a picture of a wave of liberal sentiment sweeping though both the corridors of power and on the frontier demanding greater humanity in the treatment of native americans. Whilst it is true that President Cleveland had some sympathy with the native’s plight, he was not President in 1892 when the film is set, and it seems unlikely that his successor Harrison would have made the intervention required by the script. Perhaps this is beside the point, but the utterances by people on the frontier of neo-liberal opinion about tribal people, looks like a scripted retro-airbrushing, assimilated into the movie to assuage our contemporary guilt about the acts of brutal ethnic cleansing that underlay the establishment of continental USA.

    Speaking of guilt, this is the mental state favoured by Scott to underpin the psychic drive of his Western. Westerns are characterised by psychic states relating to the action: righteousness, justice, doubt, self belief. But in tune with the times, and Hostiles is a movie designed as produced to be in tune with the times, and this is the age of guilt. Inn particular, but not exclusively, male guilt, as exemplified by Cooper’script when one of the hard bastards on the detail, comments: “We’re all guilty!” Thereby appropriating for the Western, in the form of ‘Hostiles’ the contemporary ‘howl’ of Western man.

    Interestingly bound up in ‘Hostiles’ interminable slow journey across the frontierscape of America, there is also an allegory of sorts. The film can be read as a allegorical description of contemporary suburban American mating ritual understood as a trial by ordeal. Scott’s script documents the slow courting by Joe of Rosalie. We see his slow understanding that the old school tough male is no longer sufficient to woo the lady. He must be tough but he must also develop his ‘caring’ feminine side. In relation to her he must understand, that although he may rescue her, she is not in debt to him, but she is his equal. She stands beside him, not behind him; and she has the right to the space to develop her power and her wisdom. She decides the moment when they may touch. Through Rosalie, Joe learns the wisdom of the native people, and is brought to atonement, and an end to his opposition. He comes through the courting ordeal and at the end, instead of riding off into the metaphorical sunset, Joe jumps on the train to pursue union with Rosalie.

    Cinematically Hostiles is a mess. The routine cutting, shot reverse shot, is uninspired and uninteresting. And Cooper’s camera seems to run out of ideas in this slo-mo paced movie in which we are inflicted with shot after shot depicting the line of horses and riders moving across the land. There seems to be a lack of imagination here on Cooper’s part working filmically on the meaning of the movement, and ways of treating this huge trek across the West, in a manner that would impart something of its function scale and grandeur. But there is nothing. Just long shots, fashionably slow, in which even the horses don’t come alive on the screen. They are ridden as if they were no more than automobiles out for spin on the highway.

    Hostiles is rather a conceptual than a visceral Western. Even the much touted violence (actually rather stylised and not excessive) can save us from wanting some horse flesh, if not horse sense. adrin neatrour

  • Sorcerer William Friedkin (USA 1977)

    Sorcerer William
    Friedkin (USA 1977) Roy Schneider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou

    Viewed Tyneside Cinema 28 Dec 2017; ticket £6.75

    nobs on

    In the opening credits William Friedkin dedicates Sorcerer to Henri-George Clouzot, the director of Wages of Fear (1952), of which Sorcerer can only be seen as a remake. This is the only moment of honesty in Friedkin’s movie.

    Clouzot’s original movie, based on the novel by Georges Arnot, was an extraordinary achievement. His film set out its stall from its opening shot which pulls together in one succinct take a complete replete expression of his film’s core idea. In Clouzot’s opening shot we see a number of scorpions climbing over one another in a dusty hole in the road. As the camera tracks back we see that each of the creatures is attached by a string to a stick manipulated by a boy. When the boys starts in response to a street commotion, the insects are yanked up, their legs and bodies thrashing about in mid-air, all them completely helpless, hapless. The shot is of course about power. Who has whom by the balls. In Wages of Fear the answer is always the oil company. Clouzot’s genius was to take good action novel, and keeping the action make it into a left field existential political statement. Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is driven by political perception, made magnificent by his understanding of the settings: the town – the oil field – the dirt road – the trucks.

    William Friedkin doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand the heart of the film he is trying to replicate. The material he tries to animate is out of his depth, he hasn’t seen, or hasn’t wanted to see, the forces Clouzot brought into play in his scenario: the exercise of raw power set against a background of men who stripped of their identity are marooned in a town, that like a concentration camp, reduces them to the status of body or corpse. Where the difference between body and corpse is that one of them can be put to work.

    Friedkin remake, strangely titled Sorcerer, is simple a hollow vessel. It has form. It makes some noise. It is empty of content. Friedkin brings to the movie the usual Hollywood attributes of fussy details and big bang production values.

    But Friedkin’s approach simply tries to exploit the unnecessary detailing of action. Instead of Clouzot’s marvellously economic depiction of the four men as they come to terms with their existential situation in the border town, Friedkin’s pads out his script with four back stories. Friedkin thinks we have to know who each one of the protagonists is and how they got there. As if in a concentration camp it matters what you ‘were’; all that matters is if you know how to survive. Clouzot understands this and it is reflected in his cinematography: the shots of his protagonists, his shots of the town favour wide perspective allowing us to see relations. Friedkin of course favours the close shot, as his film is committed to individuation not situation.

    Coming from the director of the Exorcist who built refrigerated sets so that the actors’ breath would condense, it is no surprise that Friedkin’s script gets bogged down in irrelevant detail. As if overwhelming the viewer with slickly edited detail, would distract from having to think about what they are seeing. His emphasis on detail dominates the section of action immediatly before his four characters set out on their journey. We are shown them as they fit out the two antiquated trucks, repairing them, readying them for the journey. Uninterested in social relations, Friedkin has to bulk out ‘Sorcerer’ with American ‘can-do’, the literalism of fix-it mechanics.

    My memory of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear is that, although little is known about the protagonists their situation creates a level of audience identification that is lacking in Friedkin’s direction and script. Certainly Clouzot’s Frenchman, with his carefully preserved Paris Metro ticket, a psychic token binding him to the city, has a more powerful symbolic hook than Friedkin’s Frenchman, with his engraved watch given him by his wife. These symbols and their place in the film highlight the differences in approach of the two directors. The Metro ticket symbolises a series of possibilities and of social relations; the watch one individual relationship. We have all had subway tickets; few of us have had expensive engraved watches.

    Viewing ‘Sorcerer’ it is difficult to see why Friedkin chose to direct this remake. Bogged down in detail it delivers nothing beyond the immediate series of spectacular images. Sorcerer looks as if it is nothing more than a macho statement of an A list director, wanting to show he can mix with the best of them and handle the big budgets. ‘Sorcerer’ is William Friedkin. Perhaps in his own mind, after being the Exorcist, he becomes Sorcerer, the Hollywood bigshot whose movie weaves the spell that enchants the Big Studios into parting with pots of money. adrin neatrour