The Life of an Artist: Paterson & Inside Llewyn Davis

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“At times I’m an artist, at most other times, I’m nothing – Charles Bukowski

“You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets.” – Bob Dylan

Two of my favourite modern films both deal with a week in the life of a creative person who is not shown to be a success in terms of acclaim or financial success but who are nonetheless living the life of an artist. Both films show this life in an unusual way, most often a film about an artist or creative person is biopic of a famous person or a fictional version thereof. This means films about artists see them striving for recognition and monetary gain more often than not. In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson we have someone content with their ‘ordinary’ life and whose art is shown as a very important part of that life but not some all consuming obsession and in the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis we have a character on the cusp of success who unlike Paterson is trying to make his living with his art and for various reasons to be discussed cannot attain it.

There is often a lacking in cinematic distinction in portraying the act of creativity – the end product is what is exciting not watching someone write or paint at a desk. It was easier for the Coen’s to present the creativity of Llewyn since his art was performance based, faced with a harder challenge Jarmusch presents in Paterson the best depiction of the creative process of writing that I have seen on film.

The film shows that for Paterson when it comes to writing his poems it is not the few minutes it takes – the actual action of writing (which is what most films try to dramatise) but the preoccupation that led to the writing, the hours, days, weeks spent thinking about it or feeling a certain way before the writing has started and then continuing the thought process once you have started the poem/song/whatever until when it comes to sitting down to writing the words can’t help but pour out of you in a way that seems magical but is more likely the invisible whirring of the subconscious.

I found Paterson incredibly moving because I recognised the characters relationship with his own creativity to be similar to my own. He gains such a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment from the process of writing that the end product – while not irrelevant is certainly not as important as the journey of creative action that takes place internally. Perhaps for an outsider the end product is the most important thing, that recognition or a personal standard of quality is necessary for the act to be worth the time and effort. For Paterson and I though, we are happy to take part in creative endeavours and build a simple and pleasant life around it rather than trying to be completely defined by it or driven by some kind of end goal when the act in of itself is already its own reward.

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Creativity is inherently seen as a grandiose act and describing yourself as a Poet or writer or musician a bold statement that can be taken as a signifier or pretentiousness, ego, delusion or vanity but it needn’t be. Perhaps Paterson is reluctant to call himself a poet because of these potential negative connotations, I think the film also makes clear that being a bus driver and a poet are not mutually exclusive concepts and that no-one is completely defined by one thing they do. With the famous artists we admire it is natural we only think of them as artists since we do not know them personally, because of this we have come to think of the creative process as an absolute and that little else matters to the artist – Paterson with its focus on the routine of the character’s daily routine shows that regular life is just as important and beautiful.

Paterson’s girlfriend is eager for him to attempt to get his work published but his reluctance to even make copies of his hand written poems to me backs up what I have suggested. Being unable to monetize or to share his work could easily be seen as failure or as a sign of wasted potential but to the creative person, the work and process is exempt from these kind of judgements. This is not the case with Inside Llewyn Davis as the character clearly announces himself as a professional artist and his lack of commercial success and recognition leads him to hate what he does.

Inside Llewyn Davis is very unusual in that it is not about someone who is considered remarkable, most films about musicians present talent as an ethereal and God given and therefore the rise to fame is presented as destiny written in the stars. Davis is ostensibly a failure and at times not even a likeable one, this led many to be turned off by the film – by the coldness of this, but Llewyn Davis is a far more interesting character for not achieving success and in fact his inability to do so is fundamentally in character.

The Coen’s had trouble casting the part of Llewyn. They needed a great actor and an equally great musician to convincingly play the part. The actors they tried did not have the musical capability (listen to Casey Affleck’s hilarious story of trying to bluff his way to the part) https://youtu.be/ZGzTSnlVI68?t=1468)  so they tried musicians but Conor Oberst, Jack White, Scott Avett all failed to impress with their acting. They finally found the remarkably talented Oscar Isaac, now Llewyn was handsome and had a lovely singing voice but he is not destined for fame and fortune. The casting problems show to me that the Coen’s intended it to be clear that it was not his talent that holds Llewyn back and if my top played tracks from last year are anything to go by it is very pleasing to hear Llewyn’s music.

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The film was partially inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk who was widely respected in the cafes and clubs of Greenwich village and in fact considered to be among the best if not the best guitar players, performers and arrangers, but despite this he never achieved crossover success and it was Bob Dylan who emerged from this scene to international fame and glory although if you had listened to Dylan and Van Ronk on the same night in the winter of 1961 you may have been baffled that the assured, seasoned and boomingly powerful voice and guitar of Van Ronk would be usurped by the green Robert Zimmerman.

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The Coen’s find reasons for that failure through the fictional Llewyn. Other than his often abrasive attitude, I find there are two main reasons for his lack of success – his inability to make his art/performance truly personal and the strive for authenticity within the realm of folk music. What set the young Bob Dylan apart (whose silhouette at the end of the film is loaded with significance) was writing his own songs – this was not necessarily welcomed by the serious folk musician, changing a line or adding a verse was ok but to abandon the cause of preserving the tradition of this ‘passed down’ and sacred music was unacceptable. Folk musicians at the time could certainly be accused of taking themselves very seriously, as we see with nearly all musical genres they had a preoccupation with defining what was real folk music and what wasn’t – how adding extra instruments to this song or singing that song that way either was or wasn’t ‘real folk music.’

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The fact was thought that most of these musicians were middle class and white and they had not learned the songs in the way songs had been learned decades before passed down the generations through osmosis and tradition but in books and on records – both means of recording meaning they would live forever so to speak whereas before they only existed if they were performed. Their playing and singing of this music was not simply entertainment – they were guards of cultural heritage doing important work. Of course most people want entertainment, this is why when Llewyn plays for manager Bud Grossman he chooses an earnest English ballad – The Death Of Queen Jane and while he plays it beautifully as Grossman says “I don’t see any money here.” We also saw him mock the song he plays guitar on ‘Please, Mr Kennedy” and give up what would become vast royalties for a paltry sum no doubt due to his lack of respect for this original composition.

