Pulp Fiction, opiate for the masses

Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction is the perfect pick-me-up movie. It’s ideal for dipping in and out of during a pandemic as an alternative to chocolate and alcohol. What it isn’t though is a film, never mind one of any discernible depth.

It’s inhabited by movie types played by actors famous for the movie types they’ve previously played. And it’s written and directed by someone steeped in popular culture, and specifically in Hollywood culture. 

So it’s a glorious playground for any number of layered and endlessly self-referential games, as characters and actors alike, and of course the writer director, play and act against type. The way Tarantino achieves this is by dispensing with story. 

With no protagonist, and hence no one to root for, there’s no goal, no heart’s desire for us to desperately hope that our hero will one day attain. With no story to worry about, Tarantino is free to appear to play with the conventions of storytelling. It’s extremely clever, consistently funny and endlessly knowing. What it isn’t though is ironic.

Dramatic irony arises when we know more about what the character is doing than he does. And it results in a reversal that profoundly affects the fate of the character, and acts as a judgement on the decisions he took to produce that reversal. But it only arises when you care about what happens to the character. And that only happens when your characters are part of a story that we the viewer can become involved in. 

‘The Bonnie Situation’, the one dud, is a thank you to Harvey Keitel, and an excuse to allow the director some unwarranted screen time.

If there’s no story, you’re never going to care about what happens to any of the characters. When, for instance Travolta’s character gets killed, it’s amusing rather than tragic. And that, crucially, is not a spoiler. Because knowing it won’t in any way spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Yes it’s also shocking. But not emotionally shocking, intellectually so. You’re shocked, in an impressed way, that Tarantino should have broken the rules of drama so cleverly. But he hasn’t broken any of those rules because it’s not an actual drama. It’s a collection of seven, free standing sections, that are made up of various distinct and independent scenes that you can dip in and out of, depending on your mood. 

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

And it’s precisely that absence of emotional depth that makes it so instantaneously enjoyable. As Adorno complained of horoscopes, it asks nothing of you. And provides you thereby with an immediate, uncomplicated hit.

It’s like listening to a greatest hits album. You know that the pleasure that that affords is a guilty one. That instead of investing the necessary care and consideration that an album proper requires, you’re cherry-picking the songs that were the most accessible, that is to say the hits. And deep down, you know who greatest hits albums are aimed at; teenagers.

As a grown-up, you know that all clichés are true and that you only get out of life what you put into it. And that that is as true of art as it is of everything else. The greater the work, the more work it requires of you. 

But, for whatever reason, right now you just don’t have the energy. What you need this second is release. An uncomplicated, undemanding, instantaneous hit. So you turn to cinema’s perennial teenager; Tarantino.

So many memorable scenes, so little story.

Paradoxically, and indeed ironically, what Pulp Fiction anticipates and opens the door to is the very thing it’s celebrated as having been the last stand against. It presents a flat, comic book universe peopled by types, that move in and out of interchangeable and free-standing scenes that make absolutely no emotional demands on the viewer whatsoever.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t that last of an era when grown-ups were catered for at the cinema. It was the beginning of that era’s end. It’s a teenager’s film, and a very male one at that, for anyone who finds themselves momentarily in a teenage frame of mind. 

You can see the trailer for Pulp Fiction here.

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The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

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2 of 2020’s best albums: Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is) and Untitled, (Rise)

album cover for Untitled Black Is
Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is)

No sooner had artists from all walks of life just about managed to persuade the world that no, the pandemic was not in fact the perfect opportunity to finally get around to producing that masterpiece. And that, on the contrary, crafting anything of substance was, sneer, a little more complicated than that, along come Sault with not one two stunning albums, both of which are double albums, and neither of which have a semblance of filler in sight.

Sault’s Untitled, (Rise).

Worse again, the first, Untitled (Black Is) seems to have been propelled into existence in response to the murder of George Floyd, on May 25th, and was released, in quiet anger, barely four weeks later in June. With Untitled (Rise) appearing but 12 weeks later. So that’s a brace of apparently hastily conceived double albums over the course of the summer, after the pair of equally impressive albums they released at the end of 2019 – ‘5’ and ‘7’.

