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Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Judge and Genre

At its climax, Follow Me Quietly (1949) uses a simple filmic convention to bolster the ambiguity of its central criminal figure, The Judge. A dummy, like the one used by the police as a placeholder for the as-yet-unidentified serial killer throughout much of the film’s short duration, is ultimately put into action as a prop for The Judge’s plunge towards death. This occurs after the killer is revealed to be a somewhat unremarkable man, named Charlie Roy, and is chased down by police lieutenant Grant, to a vacant gasworks on the edge of the unspecified city where the story is set.

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“Here, the placeholder subsumes the place.”

This early film by one of Hollywood’s best directors, Richard Fleischer, has already been the focus of a rich, informative essay by B. Kite and Bill Krohn. (1) Rather than pay similar attention to the dummy – nicknamed Deadpan – as a link to the figure of the Golem, and the relation between spiritualist and materialist notions, I will focus more on the way in which the film creates a generic substrate for the serial killer film – a point which the two BK’s do not neglect to mention – while maintaining an interest in the metaphysics of the affair. It is useful to draw on some select passages from the existing article as I go.

“Deadpan is–among other things–the first image in cinema of the Profile, the keystone of the conceptual edifice of the serial killer genre”

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Deadpan is a monad, a smartly dressed basic unit, the serial killer as an inextinguishable force in society and crime drama. And this metaphysical status is confirmed primarily when the pursued Charlie Roy (identified from the profile of Deadpan by a local waitress) falls to his death resisting arrest by Grant. At this moment, ‘the placeholder subsumes the place’. According to the various script changes that Krohn makes reference to, this might not have been the case:

“So in the movie we get a shoot-out at the gasworks and lose the suggestive scene where Garant confronts The Judge for the first time in the empty subway car…Garant… shoots the man in cold blood”

Following this plan for staging the action, the film might have retained the powerful scene that forms the basis of Kite and Krohn’s essay – the moment when the dummy comes to life in the police station office – and enough raw material to give their analysis sufficient weight, but Deadpan’s status as ‘conceptual edifice’ would have been somewhat eroded. By forcing the figure of The Judge to revert ultimately to an inanimate, provisional element in the narrative – through the conventions of film at the time that required that either a stuntman or a dummy be used for dangerous actions – that staus is more fully intact at the end of the film.

Follow Me Quietly is the first film to focus on a cop whose obsession with catching a serial killer could well be his ticket to the bughouse.”

Describing the proposed subway car ending, Krohn refers to “a rather downbeat last scene at the bar to keep us from actually seeing the final transformation of cop into killer.” Although we do not see Grant literally kill Charlie Roy, who loses his balance and support and plunges from a high stairway at the gasworks after having the cuffs slapped on him by Grant, there is more than enough evidence to lead us to connect Grant and The Judge.

“The script has a more dramatic equation to propound: the dummy mediates a merger of personalities between cop and killer.”

By referring to different drafts of the script, Krohn suggests that the identification of Grant with The Judge had been more boldly underlined previous to the final film version. But the film does plenty to plant this troubling fact into its fabric. The first dramatic close-up in the film, in which the fourth wall is almost broken, comes as Grant expresses the necessity of having an image of The Judge’s face to identify with. It is Grant’s face that we are confronted with.

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When Deadpan is first unveiled he is given a voice by Grant. When the demonstration is over the police officers discuss the model with Grant standing face to face with the figure, dressed almost exactly the same. During the pursuit of Charlie Roy by Grant, each man tries to disable the other by attacking the right hand, and the shot of Grant’s steady climb up the gaswork steps to arrest Roy mirrors the moment when we get the first close-up of Roy, on the front steps of his apartment building.

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But it is the final scene that more subtly and most chillingly aligns the cop and the killer in our consciousness. Disguised as a joke about the inevitable and imminent nuptials between Grant and the crime reporter Ann Gorman, Sgt Art Collins claims that the police will be looking for another ‘Judge’ soon. At this moment there is a cut to Grant, with Gorman, enjoying a drink at the table of the Tavern.