Grossman then offers Llewyn a spot in what would become Peter, Paul & Mary a manufactured group that would turn folk music into pop hits and would launch Bob Dylan when they covered his ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (this is taken from the life of Van Ronk) but Llewyn does not consider this to be authentic and does not accept (he has earlier chastised Carey Mulligan’s character for being careerist despite clearly wanting success.)

This scene is also key for me in that he chooses a song that does not have personal relevance to him. Despite the title and despite Grossman’s request for him to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis” we really do not get to see inside, his performances are polished and practiced but they do not reveal vulnerability or his internal life. We get close to this when at the end he once again sings ‘Dink’s Song’ but without his dead partner, but perhaps Llewyn would need to write his own songs as Bob Dylan did – instead he is stuck in purgatory which the time bending cyclical narrative seems to suggest. In contrast Paterson’s week is a mini-utopia, Davis does not gain the satisfaction from his creativity that Paterson does, in the two films we see a beautiful depiction of art for art’s sake and the happiness and contentment this can bring and we see the potential hollowness in trying to monetize one’s art and the existential despair this brings.

2016: My Year of Film

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It is a sign of a good year when the top ten list is difficult to put together, there are lots of films that could easily be included that I loved this year.

Top Ten Films 2016

  1. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
  2. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
  3. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
  4. Where To Invade Next (Michael Moore)
  5. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
  6. Hunt For The Wilderpeople (Taiki Waititi)
  7. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
  8. Rams (Grímur Hákonarson)
  9. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
  10. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson)

Among the honourable mentions:

Mustang, Güeros, The Nice Guys, The Neon Demon, The Conjuring 2, Nocturnal Animals, Under The Shadow, Maggie’s Plan, Green Room, The Big Short, Blue Jay, Disorder and The Brand New Testament.

In spite of the usual summer drought I would count this as a very good year for film going. Of course I avoid films I know I won’t like so a worst of list would be redundant – my big disappointment of the year was the Coen’s Hail, Ceaser!

I have kept track of all the films I have seen this year in my physical film journal and here they are in chronological order.

Films seen at the Cinema will be red.

When it is a First Viewing of a film it will be bold & italicised for necessary emphasis.

