Monthly Archives: November 2022

  • Touch of Evil     Orson Wells

    Touch of Evil     Orson Wells (USA;1958) Charlton Heston, Orson Wells, Janet Leigh

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 20 Nov 2022; ticket: £7

    voodoo cops

    Wells set ‘Touch of Evil’ on the border between USA and Mexico. For him it was a political statement. In retrospect the setting comes across as less political rather more a psychic divide: a voodoo border where sanity and madness, derangement and clarity, dark priests and spirits merge inseparably…. an hallucinogenic zone triggered by the car bomb which detonates at the end of the opening shot pitching all the players into a maelstrom of chaos.

    The story line, the prized narrative flow that bedraggles and condemns to insipid mediocrity so many contemporary films is ditched in favour of attributes that film language expresses superlatively well; presence, atmospherics and settings (Film Noir directors such Dmitryk Hawkes Huston all in own way prioritised mood over plot). In these respects Wells is masterful: it’s the effect that matters and on leaving the cinema the audience is left with an abiding sense of experiencing being ‘touched’ by evil.

    The film’s dominating presence is Wells as detective Quinian. His vast bulked out body fills the screen with menace and malice, a presence that seems to suck the light out of the picture casting us all into darkness. A corrupt and corrupting influence in the border area, he stalks the streets like an out of control venomous soul called up out of some primal cosmic soup by the towns resident priestess, Tana. Wells’ vision of Quinian is expansive: his engrained corruption and his unremitting service to the forces of evil are depicted as the characteristic traits underpinning the agencies of law enforcement in the USA, in particular the FBI. It is possible that Wells’ development of Quinian’s character was primarily based on J Edgar Hoover. Hoover was first director of the FBI, whose embrace of voodoo law enforcement shifting it away from criminals to his political opponents, employed cynical use of all the dirty arts to frame and neutralise targeted individuals. Like Quinian, Hoover was a self appointed amoral upholder of a personalised agenda, whose objective was primarily to extend and protect his own power over life and death. Wells surrounds Quinian with a posse of men in suits – again similar to the FBI look – all the agents in ill fitting suits, shirt tie and black shoes. A respectable gang of ‘yes’ men and time serving courtiers lending Quinian a sort of specious plausibility and legitimacy.

    In Citizen Kane Wells established his reputation as a director who could use the cinematic camera language of film to to define the register of his scenario. Likewise in ‘Touch of Evil’ it is the movement vision and lighting design adopted by the camera that comprises the quick of ‘Touch of Evil’. The long crane tracking shots with deep focus unify the disparate elements in the first shot, and continue throughout the film to sustain the tension between the characters and their location. The lighting through use the obtuse angles and vignetting about Quinian, renders the settings as simulacrums of hellish antechambers.

    The interiors though a little sparse, perhaps reflecting a pared down budget, work because they are replete with the presence of men or of victim Janet Leigh. But the exteriors, the town streets and above all the fantastical ending shot against the industrial background of Venice (California) signs off the film against a claustrophobic nightmarish setting. In best film tradition the sign off setting was not part of the original scenario, but taken up by Wells late in production when he came across it. It has some of the qualities of Tarkovsky’s Stalker setting.

    adrin neatour




  • The Banshees of Inisherin   Martin McDonagh (UK; 2022

    The Banshees of Inisherin   Martin McDonagh (UK; 2022) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 1st Nov 2022; ticket £5

    finger licking

    Martin McDonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin is a psychodrama in which the wills of two men are pitched against each other.   It’s a common enough film thematic and well represented in English movies such as the Losey’s ‘The Servant’ and Jenkin’s ‘Bait’. Another recent example is John McDonagh’s ‘The Forgiven’ which in contrast to Losey and Jenkins’ films is a weak and unconvincing play out of its protagonists’ opposition.

    The scripts of ‘The Servant’ and ‘Bait’ both engendered high levels of intensity.

    Inherent in the relations established by these films were the countervailing influences of class and family and their respective scenarios were developed so as to probe and exploit the inherent and endemic tensions in the situations. ‘The Forgiven’ whilst establishing an initially strong dynamic between perpetrator and victim delivered a flat flaccid experience as its script shied away from exposing the deep personal and socio-cultural chasm that divided the protagonists, relying on a parallel editing structure to deliver fake suspense rather than the tension of physical proximity.

    Set on an Irish island location of the kind beloved by Hollywood, Martin McDonagh’s ‘Banshees’ pits Paidraic against Colm in a psychodramic test of ‘will’.