“Its brisk 59 minutes contain, in embryo, virtually every theme of the serial-killer film as it later developed”

In Manhunter (1986), the identification between FBI special agent Will Graham and the killer known as the Tooth Fairy is established as the fundamental term on which the series of murders is brought to an end. The characterisation of Graham (not far off ‘Grant’ following American pronunciation) as a man tormented by his experiences in bringing other criminals to justice, and the imaginative leaps that he has had to make in empathising with, or sharing the viewpoint of, the killers makes Manhunter itself a template for many contemporary crime thrillers. After all, despite its prescience, Follow Me Quietly is little known. It is Hannibal Lecktor who confronts Graham with the fact of the agent’s own emotional similarites with the psychotic profiles he creates in order to assist the FBI. When we see Graham questioning the Tooth Fairy, yet all the while talking to himself, we not only glimpse the doubling that he is able to achieve, but also an echo of Grant’s late-night conversation at the station with Deadpan.

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Another influential example from recent decades is Seven (1995) which shares with Follow Me Quietly the creation of a knowingly generic identity for the pursued serial killer – his name is Jonathan Doe, and note how the artist’s sketch is almost as vague as the one of The Judge. Seven also resembles Fleischer’s film in its logic, which determines that by being killed Doe persists; his destructive schema is fully realised and his work will be studied for years to come. And here it is the cop who is the killer at the end, driven offscreen in the back of a squad car.

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But it is with William Friedkin’s controversial thriller Cruising (1980) that Fleischer’s film bears a more complex likeness. Not only is Cruising more properly a successor that portrays the serial killer as an indestructible type (not specifically a homosexual one, as most of the film’s detractors argue) but it also conveys this metaphysical condition in ways that foreground the artificiality of the reality onscreen; by reusing a shot seen earlier in the film, for instance, as well as adding the same distinctive recorded voiceover when the killer speaks. Just as Follow Me Quietly resorts to the use of the dummy and thereby reinstates Deadpan as the eternal placeholder for all future serial killers, the repeated shot of the leather clad figure approaching the underground bar in Cruising creates a confusing ambiguity and suggests that the criminal is still at large, and might even be the cop who has been after him. While Deadpan could be anyone – his outfit, height and build enough to see him in almost all of the men at the police conference and the everyman of the time and city – the culprit in Cruising is everyone, played by a different actor for each murder scene.

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At the end of Friedkin’s film we are left with an unnerving vision of Steve Burns, and his girlfriend Nancy (casually trying on Burns’s undercover clothing) both captured by the character and look of the interminable murderer.   

“when the paradoxes of the serial killer as boundary figure and faceless integer, as sacred scapegoat and as nameless Thing, finally took center stage after the Aristotelian form of the genre had flowered and decayed, this un-authored phantom in a film that Richard Fleischer seems to have forgotten he ever made would already have pointed the way.”

Notes:

(1) ‘Deadpan in Nulltown’ by B. Kite and Bill Krohn, published online in Mubi Notebook, 18 February 2013. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/deadpan-in-nulltown (NB: I am assuming which writer contributed each passage to the aforementioned article - any errors are my own).

Tactile

Silence (2012)

Die Wand (2012)

Manhunter (1986)

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.
Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.
The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.
The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.
Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.
And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.
“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.

Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.

The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.

The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.

Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.

And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.

“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

Good Housekeeping

Taxi Driver (1976)

Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013

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1. OUT 1 – Jacques Rivette (Absolut Medien, Germany) Critic Brad Stevens once wrote: ‘It is surely evidence of how widely cinema is still considered a second-rate art that one of its supreme masterpieces has been denied to English and American audiences; if a similar situation existed where literature was concerned, we would only be able to read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the form of clandestinely circulated photocopies.’ For those who have relied upon a widely circulated fan-subbed Italian TV recording as their only way of experiencing Jacques Rivette’s magnum opus, the absence of the Raitre stamp in the top right hand corner of this wonderful DVD release of Out 1 may seem odd. Long desired for home viewing, rarely screened in cinemas, Germany’s Absolut Medien have finally done the legwork and got it done. Advantage cinephilia.

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2. SUPER-8 TRILOGY – Ericka Beckman (JRP|Ringier, Switzerland) I am very sorry to have missed the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Rituals of Rented Island this year, which is focused around a vibrant locus of performance art, in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Already deeply affected by the documentation of the works of Michael Smith, Stuart Sherman and Richard Foreman that I have been fortunate to see from this period, I have been eager to look further into the activities of the other artists involved in the exhibition. While I couldn’t make the trip to New York to visit the show, the accompanying catalogue is some consolation. And thankfully, Ericka Beckman’s Super-8 Trilogy has now been released on DVD – so some small rituals at home are now possible.