  1. Short Term 12 (USA, 2013)
  2. White God (Hungary, 2014) 
  3. Uncle Buck (USA, 1989)
  4. The Double Life of Veronique (France/Poland, 1991)
  5. Groundhog Day (USA, 1993)
  6. When Harry Met Sally (USA, 1989)
  7. Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (USA, 1971)
  8. Lars and the Real Girl (USA/Canda, 2007)
  9. The Hateful Eight (USA, 2015)
  10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA, 1981)
  11. Volver (Spain, 2006)
  12. Trainwreck (USA, 2015)
  13. Support Your Local Sheriff (USA, 1969)
  14. The Big Short (USA, 2015)
  15. The Hateful Eight (USA, 2015)
  16. The Big Lebowski (USA, 1998)
  17. The Truman Show (USA, 1998)
  18. Juno (USA, 2007)
  19. Starry Eyes (USA, 2014) 
  20. Trumbo (USA, 2015)
  21. Sleeping Beauty (USA, 1959)
  22. Key Largo (USA, 1948)
  23. The Revenant (USA, 2015)
  24. Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967)
  25. Spotlight (USA/Canada, 2015)
  26. Death Proof (USA, 2007)
  27. The Conformist (Italy, 1970)
  28. Güeros (Mexico, 2014)
  29. Grease (USA, 1978)
  30. Murder By Numbers (USA, 2002)
  31. A Few Good Men (USA, 1992)
  32. The Waterboy (USA, 1998)
  33. Blood Simple (USA, 1984)
  34. Miller’s Crossing (USA, 1990)
  35. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (USA, 2015)
  36. Bone Tomahawk (USA/UK, 2015)
  37. Barton Fink (USA, 1991)
  38. Fargo (USA, 1996)
  39. O Brother Where Art Thou? (USA, 2000)
  40. The Assassin (China, 2015)
  41. Life (USA, 2015)
  42. Canadian Bacon (USA, 1995)
  43. The Man Who Wasn’t There (USA, 2001)
  44. Casablanca (USA, 1942)
  45. Intolerable Cruelty (USA, 2003)
  46. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA, 2015)
  47. The Ladykillers (USA, 2004)
  48. Manhattan (USA, 1979)
  49. Disorder (France, 2015)
  50. The Forbidden Room (Canada, 2015)
  51. A Serious Man (USA, 2009)
  52. Inside Llewyn Davis (USA, 2013)
  53. The Witch (USA/UK, 2015)
  54. Do the Right Thing (USA, 1989)
  55. REC 2 (Spain, 2009)
  56. Once Upon a Time In America (USA, 1984)
  57. Rams (Iceland, 2015)
  58. 12 Angry Men (USA, 1957)
  59. Fight Club (USA, 1999)
  60. Anomalisa (USA, 2015)
  61. Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014)
  62. Hail, Caesar! (USA, 2016)
  63. Steve Jobs (USA, 2015)
  64. Creed (USA, 2015)
  65. Demolition (USA, 2015)
  66. Burden Of Dreams (USA, 1982)
  67. Strangers On A Train (USA, 1951)
  68. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (USA, 2007)
  69. My Best Fiend (Germany, 1999)
  70. It Follows (USA, 2014)
  71. What We Do In the Shadows (New Zealand, 2014)
  72. The Voices (USA, 2014)
  73. The Brand New Testament (Belgium/France, 2015)
  74. King Jack (USA, 2015)
  75. Monsieur Verdoux (USA, 1947)
  76. My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007)
  77. Green Room (USA, 2015)
  78. Safety Last! (USA, 1923)
  79. Never Sleep Again:The Elm Street Legacy (USA, 2010)
  80. The Petrified Forest (USA, 1936)
  81. The Reckless Moment (USA, 1949)
  82. Bull Durham (USA, 1988)
  83. 99 Homes (USA, 2014)
  84. The Amityville Horror (USA, 2005)
  85. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (Canada/USA, 2010)
  86. 21 Jump Street (USA, 2012)
  87. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (USA, 1978)
  88. Atlantic City (Canada/France, 1980)
  89. Pandora’s Box (Germany, 1929)
  90. Ran (Japan/France, 1985)
  91. Written on the Wind (USA, 1956)
  92. Hud (USA, 1963)
  93. Rumble Fish (USA, 1983)
  94. Grease (USA, 1978)
  95. The Straight Story (USA, 1999)
  96. Creep (USA, 2014)
  97. Team Foxcatcher (USA, 2016)
  98. Mustang (France/Turkey, 2015)
  99. The Nice Guys (USA, 2016)
  100. Where To Invade Next (USA, 2015)
  101. Starlet (USA, 2012)
  102. His Girl Friday (USA, 1940)
  103. Some Like It Hot (USA, 1959)
  104. Jurassic Park (USA, 1993)
  105. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA, 2014)
  106. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Italy/Spain, 1966)
  107. It Happened One Night (USA, 1934)
  108. These Amazing Shadows (USA, 2011)
  109. The Conjuring 2 (USA, 2016)
  110. Mississippi Grind (USA, 2015)
  111. Just Jim (UK, 2015)
  112. Girlhood (France, 2014)
  113. Big Trouble In Little China (USA, 1986)
  114. Teen Wolf (USA, 1985)
  115. Andrei Rublev (Russia, 1966)
  116. Gremlins (USA, 1984)
  117. Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia/Argentina, 2015)
  118. The Gold Rush (USA, 1925)
  119. Steamboat Bill Jr. (USA, 1928)
  120. The Neon Demon (USA/Denmark/France, 2016)
  121. Solaris (Russia, 1972)
  122. Ghostbusters (USA, 2016)
  123. Maggie’s Plan (USA, 2015)
  124. Notes on Blindness (UK, 2016)
  125. Mirror (Russia, 1975)
  126. Grandma (USA, 2015)
  127. The Invitation (USA, 2015)
  128. The Wrecking Crew (USA, 2008)
  129. My Friend Rockefeller (Germany/USA, 2015)
  130. Cobain: Montage of Heck (USA, 2015)
  131. The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (USA, 2015)
  132. Barfly (USA, 1987)
  133. Husbands and Wives (USA, 1992)
  134. Lights Out (USA, 2016)
  135. Godzilla (Japan, 1954)
  136. From Here To Eternity (USA, 1953)
  137. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (USA, 1958 )
  138. High Noon (USA, 1952)
  139. Cafe Society (USA, 2016)
  140. Spy (USA, 2015)
  141. Touch Of Evil (USA, 1958)
  142. Captain Fantastic (USA, 2016)
  143. Blair Witch (USA/Canada, 2016)
  144. Annie Hall (USA, 1977)
  145. Hell or High Water (USA, 2016)
  146. The Sweet Smell Of Success (USA, 1957)
  147. Hunt For the Wilderpeople (New Zealand, 2016)
  148. Unfaithfully Yours (USA, 1948)
  149. The Fog (USA, 1980)
  150. Mildred Pierce (USA, 1945)
  151. El Sur (France/Spain, 1983)
  152. Don’t Breathe (USA, 2016)
  153. Under the Shadow (Iran/UK, 2016)
  154. All About Eve (USA, 1950)
  155. Sunset Boulevard (USA, 1950)
  156. Queen of Katwe (USA, 2016)
  157. Carrie (USA, 1976)
  158. Insidious (USA, 2010)
  159. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (USA, 1976)
  160. Paranormal Activity (USA, 2007)
  161. The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999)
  162. The Invisible Man (USA, 1933)
  163. Insidious: Chapter 2 (USA, 2013)
  164. The Thing (USA, 1982)
  165. Silence Of the Lambs (USA, 1991)
  166. Nocturnal Animals (USA, 2016)
  167. Mermaids (USA, 1990)
  168. Midnight Special (USA/Greece, 2016)
  169. 10 Cloverfield Lane (USA, 2016)
  170. Ouija: Origins Of Evil (USA, 2016)
  171. Citizen Kane (USA, 1941)
  172. The Color Of Money (USA, 1986)
  173. The End Of the Tour (USA, 2015)
  174. Take This Waltz (Canada, 2011)
  175. The Boy (USA, 2016)
  176. Welcome To Me (USA, 2014)
  177. Arrival (USA, 2016)
  178. A Monster Calls (UK/USA/Spain, 2016)
  179. Peeping Tom (UK, 1960)
  180. Blue Jay (USA, 2016)
  181. Paterson (USA, 2016)
  182. Amanda Knox (USA, 2016)
  183. Sorry, Wrong Number (USA, 1948)
  184. The Grinch (USA, 2000)
  185. Bad Santa (USA, 2003)
  186. The Overnighters (USA, 2014)
  187. It’s a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946)
  188. No Man Of Her Own (USA, 1950)
  189. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (USA, 2016)
  190. Charlie Wilson’s War (USA, 2007)
  191. Maggie’s Plan (USA, 2015)
  192. The Witch (USA/UK, 2015)

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Compared to 2015

At 192, I watched 4 more films than in 2015. I watched 120 films for the first time and 72 were repeat viewings. Last year I watched 109 for the first time – 79 were revisits, so a slight increase in first time viewings. As Guillermo Del Toro says the first viewing of a film is simply a first date.

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In 2015 I went to the cinema 42 times, 8 times to watch re-releases and 6 were foreign language films.