Sault’s ‘5’.

Then there’s the question of who exactly ‘they’ are. Sault do neither promotion nor publicity. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-in-the-limelight limelit interview way, there’s genuinely almost nothing about them, anywhere. The two principles appear to be the London–based producer Inflo and the RnB singer Cleo Sol, who are joined by a handful of the performers signed to their record label, Forever Living Originals. 

The two albums mirror and echo one another, with, on paper, Black Is producing the more sombre meditation and Rise the more danceable beats. But truth be told, they both dive and glide from menacing gloom to confident joy and back. And the mood conjured up by both albums can best be summed up by the latter’s title, ‘rise’, being at once triumphantly upbeat and confrontationally revolutionary.

Sault’s ‘7’.

Musically, we move from 70s’ RnB and the pre-disco soul of Luther Vandross to the carefully considered mashups of the Avalanches, and that turn of the century moment when dance, funk and triphop coalesced. And each album is marbled with tracks built on afro-Cuban beats, sending the sounds back to where it all began.

Exceptional albums from an embarrassingly fecund basement somewhere in the former metropolis of London, England. You can see hear the standout track Widlfires from Black Is here:

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2 Films You Might have Missed in 2020

After a year in which the headless chickens at Warner Bros declared, yawn, that cinema was dead, again, it’s easy to have missed the fact that a number of films were in fact released in the year just gone, albeit in a somewhat truncated manner. Two of which are very much worth the effort of chasing down.

Bacurau won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019 and is the third feature from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, which he co-directs with his long time art director Juliano Dornelles. Set in a dystopian near future, Bacurau is a mythical town in the Brazilian outback whose inhabitants are being slowly closed in on. 

Their water supply has been cut off, their town is inexplicably disappearing from Google maps, or whatever its futuristic equivalent is, and there are a group of tourists whose safari trip seems to revolve around taking out the town’s inhabitants, as if they all existed in some sort of actualised video game.

At Home, In the Company of Strangers.

Bacurau begins in malevolent sci-fi mode before morphing into spaghetti western territory via Mad Max. As such, it’s a companion piece to At Home In the Company of StrangersNikita Mikhalkov’s impressive debut, from1974. It shares that film’s refusal to be bound by any genre straight jacket, and is wilfully open to any number of interpretations. So that its political resonances are suggested rather than declaimed. The result is an impressively atmospheric trip into a heart of darkness that says little about the future and much, alas, about the present of the country in which it is set.

The Vast of Night is a much less substantial affair, but is well worth a look nonetheless. The feature debut of Andrew Patterson, who also wrote and produced it under the pseudonym James Montague, the film was actual shot in 2016. But it was picked up by Amazon last year after turning many a head at Edinburgh and Toronto, and was duly released in the summer of 2020. 

It’s an unabashed homage to 1950’s sci-fi B movies and is presented as an apparent episode of a would-be Twilight Zone series. What elevates the film is the infectious confidence with which it is directed. 

And there’s absolutely no way we can persuade you to consider a sequel…?

I’m sure if I sat sown and thought about it for 20 minutes, I could probably work out quite how he manages to match-cut that tracking shot that seems to glide all the way into the basketball game and then effortlessly back out again and into the night. But I’d rather just luxuriate in its brash exuberance. Part of the joy of seeing magic is knowing that it’s only a trick but being for the life of you incapable of working out exactly how it was that the trick was done.

Clearly made for thruppence ha’penny, thanks to its bravura direction The Vast of Night looks like a million dollars and more, and is the most impressive calling card since Donny Darko, if that’s not too hubristic an appellation to lay on it. And both films, by the by, come in at a crisp 90 minutes. Would that some of their more seasoned, ahem, superiors would follow their lead.

You can see the trailer for Bacurau below. 

And for The Vast of Night below.

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You here.

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