The Elephant Man

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The Elephant Man (1980) is often cited as David Lynch’s most accessible film; a relatively straight-forward biopic in contrast to his other more experimental work. Yet this departure from the surreal for Lynch is seamless. While retaining a few instances of his trademark techniques the more classic linear storytelling style is perfectly balanced and beautifully crafted, creating an absorbing and heart-wrenchingly tragic film.

It is the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely deformed man exhibited in various traveling freak shows as ‘the Elephant Man’ in the late nineteenth century. Beginning with an abstract interpretation of his birth, the film then moves to see Merrick on show as the Elephant Man and charts his life as a permanent resident in London Hospital and his relationship with Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), his liberator and friend.

Lynch explores the theme of voyeurism using eyes a central motif, frequently challenging the viewer’s perception of the gaze and its power. Jacques Lacan defines the gaze as the anxious state arising from the awareness that one can be viewed and the loss of power upon the realisation that we are a visible object. As a grotesque curiosity, Merrick is subject to the dehumanising power of the gaze of others; he is literally exhibited as an object. Lynch exploits this idea, drawing out the viewer’s first glimpse of Merrick. He remains hooded and silent in his first visit to the hospital, a shuffling, stumbling figure vocalising only though his rasping breathing. As Treves removes Merrick’s hood for the first time, the picture fades to black, denying the viewer’s gaze and further piquing their curiosity. This creates in the viewer a parallel reaction to the freak show attendees, forcing the viewer to challenge their instinctive objectification of Merrick by denying their gaze.

The next glimpse the viewer receives of Merrick is his shadow projected onto a hospital screen as Treves holds a lecture analysing Merrick’s anatomy before an audience of his colleagues. Lynch focuses in medium close-up on the reactions of the audience, subverting the power of the camera’s gaze to highlight the effect Merrick has on the viewer at second hand. So, when we finally see Merrick after this long build-up, our gaze is heavily laden with the voyeuristic implications of its latent power.

Indeed, as knowledge of Merrick’s residence at the hospital spreads he begins to receive visitors from the other end of the social spectrum. Now dressed in a suit and installed in more comfortable rooms, his hood and hat remain prominently in shot during these visits, reminding us how far he has come. Yet Merrick remains the object of the curious gaze; still drawing in the crowds an exhibit. When fitting out Merrick’s new permanent rooms at the London Hospital the matron insists that no mirrors are to, under any circumstances, be brought into his rooms. In denying Merrick a glimpse of his own reflection, the matron seeks not to upset him by confronting him with his deformities, however, it also perpetuates the denial of the power of Merrick’s personal gaze. Lacan regards the moment that we acknowledge our own reflection (the mirror stage) as the formative function of the “I”; a decisive turning point in the mental development of a child and a permanent structure of subjectivity. Without this, Merrick remains an object to the other. The recurring visions and dreams of his mother’s eyes, zoomed in on the only photograph Merrick has of her reaffirm this. He can only see himself as an individual through the eyes of his mother, and the disappointment he imagines himself to be to her.

Yet the viewer is allowed to glimpse the inner workings of Merrick. On a momentous trip to the theatre Lynch showcases his trademark cinematic style with a series of trippy visuals combining Merrick’s dreams and nightmares overlaying the gaudy musical performance. The senses are overwhelmed as we escape into Merrick’s inner world. At the end of the performance Merrick receives his first, and only, moment of positive public attention when his friend, the actress Mrs Kendal (Anne Bancroft) dedicates the show to him. The camera pans across the audience in the stalls and balcony from a high angle, illuminating their arms clapping in unison. It is a triumphant moment for Merrick, and, elevated above the crowds he achieves an acceptance and commendation in his life of unending suffering.

However, it is following this moment that Merrick chooses to take his own life. The simple act of lying flat is enough to kill him, his head being so heavy that it broke his neck. Lynch presents his suicide as a doomed attempt to be ‘normal’, cutting lingeringly between Merrick and a framed image on his wall of a man sleeping in a bed. Moreover, in juxtaposing these two scenes, Lynch portrays Merrick’s attempt to escape from the objectifying power of the gaze. After enjoying a moment of positive attention he seeks to continue this, something he knows to impossible, and thus chooses to die.  

Winner of the BATFA award for Best Film and Best Actor (John Hurt) (1981)

Neverwhere

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Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young business man, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: neverwhere.