    The proposition is as follows: from being ‘close friends’ Colm has suddenly and pre-emptively shut Paidraic completely out of his life; a decision Paidraic cannot accept. The immediate problem is that we the audience are dropped into McDonagh’s script at the point of crisis, without insight or perspective on how things had been previously between the two men; our only source of information about the background to the event – life on a small Irish island – is drawn not from experience but in the main from the film industry. Contrast this with ‘The Servant’ or ‘Bait’; we also enter into the flow of these films at a certain point in the story. But firstly the respective back stories of ‘class history’ and ‘family history’ are introduced so that the viewer has a strong and specific understanding of these types of relations. In addition audiences have personal background experience of both ‘class’ and ‘family feuds’ so that they can use their own experiences in reading the development of these films.

    In ‘Banshees’ we are simply presented with the fact that Colm has made a particular decision. Statement of this fact is continually re-enforced by the script in which every character repeats the same fact: Colm and Paidraic used to be ‘great inseparable friends’. A pall of deadness from the beginning seeps over scenario as the script closes off personal history by repetitive dialogue about a backstory that has to stand in for the scenes we never see. We never see the originary scenes presumably because McDonagh was unable to figure how to carry off such back clip dialogue. Colm’s decision is particular to Paidraic. Although he says he doesn’t want any more distraction in his life, Colm doesn’t retreat into a cocoon of silence. At the pub he’s happy to engage the local policeman in the art of conversation. Which seems strange as the policeman doesn’t seem any more interesting than Paidraic.

    In short the opposition of the two men takes place in a psychic vacuum.

    Because the script lacks a natural engine of opposition to drive the conflict, the scenario has to resort to invented spectacle as a device to fuel the engine of the narrative.  The device is the threat by Colm to self mutilate by cutting off a finger on his left hand each time, if and when Paidraic tries to speak to him. The script itself runs out of patience with this device and shortcircuits the process of de-digitalisation by having Colm, after cutting off one of his fingers at Paidraic’s first infraction, suddenly cutting off his four remaining ones, as response to Paidraic’s second misdemeanour. As if Colm too had got bored with the prospect of a long drawn out scripted process of finger mutilation.  McDonagh’s writing was unable to develop a working scenario that could economically crank up tension in his film, finger by finger. So like one of those washing powder ads, his script skipped the in-between bits. All he wanted was to get to the final spectacle of the fully bloodied cropped hand.

    ‘Banshees’ fails to develop the characters in a decisive manner that engages the audience. With the the men stepping into the screen out of a narrarive void it needs some deft scripting to fill out the omitted relational significations. Both Colm and Paidraic are dull characters and dull characters make for dull films. In both ‘The Servant’ and ‘Bait’, the characters develop out of a back story, expanding as individual types to fill out the screen with their personas. To fill out Colm, McDonagh relies on the physical presence and close up affection images of Gleeson, which asks the audience to read into his state of mind. Paidraic’s sudden change in character feels overdetermined, ie those scenes representing his development scripted into the end of the film meet the need of the film for spectacle; rather than being events that develop out of the internal logic of the scenario. Paidraic burns down Colm’s house, claiming to be a changed man; he is not ‘nice’ any more. But despite his actions and his words, he doesn’t feel any different; he seems to be going through a series of false claims and motions to satisfy the commercial priority of delivering the product to the market.

    Shot with crowd pleasing beautiful landscapes, in a clichéd Irish vernacular setting, this is a film that deals in tokens. Token characters, token Irishness and token Banshees. The Banshee flaunted in the title is represented in the film by the occasional appearance of an old looking woman whose face is slapped over with white foundation (very original). She utters stuff about immanent deaths. She has little centrality or indeed only makes an unconvincing sparse contribution to the film. But the service rendered is to the title, because it is a good title for a movie. The ‘Money’ liked that.

    adrin neatrour






  • Close-Up        Abbas Kiarostami

    Close-Up        Abbas Kiarostami (1990; Iran) with Hossain Sabzian; Hossain Farazmand, Mohsen Makhmalbaf; the family Ahankhah; Abbas Kiarostami

    viewed home dvd 21st Oct 2022;

    metaphysics of existence: everyone should play themselves including the director.

    Post viewing of Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’ I was left with a feeling of mental exhaustion: so many countervailing forces packed into a film, wrapped up as a cosmic joke and played out as a humanist statement.

    There is a moment early in the film when the cabbie waiting for reporter Farazmand, gently sets in motion a discarded empty aerosol can. As the can rolls downhill it rattles loudly creating jagged percussive effect until lodging against the side of the kerb, it comes to a halt.

    ‘Close –Up’ is in part an observation on media culture. Kairostami’s ‘can’ shot suggests itself as an allegory on the general curve governing the shape of media attention: events are blown up out of proportion, make a racket for a short period of time then collapse back into forgetful silence, as if they had never existed.   But Kiarostami in ‘Close-Up’ is not going to play the game according to the media rule book. He has other purposes.