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3. ATTRACTIONS, INSTRUCTIONS AND OTHER ROMANCES – Peter Tscherkassky (Index, Austria) Another great collection of films by a titan of avant-garde cinema, Peter Tscherkassky, making available Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, a riveting experiment with a western, alongside other various works dating back to 1982. Together with the first collection, Films from a Dark Room, this constitutes an essential publication for anybody with an intense fascination with the possbilities of cinema as an art.

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4. VIOLENT SATURDAY/THE BOSTON STRANGLER – Richard Fleischer (Carlotta, France) Fleischer does not seem to appeal to auteurists, who perhaps see little more than a fine craftsman plying his trade in the heart of the industry, across myriad works and genres. But even if a personal vision or signature is difficult to discern, Fleischer was incontrovertibly one of the best Hollywood directors, whose early to mid 1970s run is almost flawless, and who has inspired countless filmmakers from William Friedkin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The appearance of Violent Saturday, a riveting multi-stranded film noir shot in widescreen colour, for the first time on Blu-ray and in its correct aspect ratio is a gift from the fine French label Carlotta. Alongside it, The Boston Strangler also reveals its longstanding influence on contemporary police procedurals, though outside of television series 24 few have dared to test their mettle with orchestrating split-screen action to create such a rich worldview and tension as Fleischer did here. 

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5. THE DRIVER – Walter Hill (Twilight Time, USA) A masterpiece of American cinema, shown in its best, crepuscular light.

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6. FEAR AND DESIRE – Stanley Kubrick (Eureka! Masters of Cinema, UK) Though the history of cinema is one of lost treasures, destroyed negatives and neglect, it is heartening to know that the entire completed works of one of the artform’s supreme visionaries are now available in the best format possible for home viewing. Thanks to the Masters of Cinema label, the long unavailable early films of Stanley Kubrick can now be seen, giving us a clear view of the artist’s development. Fear and Desire is an impressive debut, a war drama in which the trauma of combat, the identification between opposing sides, the inherent violence of humanity and the insanity of institutions anticipates many of the director’s later films.

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7. WAKE IN FRIGHT – Ted Kotcheff (Drafthouse Films, USA) “New to the Yabba?” A real revelation and the cause of nightmares, this is the story of a respectable teacher stranded in a small town, plied with drink and dragged into a psychological vortex by its sinister locals. Visually and dramatically arresting, the stifling onscreen environment is powerfully discomforting and the lead performances are perfectly accentuated to convey a world unhinged.

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8. EARLY FASSBINDER – Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eclipse, USA) It is a cruel irony that one of cinema’s most prolific, colourful and complex artists is largely represented with lacklustre DVD releases and barely any sumptuous Blu-ray treatment. Still, this boxset released by Eclipse packs enough punch in the film material alone that grievances about curatorship go out the window.

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9. ANNA – Grifi and Sarchielli (Viennale, Austria) Admittedly, I haven’t sat down to watch this yet, but it is through releases such as this that the current wealth of the Blu-ray and DVD market is reflected. With specialist labels unearthing and presenting all manner of long-forgotten or barely-recognised-in-the-first-place works from many countries and eras, the enthusiastic cinephile today would appear to have better access to the history of film images than previous generations and is tasked with enriching and even revising popular notions about the development of the art form, shedding new light on surprising encounters, overlaps and resonances across time and space.

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10. ALPS – Yorgos Lanthimos (Artificial Eye, UK) Alps explores the fantasy of replacing beloved family members after death, as a kind of exploitative service that will inevitably be sold, shoddily, to vulnerable people as technology stakes its claim to more and more of the metaphysical terrain of existence. Lanthimos and Filippou have again crafted material that is comedic, full of pop cultural references, but which hits heavy and moving moments. By foregrounding matters of performance and by stripping language of its sincerity Lanthimos deprives us of two key elements that cinema still so often relies upon to captivate audiences. Or, at least, the film challenges itself with regard to these commonplaces up front, in order to get to other places. As a result, something unexpected and affecting happens.