Neverwhere is Neil Gaimon’s first solo novel. Published in 1996, Neverwhere originally found its audience as a BBC series also devised by Gaimon alongside the comedian, Lenny Henry.

The novel form we receive it in then is a kind of author’s adaptation of his own work. And in some ways this shows. The episodic structure of climatic short-bursts is retained as Richard and Door’s quest through the underworld plays out. While this is similar to the stock form of any adventure narrative, at times it lacked a longform story to back it up. The world Gaimon has created in London-Below is rich, inventive and made me hungry for more. But in the tight focus on their journey, so many interesting secondary characters and locations were underdeveloped or overlooked. In Jasper Fforde’s fantastical Thursday Next series the amount of secondary information to bolster the setting is almost overwhelming, from fictional newspaper articles to ministerial documents, it is a perfectly formed alternate universe overflowing with ideas and surprise. Neverwhere would surely benefit from something similar, and it’s a shame that it is left to go without.

Yet saying this, I really enjoyed Richard’s escapades in the colourful world of London-Below. His adventures are full of well plotted twists and turns, reaching a satisfying and exciting climax. The concept of “falling between the cracks” as Richard becomes a “non-person”, invisible to all those around him in London-Above forms a clever satire on the treatment of the homeless and vulnerable, as well as highlighting the dangerous powers of the sprawling city on the vulnerable and anonymous. Richard encounters various homeless Londoners and it is his kindness shown to Door in her hour of need which ultimately opens up the magical world beneath his feet, whether he wants it or not. Neverwhere therefore has a positive message of acceptance and charity, rewarding curiosity. Indeed, Gaimon continually draws on the themes of sacrifice, betrayal and honour, classic adventure tropes, pushing the characters to their mental and physical limits.

As the first Gaimon novel I have read, Neverwhere has whetted my appetite for more. The world of London-Below and the characters I have encountered there will stay with me for a long time, and the Tube has become an altogether much more intriguing place. Next stop Earl’s Court. Mind the Gap.

Boyhood

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Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) has had a lot of hype. Dauntingly, it has been dubbed by critics as a “masterpiece” (Andrew O’Hehir, Salon) and a landmark of cinematic style, acting and directing. Also, for those like me who speak in terms of IMDb ratings, it has an impressive 9, not to mention 99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Filmed at periodic intervals over twelve years with the same cast, Boyhood is a condensed portrayal of the central character’s childhood and adolescence, from the ages of six to eighteen. The transitions between the different stages of shooting feel, on the whole, cohesive, with Linklater making the viewer work to fill in the gaps. This refusal to patronise the viewer with expositional dialogue creates a strong social realism, almost veering into a documentary style. While in the first hour the soundtrack to Mason Jr.’s youth forms a slightly cliched mix-tape of Now That’s What I Call Music, the sounds develop and become increasingly framed as incidental pieces as Mason matures.

But at 165 mins, it’s quite a commitment, and one I’m not so sure would be as enjoyable the second time around. The thing is that a lot of the considerable hype about Boyhood focuses on the premise of shooting with the same cast over twelve years. So is it a gimmick? In some ways, yes, but that doesn’t take away from Linklater’s extraordinary achievement and commitment to make this project happen. The potential for continuity errors in particular must have been a nightmare.

A powerful portrait of youth, Boyhood has both style and substance. Generating philosophical, even existential  questions about the nature of life and its passing, Linklater’s film is absorbing, thought-provoking and beautifully captured.

****

The Guard

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John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy-thriller The Guard (2011) is, the “most successful independent Irish film of all time”, grossing over €4.3 million. (IFTN) Starring Brendan Gleeson as the dead-pan Sergeant Gerry Boyle and Don Cheadle as FBI agent Wendell Everett, small time Irish policing and big time American law enforcement come together to solve an intriguing murder and intercept a multi-million dollar drug deal on the West Coast of rural Ireland.

It’s the classic culture clash set up. Boyle is the sweary, corrupt bad but essentially good cop to Everett’s by the book, big city law man. It’s this dynamic that creates The Guard’s darkly comic backbone. There is  some well-observed Irish humour with Cheadle, as the outsider, being the butt of most of the jokes. However, for me it’s Boyle’s unorthodox approach to law enforcement that delivers the most laughs.