    ‘Close-Up’ is a documentary, re-enacted in part as a drama in which everyone gets to play themselves, including of course the director, Kiarostami.

    The narrative centres about Hossain Sabzian’s impersonation of Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Pretending to be the filmmaker he fraudulently gains entry to the middle class home of the Ahankhah family, claiming that he is going to film their house and the younger son in his next movie. Alerted by the suspicions of the pater familias, the journalist Farazmand, in search of a scoop, goes to the house with two policeman, who arrest Sabzian. The journalist gets his story which rolls off the press as a news headline, waiting to disappear in the next day’s events. The object of the newspaper industry is to squeeze maximum salacious coverage for the shortest amount of time. Events are compressed and the individuals simply pawns in the media play out.

    The film’s title is ‘Close-Up’ which is a precise description of the manner in which Kiarostami (K) approaches his subject Hossain Sabzian. ‘Close-Up’ describes not just a type of shot of the subject (though there are plenty of these) but effectively the relationship K establishes with his subject. K’s role as film maker is a necessary but not sufficient description of how he relates to Sabzian. K is not just film maker, an exploiter of certain situations, but also questioner, affirmer, enabler. K’s role is never to exploit judge or manipulate Sabzian; rather to understand why he behaved as he did, to honour him for his responses, to respect him in the process of making the film. K doesn’t throw Sabzian aside at the end of the trial, but enables him to enter further into the ‘actual’ of film direction, by meeting and doubling up with Mohsen Makhmalbaf the film director whom Sabzian had impersonated. ‘Close-Up’ is about the ‘why of filming’, the underlying intentions of picking up a camera, rather than about ‘form’ ‘structure’ or ‘content’. ‘Close-Up’ is K’s take on Cinema Verité, the fundamental truth of what cinema ‘is’.

    At the core of ‘Close-Up’ is K’s belief that film making is a way of mediating with the world. It doesn’t matter whether the pertinent relations are subjects of documentary or actors in dramas. There are always concerns and purposes to be explained, ideas to be negotiated. The mediation is founded on dialogue honesty and equal exchange between all involved on both sides of camera. K’s approach is humanistic grounded in an existential philosophy which makes his filming stand out in stark contrast to the controlling ethos of exploitation that characterises most of the media industry.

    Overlaying the humanistic ethos of ‘Close-Up’ is K’s existential probing of the effects of media media on identity. The issue of ‘being’ probably attracted K to the idea of making a film about and with Sabzian. The film seems to be shot partially as actual real time filming and partially in re-construction, but the core content is Sabzian’s obsession of wanting to be a film director. Sartre observes generic Parisian waiters going about their work. He says they play out their roles in an exaggerated manner as a quasi- theatrical way of making a claim on being. They become waiters by absorbing the outer modes of being waiter.

    With the huge expansion of media, societal attention became focused not only on the traditional loci of power, politics, high status, wealth, business, but on the creative industries feeding off the news. Film stars, film directors, singers, musicians, designers, architects, models etc. Individuals in these creative industries were accorded high status. Their lives seemingly opened up by publicists and their photographs widely published, the images of this new elite penetrated deeply into the collective public consciousness. Deracinated urban working people were particularly prone to merging their identities with these projected images from the media. The pop stars, the film stars could all be assimilated into the ‘being’ of those without history without ‘substance’ of social belonging.

    Sabzian is an unemployed man, normally working in the printing trade. Divorced from his wife who regards him as a failure, he lives at home with his mother and one of his children. As he describes it his life is closed down. He has no past and no prospects. But his being is suffused with the idea of being a film director. From his knowledge of film he has come to understand the role of the director in production. He sees the film director as possessing all the attributes and capacities that are missing from his own life. The director has high status, the director commands both his crew and his cast, they do what he says, the director gets respect from people who listen to what he has to say. Sabzian has built up within his being an alternative persona, the phantom director. Which identity looks thinks and acts like a film maker. But his being director is always held back by the mundane claims made on him by the life of Sabzian. Like a psychic Houdini he yearns to burst free from the chains that bind him to a meaningless life. When a chance encounter presents him with opportunity, he takes it like a seasoned pro, moving in on the Ahankhah family as director in residence. (They of course in a different way and to a lesser extent also live under the spell of world of film).

    And all the time in his filmic re-telling of the impersonation event, K questions and coaxes Sabzian into responding from his heart. Without judgement K accepts him as a film director, not as a charlatan or a fraud, but as an honourable man.

    At the end of ‘Close-Up’ we come out of the cinema understanding something of the extraordinary nature of Kiarostami and the way in which he takes up the world in order to film.   The film elaborates and opens up multiple realities all folded into Kiarostami’s mediation, but through the course of the complex interweaving of these strands there emerges an emotional coherence relating to the fragility of human endeavour.

    Adrin Neatrour