This year I went to the cinema 51 times, 8 times to watch re-releases and 13 were foreign language films. I am pleased with the significant increase from last year and although there was quite a few films I missed at nearly once a week I am doing pretty well. The BFI’s Tarkovsky season gave me the chance to see his films for the first time on the big screen and I continued my annual tradition of seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen, my favourite re-release was Akira Kurosawa’s Ran

I watched 23 foreign language films which is the same total as last year, I would like to increase that number in 2017.

Loneliness and Cinephilia

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“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence”. – Thomas Wolfe  

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Taxi Driver

What is it that drives some people to become cinephiles? For most people movies are a means of simple escapism and mainly for entertainment purposes. Some go beyond this with a more sophisticated appreciation as film as art but they do not necessarily have an abundance of knowledge and lack the time and or inclination to engage with the medium enough that it could be considered a major defining aspect of their identity.

The most obvious reason one may become an obsessed cinephile (or a film geek – that is a preoccupation with mainstream cinema) is the aesthetic value, the cultural significance, the emotional resonance and the sheer power that great cinema can have. It is like no other medium, a markedly different experience from TV, theatre and books – there is so much that only film can achieve. Visceral, ethereal, beautiful, brutal, shocking, glorious, consciousness expanding cinema. Why then is it only certain people who are drawn in so completely by film that they want to spend such a great deal of time watching, reading and writing about film? I believe the great common denominator between cinephiles is loneliness.

The foundations of my love of cinema were laid early in childhood with my mother taking me to the cinema to see Disney classics which left an indelible mark on me and are among my first memories, not just the films themselves but the feeling of being in that dark auditorium, the carpet in the lobby, the smell of popcorn. I would only call my interest in films slightly above average in my early teens however, it wasn’t until a bit later that I truly dived in head first coming up for air less and less.

I had left education after high school where I did not enjoy myself and was working at a laser tag centre and I was trying to come to terms with my shifting sense of self, the heartbreak of unrequited love and a deep sense of alienation. It was at this point with disposable income and a very strong desire for escapism that I began to develop my interest in seeing the canon of great films – the scope of which would grow and grow the more I watched. I was spending most of my time not at work alone and most of that time I dedicated to watching films and when you are starting out you have so many amazing films to discover – watching Scorsese, the Coen’s, David Lynch, the Godfather, Annie Hall, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so many more all the first time was constantly mind blowing and only opened up further avenues to explore. Film was becoming art to me, evaluated on a higher plane than simply whether or not it entertained me. After a year or so of this indoctrination as a cinephile I decided to go back to do A-Levels so I could study Film at University.

I felt separate from the world. Watching films was a means of seeking connection, I could get a sense of different places and different ways of life – things I was missing out on in my isolation/alienation and things that were completely different from my experience and perspective. This idea of seeking connection through film can also be explored through the prism of the Jungian collective unconscious whereby we inherently share certain aspects of psychological makeup – film artists attempt to reconcile these memories, dreams and feelings and put them on screen. This deep human desire for connection can be partly fulfilled by watching many films and is also convenient for the social outcast whether that distinction is by choice or dictate.

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Also pertinent to my feelings of alienation, separateness and therefore loneliness was the idea of voyeurism. Not being part of the world, literally on the outside looking in – Cinema can be the great refuge of the disenfranchised and it can nourish and encourage this voyeuristic tendency. Watching other people live their lives, watching their love and struggle – even finding kindred spirits in the nebbish cinephile characters of Woody Allen or God’s lonely man Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. I remember driving around at night similarly to Travis just observing the night life, my fascination only outweighed by repulsion – I felt like a ghost in the world, an observer, not a participant.

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Another aspect that I feel comes along with loneliness is low self-esteem. Becoming a cinephile and gaining that sense of superiority through the cultural capital of advanced taste and knowledge gives the illusion of and can replace actual achievement in someone’s life. If thinking negatively cinephilia could be considered a passive, misguided and even pathetic attempt to gain self-worth through obsessive film watching.

My love of cinema continued even as I felt less lonely and more connected to the world and while I do still feel quite a deep sense of alienation it is not as acute or defining as it was when I was younger. It was certainly loneliness that fuelled and developed my cinephilia, but now that fire is burning and it is hard to put out, just when the flames seem to be petering out the passion comes back with gasoline. I believe that this loneliness that I felt is a major driving force of any film obsessive’s origin story.

Once we have been sucked in by the initial incendiary of loneliness and our status as cinephile is full-fledged, even if those negative feelings eventually dissipate, it is too late – we have gone too far down into the rabbit hole. Further and further we go, the amount of time it takes to watch all the films we are interested in is socially  prohibitive. New, classic, cult, esoteric, re-watching favourites, the obscure, the popular – the more we watch the more the list, rather than shrinking, grows exponentially. Just watched Andrei Rublev? Now I have to see all of Tarkovsky, just watched Teen Wolf? Now I need to have a high school movies season. Add to that the time taken by reading, writing and talking about film and cinephilia certainly comes at the cost of a full social life. Perhaps that suits the lonely and alienated down to the ground – whether it is preventative or is a replacement of a pre-existing lack. In the style of Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder are we lonely because we are cinephiles or cinephiles because we are lonely?

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How Technology is Eroding the Specialness of Film

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Something you don’t understand when you’re young is how the world you grew up in will gradually vanish and be incrementally replaced until you finally no longer recognise it.

That is what technology has done to the specialness of Film in my lifetime.

Technology in general tends to advance without anyone asking what the impact will be and whether we in fact want or need the thing it is replacing to be replaced. The pertinent question when it comes to Film is accessibility which has been greatly improved by the advancing technology of streaming, proliferation of cable channels and VOD services. Accessibility is ostensibly a good thing and for some people the convenience of this technology means that they don’t miss out on films that they would otherwise be too time poor to be able to see -the sacrifice and the effort it used to take to seek out a film not possible.