As a subversive slow-burn thriller I found it comparable to McDonaugh’s most recent film Calvary (2014). In both Gleeson plays an unconventional authority figure, in charge of and yet at the mercy of a small, rural community he is bound to protect. Both films also rely on the presentation of a ramshackle almost caricatured version of Ireland: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture”.Yet while at times cheap stereotypes seem to prevail in The Guard, it is Gleeson’s sensitive portrayal of Boyle which reaches beyond character type and adds real emotional depth. The scenes between Boyle and his mother, while slightly rushed and oddly positioned throughout the film demonstrate Gleeson’s emotional range and instinctive acting style. Moreover, The Guard mixes styles and genres, borrowing from the Western in the final scenes of the showdown. The spaghetti western orchestral score playing over Boyle arming himself up for war in his Garda uniform reaffirms his position as the renegade cowboy, an outsider, a maverick, on the side of good but firmly on his terms.

McDonaugh’s washed-out cinematography creates an interesting and indie-esque canvas. The frequent use of long-shots is particularly effective, framing the action against the bleakly beautiful landscape that continually grounds the film. At times, however, the use of colour feels over done. The over exposure of colours, particularly green, leaves the Emerald Isle looking more of a neon highlighter tinge. Indeed McDonaugh seems torn between lo-fi indie images and more edgy graphics. The closing credits, for instance, seem more suited to a Tarantino movie and jar slightly with the underlying emotional subtlety of The Guard.

WINNER OF THE GUARDIAN’S FIRST FILM AWARD 2012

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is the first to accept submissions from across the globe. Whereas previously limited to the Commonwealth, any novel is now theoretically eligible, providing it was originally written in English and published within the year of the prize.
Of the 13 chosen books, four are American, six are British, two by Irish writers and one by an Australian. Not hugely diverse - white male writers are still heavily dominant - but the leveling of the playing field surely opens up the prize for the years to come.
I’m particularly excited about Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a post-apocalyptic novel set in 1066. Published by Unbound, a crowd-funded, independent publisher it is a refreshingly unique entry with the innovative use of language to create a modern day interpretation of Anglo-Saxon sounds and language.
Amongst the big hitters of the list Howard Jacobson’s J and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks look intriguing. However while Mitchell appears to be playing to his strengths with The Bone Clocks looking to be a time traveling, mind-bender similar to Cloud Atlas, Jacobson has taken a departure from his oeuvre with a dystopian epic.
The shortlist will be revealed on 9 September with the winner being announced on the BBC News at 10 on October 14, 2014.
The winner will receive £50,000 and universal acclaim/trashing depending on which way the wind is blowing.

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is the first to accept submissions from across the globe. Whereas previously limited to the Commonwealth, any novel is now theoretically eligible, providing it was originally written in English and published within the year of the prize.

Of the 13 chosen books, four are American, six are British, two by Irish writers and one by an Australian. Not hugely diverse - white male writers are still heavily dominant - but the leveling of the playing field surely opens up the prize for the years to come.

I’m particularly excited about Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a post-apocalyptic novel set in 1066. Published by Unbound, a crowd-funded, independent publisher it is a refreshingly unique entry with the innovative use of language to create a modern day interpretation of Anglo-Saxon sounds and language.

Amongst the big hitters of the list Howard Jacobson’s J and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks look intriguing. However while Mitchell appears to be playing to his strengths with The Bone Clocks looking to be a time traveling, mind-bender similar to Cloud Atlas, Jacobson has taken a departure from his oeuvre with a dystopian epic.

The shortlist will be revealed on 9 September with the winner being announced on the BBC News at 10 on October 14, 2014.

The winner will receive £50,000 and universal acclaim/trashing depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)follows a young, unsuccessful folk singer around the hot spots Greenwich Village over one week. The 1960s marked a huge revival for folk music, especially across alternative venues in New York. It was the era that produced Bob Dylan, something the Coen brothers don’t let us forget; Llewyn’s cover of “Fare Thee Well” is followed immediately by a shadowy figure with the mistakable voice of Dylan performing the same song.

So Llewyn Davis is a exploration of failure. Where Llewyn’s friends thrive, he struggles. Sleeping on sofas and hauling his belongings from friend to friend’s apartment, there is no constant, reassuring presence in his life. In typical Coen style the film is a comedy-drama, elucidating our sympathy for Llewyn as a classic anti-hero figure.