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11. EYES OF THE SPIDER/SERPENT’S PATH – Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Third Window, UK) Kurosawa has always been a filmmaker who has worked at curious intersections between crime, horror, fantasy and family drama though for too long his talents were subsumed under the J-Horror bracket. These two films are appropriately packaged together, since they were filmed back to back over the course of two weeks with the same cast and crew. Taking the revenge thriller beyond trite and sensationalistic black-and-white moralising, and the typically questionable vigilante heroics of  Death Wish, the films open onto a bleak existential terrain where personal responsibility is placed under rigorous interrogation. The influence of Lumet and Boorman are evident here, in the clarity of the mise en scene and the psychological expression through not only performance but non-linear editing also.

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12. PARADISE TRILOGY – Ulrich Seidl (Soda, UK) In his usual manner, Seidl here depicts contemporary life as fundamentally lonely, where love is a transaction, or a ritual, or unrequited, and communion seems hopeless. The films are linked by lead characters and refer back to Seidl’s previous films Jesus, du weißt and Der Busenfreund (with a surprising return to the screen of the master of mathematics and mammaries, Rene Rupnik). Seidl has always placed personalities and bodies that might be deemed too crude or ugly by most into his stringently composed tableaux. The static, rectilinear shots always present to us the characters and their environments together, their interrelation. As always, there is a black humour in the work - a much-needed opposition to the crap slapstick and frat boy inanities that still dominate commercial cinema. “I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too.”

Another year of film viewing begins…

Another year of film viewing begins…

The Limits of Seeing on Notebook

A contribution to Mubi Notebook, concerning Airminded - an essay film that challenges the unchecked celebration of aviation heritage in Lincolnshire.

Notes on The Offence

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In his book Making Movies, the director Sidney Lumet surprisingly makes almost no reference to THE OFFENCE (1972). Elsewhere, the circumstances which led to its production are more often discussed than the particulars of the film itself, as they have been just recently in a short appraisal in Offbeat, edited by Julian Upton. Financed as part of the contractual agreement which saw Sean Connery return to his most famous role as James Bond – for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) – it showed the star’s talents in a somewhat different light but perhaps unsurprisingly it made little impact at the box office. It is only in France that the film appears to have been presented for home release in its original aspect ratio, and with an informative supplementary documentary.

While Lumet’s career-surveying insights into the choices made at every step of the production process and their possible effects certainly helps us to assess why he favoured certain formal and technical decisions made for THE OFFENCE, the film would have made for an illuminating object of closer study over and above several other of Lumet’s films, had the director only dedicated a number of pages to it. It is not even included in the neat list of story summations that Lumet provides for many of his better known works, although a combination of several of his comments here do suit THE OFFENCE:

“How and why we create our own prisons.”

“We are much more connected to the most outrageous behaviour than we know or admit.”

“The struggle to preserve what is sensitive and vulnerable both in ourselves and in the world.”

Even in Fergus Daly’s excellent, recent exploration of Lumet’s films, ‘Sidney Lumet: Experimental Filmmaker?’ in which the author discusses some of the unusual stylistic moves across the director’s body of work which he sees as being essential to Lumet’s ‘very subtle analysis of the political life of the individual, in the broadest sense of the individual’s ability to inhabit a community’, there is not a single reference to THE OFFENCE.

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Few fears dominate the British public’s consciousness today as much as those concerning the welfare of children. As more and more stories of child abduction and molestation fill the newspapers and fire conversation about the safety of the young and the moral failures of abusive adults, the image of a young girl venturing home from school alone and met by an unidentified man seems as illustrative as ever of contemporary concerns. Rather than shocking the viewer with seedy details shot in harrowing close-up, this early scene in THE OFFENCE leaves us helpless as the small figure of the girl recedes into the distance, held in a long shot across an open field as she heads ominously toward a shadowy underpass. It is when she is far from the camera lens, and from us, that a dark-clad figure suddenly emerges from among the trees and stops her.

Despite its topicality, it is unlikely that this police procedural drama would appeal to a wide audience today, even if it were screened more often. The film’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Johnson, played by Connery, is far from being the moral beacon expected of an officer of the law. Dedicated copper yes, but so psychologically damaged from the crimes that he has witnessed that we must question his own impulses and rationality. Worse still, we cannot be certain that a child will be safe left alone with him – it is most peculiar that he does not identify himself immediately after he later discovers the kidnapped girl alive, within the woodland at night, and the manner in which he does attempt to reassure the distressed child is unnerving. There is no comfort in the home either, as Johnson’s marriage is in tatters; his wife is not privy to his deepest fears and bleakest experiences, only subjected to extended berating.