The convenience factor is also good for people who are not that into film, which is most people. For the average majority the erosion of the specialness of films and the loss of ritual surrounding the acquisition and watching of them is a non-issue. They are happy to be passive receivers of content rather than actively engaged and for many a film is simply something on in the background, to kill time, something they are only invested in to be lightly entertained briefly and then forget about. These people see no difference in quality or aesthetic value between a film and a binge watched TV series and therefore do not hold Film in any kind of esteem. Those people probably aren’t reading this blog.

The three main ways of watching films when I was growing up were in the cinema, from the video shop(Until the mid 90’s tapes were prohibitively expensive to own) or on television.

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There was a sense of urgency to see a film you were excited about at the cinema not only for the immeasurably better immersive big screen experience but because the VHS release  could often be up to a year later, rather than the few months that we have to wait now, that essentially turns the cinema run into a marketing campaign for the DVD/blu-ray release. This short wait has hit cinemas hard and has made it difficult to convince people to spend the equivalent price that they could pay to own the film only a few months later. This has meant fewer and fewer examples of big event cinema and the saturation of franchises and existing intellectual property which now dominate the dwindling overall box office. Constant underwhelming box office performance of films with original ideas lead me to question – would a high concept original film like The Matrix be made under today’s conditions? Highly unlikely.

I am of the belief that cinema will become a niche attraction as the multiplex business model simply won’t survive as streaming gains more and more steam, the only cinemas left will be small and independent aimed at the aficionado and not the masses and that this will happen within 10-15 years if not sooner. Technology makes it ever more tempting for people to avoid the long queues and the exponentially extortionate ticket prices.

U.S. Anticipates Return Of "The Man Of Steel"

Sean Parker who fundamentally changed the music industry with Napster has recently announced a new project allowing people to stream first-run films in correspondence with the cinema release (small releases are already routinely available on the same day on VOD) that could prove fatal to cinemas.

While watching Raider’s of the Lost Ark my girlfriend told me a story about how any time Indiana Jones was on TV there would be a shout from one of her siblings and they would all rush down to watch it. This was pre-cable television with dozens of films to choose from at any given time and it made the film appointment viewing. She told me how she and sister used to go through the Radio Times to find films to watch (being particularly drawn to 5 star reviews.)

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Before VHS came along this was the only way you could revisit films after their initial theatrical run unless they were re-released, you might even cancel plans to watch them. Now you would simply record them on your DVR and let it sit there unwatched for a couple of years.

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That rush of excitement my girlfriend and her siblings felt when finding out an Indiana Jones film would be on is gone forever, now it is much easier for kids to see their favourite films but is that really better? Especially considering they likely take this ease of access for granted. Can anyone truly feel excited for a film now given the fact you can basically watch any film, anytime, anywhere and I’ve not even mentioned illegal downloads!

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I have already written about the ritual of going to the video shop in my blog about the downfall of blockbuster, needless to reiterate it was a very important part of my life and is something I sorely miss. Renting a film and having a finite amount of time to watch it, while inconvenient, gave the act an imperative much like TV scheduling. It was also more of an event – to go out and choose something and come back home to immediately watch it rather than adding it to a queue or buying a DVD to sit on the shelf.

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With Netflix and other streaming sites the platform has become more important than the content and if anything binge-watchable series are more valuable then feature films. I find scrolling through Netflix to be often tedious and the constant availability means that I have no incentive to watch films that I am interested in on any given night because I could watch them any time I end up not watching them at all, letting them linger in ‘My List’ until they eventually expire without me noticing. I find the sometimes overwhelming choice actually ends up narrowing the selection and I often end up turning it off haven given up on the idea of watching a film.

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Technology has made watching films easier than ever, a click of a button away,  but the cost of this is that now the films themselves are nothing special, nothing to be excited for, the agonising anticipation I felt waiting for Jurassic Park to come out on video lost forever. Now distribution is easier than ever but getting people to watch and care about the content is harder in a way that will be ultimately detrimental to the film industry and to us the audience.

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Why is it exciting to hear the chimes of an ice cream van? Because it is non-permanent, finite, fleeting. Ice cream is always available at the supermarket but it won’t ever taste as good as after you’ve ran out to the van.

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That’s how I feel about film. TV is now arguably more culturally important than Film and that is a very bad sign for film. With technology eroding its specialness – will it be able to survive as anything other than a niche medium in years to come?

 

A Wrestling Picture – With That Barton Fink Feeling

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I watched Barton Fink again a few months ago it is a film I love and as I have before I found myself infuriated with Barton as he refuses to listen to John Goodman’s character who could give him real insight into his assignment of writing a wrestling picture. The question of whether Barton is a talent who is selling his soul to Hollywood or whether he is simply a self important hack is ambiguous in the film but judging by the reaction of the Capitol Studios boss to his script he failed to write a good wrestling picture.

So I thought to myself – could I write a wrestling picture? One with that Barton Fink feeling? My attempts at scriptwriting have never gone well, the only one I ever completed was based on Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman,” the day I finished it I watched “The Indian Runner” directed by Sean Penn only to see in the opening credits “Inspired by Highway Patrolman by Bruce Springsteen” :/

So here is my loose treatment, I think i lack the discipline to write a full script, it’s a wrestling picture what do ya want a road map?

Treatment

A film about a wrestler and his journey to a world title fight.

In the world of the film wrestling is real – the theatrics are present but there is no question that it is real. The actual wrestling scenes would be “strong style”[1] [i]harkening back to the  simulation of combat and competition rather than co-operative performance – although occasional spectacular “High Spots”[2] could work.

CABE MACKSON  wrestled in high school but in the county championships he chokes and loses, his untimely failure was in front of College scouts and he misses out on a scholarship, ending  up working a dead end job with his glory and potential left in his youth.

(To rise this above cliché the despondency and misery of this ordinary life must be palpable – like with Raging Bull the pain he feels in the ring must be secondary to this pain of failure and a life of mediocrity and wasted potential. It would give a reason as to why he is willing to put his body through the training and the beatings in the ring.)