At times, however, the film felt lacking in plot. A slow meander through Llewyn’s day to day existence is fine but it would have been nice to see more of Carey Mulligan’s character. Jean exudes real power of emotion whereas the other characters simply hover along a melancholic flatness. She also has a cracking voice.

Most of the musical performances were recorded live and sung in full. Oscar Isaac reaches depths with his singing that his acting lacks and captivates the viewer. Justin Timberlake (Jim) is also incredible, showing off his impressive vocal range and ability to adapt to the under-produced folk sound. Llewyn’s opening and closing rendition of “Hang Me” is particularly moving, bringing the film full circle to an emotional climax.

WINNER OF THE GRAND PRIX - CANNES FILM FESTIVAL (2013)

Dazed and Confused

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May 28, 1976, Austin, Texas. School’s out for summer at Lee High School and it’s out with the old and in with the new. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) is the classic American high school coming of age film, creating what have become the cliches of the genre. It’s not surprising then that ritual hazing, underage drinking, keg parties, jocks and stoners, and getting laid form the backbone of the story 

Set over their last day and night of term, Dazed and Confused follows the incoming senior and freshman classes. The divide between the classes is reinforced by ritual humiliation. The freshman boys try, unsuccessfully, to evade a violent paddling while the girls endure relentless air raid drills and a dousing of ketchup, mustard and flour. When two freshman students get taken along for the ride, the two worlds collide in a frenzy of drunken adventures. The film bounces around between social groups across both classes over the progress of one night. While the ‘popular’ jocks go on a rampage of mail box destruction the ‘squares’ have a milder time at the drive through. The film climaxes at the moonlit party where all groups converge on the keg.

For saying that Dazed and Confused is considered such a cult classic and is regularly listed on “Best Film of All Time!” type lists, it left me quite cold and to be honest I was expecting much more. While I enjoyed the film’s relaxed pace, the lack of plot proved trying at times. Whereas in some cases lack of plot can be made up by strength of character, in this case a lot of the students merged into one another. One of the film’s main plot arcs is star quarter-back Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd’s (Jason London) dilemma over quitting drink and drugs to concentrate on the team. I don’t whether it’s because I have zero interest in American football, or sport in general for that matter, but this quandary left me nonplussed and unmoved. The female students are similarly bland, but with less dialogue.  

But there are some really funny and insightful moments in Dazed and Confused. The stoned conspiracy theories were hilariously observed. I particularly enjoyed Slater’s (Rory Cochrane) theory that George Washington oversaw the mass planting of cannabis crops: “Didja ever look at a dollar bill, man? There’s some spooky shit goin’ on there. And it’s green too”.  A lot of critics have honed in on this social cross-section observational style, seeing it as “art crossed with anthropology”. (Roger Ebert) It’s a unblinking look at high school life in the seventies over the course of one night of debauchment.

It also marks the birth of a catchphrase for a young Matthew McConaughey: “alright, alright alright?”. And perhaps that’s why Dazed and Confused is so fondly remembered – many of the large ensemble cast have gone on to be major Hollywood stars. That and the kicking soundtrack. With Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Sweet and Bob Dylan to name a few, the soundtrack is an edited highlights of the seventies music scene, which, as an accompaniment to the party, immortalises youth in revolt in what essentially becomes an exercise in nostalgia.

Buried

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An American civilian truck driver wakes up bound and gagged in a buried coffin with only a lighter and phone for company. Taken hostage by terrorists while stationed in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds) must piece together the little information he has to escape before time runs out.

Rodrigo Cortes’s 2011 thriller Buried takes the classic one room concept to a new level: the entire film is set in the claustrophobic space of a buried coffin. This puts tremendous pressure on Reynold’s performance. While we hear other character’s voices mediated through his phone, he is alone on screen for the entire 95 mins. However, the narrative is kept surprisingly fresh given the lack of space with well structured twists and turns. Moreover, in trapping the viewer in the box with Reynolds, Cortes makes the claustrophobia contagious, transferring Paul’s terror to the viewer. 

While somewhat coasting through his emotional range, Reynolds, on the whole, delivers. From the panic of his first awakening to the tragedy of his last phone call to his mother, the performance is incredibly watchable, even given the viewer’s lack of choices.

An intriguing and original concept thriller, Buried  is incredibly tense and tightly structured. It lacks shelf-life however; a second-viewing would add nothing and lose the crucial thrills of the surprises.