Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.


Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erstwhile television critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker launched Black Mirror in 2011 on Channel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Netflix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a technological dystopia set in the very near future.  Invariably, the stories revolve around a societal What if question that is taken to its logical extreme.

The topics that each episode explore are momentarily intriguing, and it’s all glaringly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twenty minutes are generally fairly entertaining. But invariably the episode soon fizzles out, because Brooker is not really concerned with, and therefore not much good at, drama. He’s all too easily dazzled by the cleverness of his initial conceit. And his latest, Bandersnatch, continues the trend.

Black Mirror.

Nominally a feature film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much heralded hybrid, the interactive film. The idea of an interactive film emerged about 25 years ago as the digital revolution took off, and there were a number of factors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the deleted scene. At the same time, a new generation of video game consoles arrived, offering massively more sophisticated graphics. And the evolving world of Virtual Reality promised an even more impressive visual landscape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So viewers began to ask themselves, what if we could decide what happens in a story? Could we choose a version of the film with those deleted scenes, instead of the one that the film makers ended up deciding on? And if so, what other things could we change about the stories we watch? Bandersnatch is the realization of that fantasy.

Your first decision, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twenty minutes, you’re intrigued. You get ten seconds to make a black or white, Yes or No decision. And the story progresses, and ends, according to the decisions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choices, the film ends prematurely, and you’re offered the opportunity to go back to your “wrong” decision, and choose the other option. Of course you could politely decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obviously you don’t, you go back to follow the alternative story lines, with their choice of endings, to see what other ways the story could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an interesting idea, and it’s all terribly meta and frightfully clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your decision, that decision no longer has any weight or value. So any sense of tension and all the drama is immediately neutered. 

When one character says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this building, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 seconds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhilarating, and frightening and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the other decision, just to see what happens, before you know it, you’ll be glancing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you started playing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because interactive dramas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s really interesting. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Bandersnatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a really interesting polemic. And a polemic, like all the other Black Mirror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an article in Vanity Fair, or in one of the Guardian supplements, it would have provided for a really interesting distraction. But as a drama, never mind a 90 minute plus drama, it’s woefully dull and progressively tedious.

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A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

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Suspiria: Dario Argento V Luca Guadagnino.

Dario Argento’s Suspiria (’77)

Dario Argento’s sixth film, Suspiria, was released in 1977 but it’s as startlingly arresting to look at, and to listen to, today as it was then. And that despite the fact that much of what was so original about the film at the time has now become commonplace.

Written with his wife, the actress Daria Nicolodi, and inspired by a Thomas De Quincey essay, the film follows the arrival of a teenage dancer at a prestigious ballet school in Germany. What elevates it and so immediately distinguishes it, is the way that it brilliantly melds the conventions of horror with the aesthetics of classic, art house cinema.

Lines and colours to die for.

The result is a film that delves deep beneath the surface to explore the depths of the subconscious, to produce an expressionistic phantasmagoria decked out in the pristine lines and primary colours of a particularly lurid art deco.

Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli based their colour palette on Disney’s use of blocks of primary colours in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And they shot the film using the last three strip Technicolor cameras in Europe, to create the same kind of intensity that the process had given to the likes of the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Argento teamed up again with the Italian prog rock band Goblin, with whom he’d worked on Deep Red (’75), to produce the sort of eerie and unsettlingly child-like score that would later become such a cliché in the decades to come.

Jessica Harper in Suspiria (’77).

It’s impeccably crafted, dazzlingly original and, if anything, is even more visually and sonically striking today than it was when first it was released.

Luca Guadagnino seemed initially to offer so much potential. After the promise of his third feature, I am Love in 2010, he made the visually impressive A Bigger Splash in 2015, reviewed earlier here. But he followed that up with the anaemic Call Me By Your Name in 2017, reviewed earlier here. And now there’s this, his “homage” to Suspiria.

Ah, Technicolor…

Gone are the primary colours and any sense of visual flair, gone too is any attempt to connect what’s going on up on screen with primal fears buried in the subconscious. The witches are still present and correct, as is the setting of Germany in the late 1970s. What we are offered instead is the wholly irrelevant backdrop of the political chaos fostered by the Baader Meinhof group, a tedious Me Too subtext and an extraordinarily ill-judged Nazi coda.

The question that nags throughout, apart from how in God’s name did they manage to drag this out for over 2 ½ hours, is, why on earth did they bother? What, literally, were they thinking? As Argento himself commented to Eric Kohn in his IndieWire interview here:

“Either you do it exactly the same way—in which case, it’s not a remake, it’s a copy, which is pointless—or, you change things and make another movie. In that case, why call it Suspiria?”

Ralf Fiennes injects much needed life into A Bigger Splash.