The emphasis would be that this is real competition. Therefore the reality of wrestling as a sport would mean it would blend with amateur wrestling and the route to college and then the pros as with other sports. The difference between amateur and professional wrestling would be highlighted –  a point being made that not everyone is cut out to be a professional as it is much more of a fight – a blend of technique and toughness, whereas amateur wrestling is much more structured and less dangerous. Essentially this is the real world equivalent to amateur wrestlers moving into MMA which doesn’t exist in the world of the film.

When CABE MACKSON first gets back into trying to wrestle, it is purely monetary – the equivalent of a journeyman boxer, the fact he did not go to college assuring the promoters he will lose – building the star power of their feature stars. He will take severe beatings and lose badly.  We will see the toll that losing takes physically and on his soul. One of the men he loses to is someone he defeated with ease in high school, this is too much for him and he quits his day job at great financial risk (kid, dame?) in order to train full time – after being spotted in his last losing effort by the manager of the man who defeated him in the county championships, he is told he must face him as he is being lined up for a world title shot but must first get a couple more wins, CABE is seen as easy pickings and the manager and PROMOTER want an easy squash match[3] – CABE knows this and it is spurring on his training and determination.

The PROMOTER  obviously does not want this nobody to win the match, spoiling the momentum of his upcoming title match. When CABE is victorious  the PROMOTER is furious and vows to drive him out of the sport by making his life hell. CABE has  to face stacked decks (classic babyface booking ensues[4]) all the while the crowd get more and more behind him  as they see his passion, determination and improvement with every match. The crowd’s reaction to CABE forces the promoters hand into eventually relenting and he gives CABE the opportunity to win a title shot. He does win this Number  1 contenders match – but now he faces his biggest challenge, the national champion heel[5] who is an undefeated hulking monster[6] in the main event at the biggest event of the year.

CABE MACKSON is physically exhausted after having to run the promoters gauntlet, while the champion lives the high life. He is fearful that he will choke again as with the county championship, that after all he has achieved he will back at square one with familiar failure – the whiff of glory but not the taste.

The match is epic and he comes incredibly close to winning several times, he takes a massive amount of punishment and keeps coming back. He hits the monster with everything he has and it is nearly enough but not quite. The monster hits his finishing move[7], CABE kicks out, the monster hits a second time, kick out, a third time – everything goes dark.

The arena has emptied, we see the bloodied/bruised/ champion getting into a limo with the promoter and his championship belt on his shoulder.

Our hero CABE MACKSON is in the locker room, he appears despondent, head in his hands, blood dripping softly. We assume the worst about his mental state. But he is smiling. He mutters to himself “I didn’t choke, I didn’t choke” –  We flash back to a promo[8] he cut before the match about choking being so much more painful than losing, knowing you could have performed so much better, beating yourself rather than being beaten and the frustration of this mental weakness no matter how physically strong you get.

Therefore we know that CABE performed the best he could and even though he was beaten he has conquered his demons. We flashback to him emerging from unconsciousness with the fans in the arena on their feet cheering him wildly “MACK-SON, MACK-SON, MACK-SON” – in defeat CABE has achieved his life’s biggest victory.

In his Limo the exhausted and angry monster champion demands a promise from the promoter that there will be no rematch – cut to earlier,  the promoter is  watching the crowd’s ovation – implying CABE MACKSON will get another shot at the title.

The film ends with our hero training hard in the gym, he looks contented.

 

Footnotes

[1] A Japanese-inspired professional wrestling style that is worked, yet aims to deliver realistic performances, through strong martial arts strikes and worked shoots.

[2] Any planned action or series of actions in a match. A “high spot” is a particularly exciting move.

[3] An extremely one-sided, usually short match.

[4] Babyface: A wrestler positioned as a hero, who the crowd are typically cheering for in a match. Often simply known as a “face” Book: To determine and schedule the events of a wrestling card. The person in charge of setting up matches and writing angles is a “booker” It is the wrestling equivalent of a screenwriter.

[5] A wrestler who is villainous, who is booked to be booed by fans.

[6] An extremely powerful, seemingly unbeatable wrestler, either face or heel, who often wins matches in a quick, one-sided manner.(Andre the Giant, Brock Lesnar)

[7] A wrestler’s signature move that usually leads to the pinfall or submission.

[8] An in-character interview or monologue.

Why Do I Hate Jordan Belfort More Than Gangsters?

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Martin Scorsese is one of my very favourite directors, I have seen many of his films multiple times. In recent years I have wished that his collaborations with Leonardo Dicaprio would finish as Leo is not nearly as versatile as Robert De-Niro who had previously been a frequent collaborator with the director. That said I still had reasonably high hopes for The Wolf of Wall Street. When I saw it however I was underwhelmed, the main reason being I hated the obnoxious and morally bankrupt Jordan Belfort played by Dicaprio.

I have always considered not liking character equating to not liking a film to be a simplistic and reductive reaction and I have judged and chastised those who do this secretly in my head, but now I have become one of them. Here though, it is not that I particularly dislike his personality or mannerisms – I hate what he represents. He is a symbol of unabashed, uncontrollable and immoral capitalism.

The obvious and most pertinent question when examining the validity of such a negative reaction to a film is whether the character was supposed to be likeable or not. If he was meant to inspire the hatred in me that he did then the film was successful in its goal – the fact this effects the enjoyment of the film is irrelevant if it was intended.

Looking at the character of Jordan Belfort, I cannot imagine that the filmmaker wanted me to feel anything but contempt for the wall street criminal, to speculate as to why Scorsese made me spend 3 hours with this human filth I believe we need to compare the film to the gangster films he has previously made with particular reference to Goodfellas.

