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 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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“When All is Ruin Once Again”; impressionistic, elusive and impressive.

The filmic essay is a very particular breed. Part of this the golden age of television that we’re all luxuriating in has been the plethora of extraordinary documentaries that the small screen now has to offer. Most conspicuously with BBC4’s Storyville strand, reviewed by me earlier here. But the filmic essay is something else entirely.

Adam Curtis, reviewed by me earlier here, is the best example currently of someone producing this very specific type of documentary. There are plenty of individuals who attack a subject and pursue a particular polemic in a consciously objective manner. But an essay is an active attempt to try to understand something. 

Adam Curtis’ very personal meditation on Afghanistan.

It’s open and questioning where more conventional documentaries are crusading and confrontational. And When All is Ruin Once Again is a confident and original addition to its ranks.

The film is set in Gort, on the border of Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland, and is framed by the opening of a section of the motorway between Gort and Crusheen, in 2010. But its completion is promptly aborted as what was then the recession took hold. And it wasn’t until 2017 that it eventually came to be completed. 

The husband and wife team of Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth moved to Gort in 2010 and made the film over the following seven years. Documenting the changes that the country, and especially the West has undergone, as we moved effectively from the 19thcentury into the 21stover a period of little more than twenty years. And few things encapsulate that change as pertinently as the transformation rendered by the construction of a motorway.

But the film refrains from lazily contrasting a noble if austere past sullied by the enforced transition to a crass, materialistic future. In which an Irish identity has been sacrificed on the altar of globalization. What you get instead is a thoughtful and gentle portrait of one generation quietly making way for the necessary arrival of the next.

For the most part, the film avoids the sort of hectoring you might have feared given the subject matter. It does take one misstep. It ends with a voice over issuing a bog standard warning of the imminent environmental catastrophe that unchecked global warming presents. Which is a shame. Because that’s exactly that kind of tedious didacticism that the rest of the film so impressively avoids. 

Apart from which, When All is Ruin Once Again is a refreshingly subtle and quietly personal portrait of a world in transition. Which is neither good nor bad. It simply is, and ever thus will it be.

You can and should see it on the RTE Player. And you can see the trailer for When All is Ruin Once Again below (though I should point out, a tad disappointingly if inevitably, it’s a pretty misleading trailer. The actual film is, happily, much less didactic than the trailer implies.)

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“A Special Day”, “ Padre Padrone” and the 1977 Cannes Film Festival

Una Giornata Particolare

The Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1977 was fought out between two relatively low-key Italian films, Una Giornata Particolare and Padre Padrone. So it was up to that year’s jury head, the revered Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, to reach a decision. His verdict proved controversial on two counts. 

Una Giornata Particolare, clumsily translated as A Special Day (though I can’t, I have to confess, think of an improvement), is set on May 6th, 1938 and is particolare for a number of reasons. It was on this day that the Führer arrived in Rome from Nazi Germany to pay an official state visit to his good friend and fellow dictator Mussolini.

The drama unfolds over a single day and takes place entirely in a now empty block of flats, as practically all the residents have flocked to pay tribute to the visiting dignitaries. The only two people left are Sophia Loren, the down-trodden, stay at home mother of six, and Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane and secretly gay radio announcer.

Loren and Mastroianni as they are more traditionally imagined.

It’s particolare for him, because this is the day that he, like so many other gay men in 30s Rome, is due to be exiled to the island of Sardinia. That being the not quite final solution employed by the perennially inept fascists that Italy laboured under. And it’s particolare for her, in that she ends up spending it almost entirely in his company.

Rather like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, if in a somewhat less operatic manner, what’s so engaging about Ettore Scola’s film is the way he transforms what could have been a drab, kitchen sink drama and elevates it into something else entirely. Rather than undermine the drama, the presence of Italy’s two most glamorous movie stars, playing gloriously against type, lifts the film from what could have been a very grim affair. As does the way the film is shot and so carefully choreographed. The result is not at all what you’d expect given the subject matter. And is all the more moving thereafter.

Padre Padrone.

Padre Padrone, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, offers a different kind of grim. Set in what feels like another century but is in fact the remote rural mountains of Sardinia in the 1950s, it’s about the effective imprisonment of the young Gavino, who is bound by the centuries-old tradition that he serve his father on the barren family farm. And his determination to somehow escape, which he does ultimately through the portal of education.

But it too is moulded into a surprising form. It begins and ends as if it were a documentary, which, far from giving you any sense of actuality, merely serves to heighten the sense of artifice. As does the fact that, once we embark on the film proper, we are constantly privy to the inner thoughts of the different characters. Including, even, the farm animals that they come into contact with.

One of the great, iconic scenes in Italian cinema, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

That regular intrusion of those voice overs, as we eavesdrop on what they are thinking, is used by the Taviani brothers to consciously distance the viewer from what feels otherwise like an intimate portrait of real people living their actual lives. 

You can see what a film maker like Rossellini would have been drawn to in each of these two films. But it’s equally obvious how far film had moved since his hey day, even with films that were dealing with exactly the kinds of topics that he had once been drawn to.

Ultimately, it seems that the presence of two titans like Loren and Mastroianni, and those elaborately orchestrated shots of Scola’s, proved too much for him, and he campaigned vigorously for Padre Padrone, which duly took the prize. The controversy that followed was twofold.

Mastroianni and Scola teamed up again for what is one of the very few films that gets Naples.

On the one hand, the other members of the jury let it be known that they had very much not appreciated his 12-Angry-Men like determination to convert them to his choice – if indeed that waswhat actually happened. And on the other, rather more surprisingly, the Festival committee announced that they too were unhappy with the decision. Their reason though was on the grounds that Padre Padrone was in fact a made for television “film”, and Cannes was a celebration of cinema with a capital C.

They rang Rossellini up a few weeks later to smooth things over, and to invite him on to the following year’s jury. But a week after he returned to Rome, he died of a heart attack.

Truth be told, watching them both today, it’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. They are both, in their very different ways, wonderful. But ultimately, you would have to side with the rest of the jury. There’s a classicism and balance to Una Giornata Particolare and a universality to its themes which, necessarily, isn’t there for the very particular and specifically local story that Padre Padrone tells.

You can see the trailer for A Special Day here

And the trailer to Padre Padrone here

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