In retrospect, and ironically, given his choice of subject matter, what’s missing from Guadagnino’s films is plain to see. With the exception of A Bigger Splash, they are each so bloodless, flaccid and completely devoid of passion. There’s an all too revealing profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, here, where Guadagnino comments airily that he has recently been spending as much time shooting ads, and on his latest pet pastime, interior design, as he has on film making. Imagine what Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard would have made of that.

In the meantime, if you’re more interested in full blooded cinema than you are in Wallpaper, treat yourself to Argento’s timeless gem. You can see the trailer to Suspiria (77) here.

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Marissa Nadler’s new album, For My Crimes.

Marissa Nadler’s For My Crimes.

For My Crimes is Marissa Nadler’s eighth album, and it has the distinct air of being the culmination of everything she’s being circling around for the last decade or so. As such, it feels as much like a greatest hits album as it does a new record. Which makes it the perfect entry point for anyone yet to sample her very distinctive and ample charms.

Marissa Nadler.

Dream folk is the somewhat reductive label sometimes applied to her sound. What you get here on this album is that combination of lush, Gothic-pop, anchored by plaintive, indie country, buoyed by the sound of melodic metal, each of which she’d previously toyed with, individually, on previous albums. But all of which she melds so that they cohere here, on one rounded album.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Sharon Van Etten meets Lana Del Rey via Roy Orbison. Van Etten actually provides guest backing vocals on one of the tracks here, as does Angel Olsen. The title track, which very much sets the tone for the rest of the album, began as a test that her husband set her, to write a lyric in the voice of someone on death row, as Olivia Horn writes in her review on Pitchfork here, where she gives it a respectful 7.2.

Sharon Van Etten in Twin Peaks season 3.

Though clearly autobiographic in the feelings they describe, Nadler’s are songs filtered through the prism of the craft of story telling, in much the same way that those of Nick Cave and Bob Dylan are. As such, they are expressionistic rather than confessional. The result is duskily atmospheric and gloriously cinematic.

You can see the video for Blue Vapor here.

 

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“I, Dolours”, fascinating window into Irish history.

I, Dolours.

There were a number of new Irish features released this summer. Fortunately, one of them at least has genuine substance. I, Dolours is based entirely on an interview that life-long Irish Republican Dolours Price gave to veteran journalist Ed Moloney.

Moloney is the one time Northern Editor of The Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune, and the author of a number of highly acclaimed books on the troubles. So when Price approached him in 2010 about conducting a lengthy interview with her, he was happy to oblige on one condition. That they only publish the resulting interview after she had passed away.

Ed Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA.

When subsequently she died of a drug overdose, not long after in 2013, Moloney teamed up with film maker Maurice Sweeney to begin the process of what would eventually become this film.

The decision to tell her story entirely from her perspective is an inspired one. It frees them up from any need for objectivity or balance, and what they produce instead is a history of the troubles from the inside out.

So instead of trying to produce an objective history that seeks to establish exactly what happened and who was responsible, we follow the chain of events that helps explain why it is that a normal, highly intelligent, and extremely articulate woman can end up leading a life, and committing acts that, from the outside looking in, appear to be indefensible and inexplicable.

Born into a life of poverty and prejudice, her staunchly Republican Belfast home was haunted by the presence of her mother’s sister, who had lost her hands and her eyes in a botched IRA bombing, and who lived upstairs in perpetual pain and discomfort. Surprisingly, given the atmosphere at home, Price begins by marching for peace in defiance of her heritage. But when she is amongst those who are attacked in the infamous Burntollet Bridge incident, in 1969, she, like most of those with her there, becomes permanently radicalised.

Lorna Larkin as Dolours.

She then moves quickly up through the IRA ranks, and describes in detail, and with chilling detachment, her role in a number of those that the IRA had “disappeared” throughout the 1970s. The most controversial of which was Jean McConville, mother of ten and, according to Price, a British informer, and about whom Price is especially caustic. And for the rest of the film, we follow her as she moves from activist to rudderless, former paramilitary.

Just how much credence you give her version of these events will largely depend on which side of the Orange Green divide that you stand. And when we later hear just how embittered and disillusioned she becomes in the wake of the Peace process in the 1990s, it’s clear that at least some of what she has to say about the past has been warped by the prism of her prejudices. None the less, a great deal of the story she tells rings resonantly true.

Price’s former husband, Stephen Rea, carrying her coffin.

And in any case, that would be to miss the point. How reliable she is as a witness to history is not what this film sets out to explore. That atrocities were committed on all sides over the course of three decades is not disputed. What’s much more important, and much more interesting, is being given an insight as to how it is that thousands of perfectly normal, and often highly intelligent people, can end up devoting their lives to acts of apparently senseless violence. And how hard they find it to cope, once their raison d’être has been erased.

Condemnation is easy and ultimately hollow. Illuminating why and how is the only thing that can produce understanding. Which is what makes this film so important. And so fascinating.

You can see the trailer to I, Dolours here.

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