For it was not just the unlikeable Belfort that underwhelmed me, it was the derivative nature of the filmmaking style. Since The Wolf of Wall Street shared so many qualities of his gangster films with voice over, glamorisation of criminality, rise & fall, editing style, music choices and more feeling all too familiar. While this could easily be posited as a negative and something for Scorsese to be criticised for and that mired my own personal enjoyment I believe it was a most deliberate choice rather than being evidence of an aging filmmaker who has left innovation in his youth, relying on old tricks and that these stylistic choices work hand in hand with having a loathsome protagonist.

I believe that Scorsese put the message in front of entertainment on this occasion, with a necessary caveat that some audience members would not hate Belfort as much as me, but I will indulge that I am not alone in my reaction. He did so to invite direct comparison to the gangster characters in his previous films and to challenge the audience to anaylse their reactions to them compared to their reaction to Belfort.

The obvious thing Belfort and the gangsters have in common is criminal subversion, they work outside of the normality of society in order to amass money and to avoid working a regular job and being ordinary. As Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill explains in Goodfellas:

” For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls.”

Gangsters have been received as revered anti-heroes throughout film history despite their violence and murderousness. This is what separates them from Belfort and should ostensibly make them more repugnant to the viewer? But in fact many of these characters that have become iconic are loved by audiences, even if they also hold a healthy fear of them. The reason for this could be that to some cinematic violence is inherently exhilarating, the perpetrators thereof making for fascinating character studies. It could be the thrill of living vicariously through a character that does things that we would never do:

 

 

If I was in this situation I might think about reacting with violence as Henry Hill does, but I would almost certainly think better of it. Maybe these gangster characters represent an id impulse in all of us that we therefore relate to.

Surely being murderers would make gangsters more contemptible than a wall street crook, but in most gangster films, the victims of the murders are other gangsters and a sense that everyone knows the stakes and risks when they enter that lifestyle means that we assess these murders differently than we otherwise would – here’s Tony Soprano to put it better:

 

 

In fact that speech sums up what I’ve been trying to say about the relative sympathetic nature of a gangster protagonist when compared to Belfort, who  is not violent but his acts are arguably more damaging than those of the gangsters. Both are essentially thieves, the gangsters actions are usually against authority – stealing from commercial companies that have insurance and exploiting human desire for vice, true they do shake down local business for protection money but this seems slight compared to conning someone out of their live savings on a bullshit stock, as Belfort is seen to target ordinary people, his actions not governed by any kind of moral code that the gangsters do have.

In contrast the crimes committed by Wall Street subversives have long reaching effects implicating thousands if not millions of people, causing them to lose their homes and or savings. I am reminded of Woody Guthrie and his song Pretty Boy Floyd in which he romanticises the famous outlaw:

” Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”

Economic and political terrorism cause more deaths, harm and ruined lives than traditional terrorism and certainly more than organised crime. The housing crisis and global recession was partly caused by men like Belfort. Compared to this a murderous gangster comes away with more redeeming qualities – I can’t say conclusively that this was Scorsese’s intention, but I do think it is fair to say that the gangster characters are not presented to be condemned in his films and as is the tradition with gangster films everyone gets their comeuppance. Think of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or the brutal ending to Casino, think of De-Niro betrayed and condemned to life in prison or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill who has so delighted in describing the excesses and luxury of his lifestyle not forced to live as an ordinary man:

The gangster films do have somewhat of a crime doesn’t pay finale – but what of Belfort? His time in prison for white collar crimes is shown to be incredibly easy, this in particular says to me that Scorsese wants us to hate this character!

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The voiceover explains he was terrified of going to prison but he needn’t have been. Extra textually we know that once out of prison Belfort writes a succesful memoir which then becomes the basis for this Oscar nominated film, so he makes even more money off of that and gets to hang out in Hollywood with Leonardo Di Caprio – I really would have preferred to have seen him end up like this:

Belfort’s white collar crime does pay. Did Scorsese take a self-aggrandising memoir and use it to condemn the subject and to ask us why he has been allowed to get away with his crimes with virtually no punishment? Or did he see Belfort as an anti-hero to be lived through vicariously in a similar way to the gangsters but through a different prism of criminality? Both make the film one I am not eager to revisit, but I admire the intention behind that former.

Actor-Director Collaboration Fantasy Draft

David Lynch & Rita Hayworth/Gloria Grahame/Marilyn Monroe

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The internal suffering and melancholy of beautiful female characters is something the unique Auteur is known for – particularly with Isabella Rossellini in the seminal Blue Velvet. Lynch would be able to work wonders with any of the golden age screen goddesses but I choose these three particularly for their tragic personal lives. It seems most of the actresses of the time got dealt terrible hands before, during their careers and after they left Hollywood but the sexual abuse young Margarita Cansino (Hayworth) and Norma Jean Mortenson (Monroe) suffered and subsequently having their identities completely defined by their sexuality did not lead to healthy adult relationships to say the least. The closest Marilyn came to playing a character that betrayed her massive internal suffering was in The Misfits a part written for her and reportedly based on her by her husband Arthur Miller – it is in many ways her best performance and heartbreaking to watch.

Gloria Grahame became obsessed with her looks and likely suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, one of the many facial surgeries she endured left her upper lip paralysed. Sexual addiction also seemed to manifest from her mental torment as she was married four times and largely unfaithful, the most notorious incident came when she was married to the director Nicholas Ray – he caught his wife in bed with his thirteen year old son Tony who would later became her fourth husband.

Rita Hayworth was sexually abused as a child by her Father, a dancer and  failed actor. He made his daughter his dance partner to perform in Casinos in Mexico, dying her hair black and referring to her as his wife. Understandably eager to escape she married a 41 year old man at the age of 18, he quickly exploited her and managed to get her a starlet contract at Columbia pictures after dying her red and making her undergo procedures to reduce her ethnic looks – not hard to see how this young girl’s sense of identity would be irreparably damaged.

Beneath the veneer of radiant beauty and smouldering sexuality of all of these women lay a festering misery, a great unknowable darkness that consumed them. David Lynch would have been able to bring this out to the forefront and give them all the roles of their lives, maybe even some small measure of catharsis.

Mindy Kaling & Howard Hawks/Preston Sturges

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Mindy Kaling’s cadence and pace when delivering dialogue in her own show The Mindy Project would fit right into the screwball comedies of the 30’s and some of the best ever were directed by Hawks and Sturges. Kaling has the ability to play feisty and vulnerable and her fact paced comedic verbiage has yet to be fully exploited on film despite memorable small roles in The Five Year Engagement and as the voice of disgust in Inside Out.

Darren Aronofsky & Marlon Brando

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I am thinking particularly of late era Marlon Brando, perhaps before he became pretty much immobile although even then he made an impact with very little screen time in The Brave and in The Score.

The reason I would pair this era Brando with Darren Aronofsky is based on one film – The Wrestler in which the director got one of the finest actors of their generation who was now washed up to bare their very soul.

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The parallels between the character of Randy ‘The Ram’ and Mickey Rourke were almost total and it resulted in what is probably his best performance, it would have been interesting to see if Aronofsky could have brought similar catharsis to one of the greatest actor to ever live.

Woody Allen & Groucho Marx

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It doesn’t really matter if we are talking about young or old Groucho as Allen would have something for him, he could definitely have fit into the mould of the earlier, wackier films – he could have been a mentor like character to the Allen persona in his older days. Groucho and the Marx brothers are an obvious touchstone influence on the comedy of Woody Allen and having the two together in a film would have surely been amazing.

Wes Anderson & Buster Keaton

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Again here I would be looking more towards old Buster Keaton, the deeply unsatisfied Keaton who had completely lost any semblance of creative control over the terrible films he was making for MGM in the 60’s. When I think of the characters Wes Anderson created for Bill Murray in Rushmore (another actor mostly known for comedy) and Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums I know that he would be able to bring out pathos in an old, sullen and embittered Keaton who would still have the comedic chops. Wes Anderson is also enough of a collaborator with his actors and other writers that he could work with Keaton -himself a genius of filmmaking and not dictate to him as it was this that made him call signing with MGM the biggest mistake of his life. I certainly would not ‘Pass’ on this collaboration!

Scarlet Johansson & Billy Wilder

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Scarlet Johansson has proved herself a very versatile actress in her short but prolific career and whether Wilder wanted to give her a more comedic role or cast her as a classic femme-fatale in a Noir her classic movie star looks coupled with her talent would have made her a dream for the director of Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot to work with. Her screen presence would suit a classic Noir particularly as evidenced by her appearance at only 17 in the Coen’s neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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Douglas Sirk & Tony Leung

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Douglas Sirk’s films were highly stylised and excellent at revealing character through mise-en-scene and other subtle means. His characters were often restrained and able to cover up their inner achings and longings. An actor perfect for this kind of style is Tony Leung best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai, the film that particularly convinces me of this match is In The Mood for Love about forbidden love that is never able to be fulfilled – sounds right up Sirk’s street.

He was more known for getting great performances out of women so it would be interesting to see what he would get from the brilliant Leung.

Sidney Lumet & Oscar Isaac

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Oscar Isaac is quickly entering into best actor of his generation territory and for me he is one those actors I will now watch in anything after being especially impressed by Inside Llyewn Davis and A Most Violent Year. Sidney Lumet was twice a collaborator with Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) another actor thought to be among the best of his generation and it’s a bit of a no brainer that Isaac and Lumet would produce classic cinema together given the kinds of dramas Lumet made that allowed powerhouse performances such as Henry Fonda’s in 12 Angry Men and Peter Finch in Network.

John Hughes & Emma Stone

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Anyone who has seen Stone in the Hughes-esque Easy A will know this is another no-brainer. Emma Stone would have been perfect in his teen films, she is good looking but in a non-classic way allowing her to play on the “unpopular” side of the high school spectrum but her comic talent is far above Hughes muse Molly Ringwald and is also more than capable of the dramatic scenes teen movies call for.

Quentin Tarantino & Charlton Heston

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Hardboiled masculinity in the classic sense established in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s is something that has very much influenced Tarantino’s filmmaking and he has brought back some aging character actors to great effect in his films such as Robert Forster in Jackie Brown and James Parks in Kill Bill (Twice!)

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Charlton Heston is an actor who would fit right into this mould and his gruff delivery of QT’s amazing dialogue would be something to behold. Heston was a great actor and shouldn’t be remembered just for his affiliation with the NRA, he did just as much for Civil Rights as he did with that organisation. As evidenced here Heston can elevate a small role let alone one constructed for him by genius writer Tarantino:

Guillermo Del Toro & Lon Chaney

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Del Toro is well versed with working with actors in heavy make-up such as Ron Perlman in Hellboy and Doug Jones in Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and others. The Mexican director is clearly a horror and dark fantasy aficionado and has made at least one masterpiece in Pan’s Labyrinth. I can only imagine what could have been concocted between him and the man with a thousand faces who was almost as celebrated for his acting as he was his make-up creations.

Toshiro Mifune & JJ Abrams

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The intense actor best known for playing samurai’s in the films of Akira Kurosawa was considered and nearly cast for Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and for Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, given the mirrors of western and eastern mythologies in the samurai films and western films his screen persona being transposed into a big blockbuster sci-fi as a sage like character would have been awesome and JJ seems to be your man for that sort of thing these days.

The Coen Brothers & Alec Guinness

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The Coen’s are clearly fans of the legendary British actor as the only remake in their filmography (True Grit is based on the same book, but not a remake) is of the Alec Guinness starring The Ladykillers. The man could bring gravitas such as in Dr Zhivago and The Bridge On The River Kwai or chameleon like comic abilities in Kind Hearts & Coronets and many other Ealing comedies – basically I can’t see what could possibly go wrong in this collaboration.

 

What other director – actor collaborations from the history of cinema would you like to have seen? Let me know in the comments section.