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There is a blankness and evident disrepair even in the backdrops to the action in THE OFFENCE. The police station is undergoing renovation, with ceiling tiles absent, electrical cabling hanging down, bare rooms and concrete walls. Everything is grey, ragged. The station seems to manifest Johnson’s mentality, the deeper layers underneath the surface revealed, unsightly. The bland suburban landscape against which these crimes are occurring offers a cold social backdrop, and the land we see is waterlogged. Drains are searched by the police, in an attempt to locate a missing child: the moral sewer of 1970s police dramas here finds a fitting summary image. Similarities with US cop films of the Seventies are not so hard to discern, a period in American film when corruption within the police force and the abuses of power were frequently drawn out and writ large across the screen. Johnson mirrors the obsession and violence of ‘Popeye’ Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) for instance, but the source of the former’s torment is somewhat more unsettling. There are fewer influential films among British crime cinema of this period, but we might reasonably presume, as has been suggested to me, that Lumet’s vision here has resonated as far as Japan, and provided some degree of inspiration for the 1990s films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Director Romuald Karmakar too has acknowledged his interest in the film, selecting it for his list of Films You Should See Before it is Too Late

Lumet later directed an equally little seen television film called STRIP SEARCH, comprised of interrogation scenes reminiscent of Johnson’s confrontation with the suspected child murderer, Baxter. STRIP SEARCH responds to the effects of September 11th on individual liberties and the treatment of suspected terrorists. The questioners seem to insist on their own account of reality over and above that of the detainee, though there is scant evidence to incriminate them, putting the reliability and professionalism of the authority figures into question.

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THE OFFENCE conveys a sense of uncertainty from the outset, as decontextualised, slow motion images of policemen running around the precinct, with evident but unexplained alarm, are shown under the superimposition of what appears to be a lamp light – it obscures our vision, suggesting an unclear point of view. The audio too is pitched down, submerged in Peter Zinovieff’s electronic droning. It’s an unsettling, but cinematically arresting opening.

Following the stage play upon which the film is based – This Story of Yours by John Hopkins – the action is dominated by two lengthy dialogues at the police station and one between Johnson and his wife at home. These characters clash in drab, colourless settings; the look of the parking bay and corridors of the apartment building and the police station much the same. But the images of brutality that plague Johnson are revealed in more vivid flashes – a sudden shot of a red parrot, luminous yellow daffodils and the blood of murdered bodies. These memories are more striking and unforgettable for Johnson than he can bear and they impress themselves upon the viewer all the more due to their conspicuous life – these images of death.

When the sea surges

“The reality must begin. That means: the blockading of all entrances to the murder installations which permanently persist must be equally persistent.”

Günther Anders, 1983

The 1988 essay film IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR begins with the image of an indoor wave generator. A narrator describes how looking at the sea can set thoughts free. It is a calm precursor to a series of surprising and upsetting segments about photography, history, the limits of images and the knowledge that they give rise to. At times the film approximates the style of an educational video, of technical interest; it looks analytically at images of concentration camps, the brutality of the Nazi regime and the failures of the Allies’ intelligence; it is critical and horrifying, but it is also poetic. Filmmaker Harun Farocki organises historical facts and audiovisual excerpts in an unpredictable and inventive way, countering deeply ingrained stylistic approaches typical of television documentary and commercial cinema, as well as other dispositifs that organise archives and history, outside of the mass media.

The same wave installation appears again throughout the film. It becomes a chilling reminder of the murderous experiments of the German totalitarian state during the Second World War. Likening the Third Reich’s genocidal ‘scientific research’ with the study of the violent force of the waters in a Hannover compound, the effect of the image shifts from having a romantic flight-of-the-imagination association, to evoke the destructive power of the Nazis.

The wave generator is seen yet another time, toward the end of the film, in a single rectilinear shot that mirrors its opening image. Its geometric design and the controlled, laboratory setting brings to mind the type of shot composition that director Stanley Kubrick favoured. As the relatively still waters of the trench are disturbed and the mass is forced toward the camera, forming waves that crash around, Farocki’s film seems suddenly reminiscent of the iconic elevator scene in THE SHINING (1980). It is not the vague surface resemblance alone that produces the unexpected connection – after all, the lobby of the Overlook hotel and a research facililty for the study of wave motion are hardly comparable – but also the memory of that reference to the Nazis, and the addition of the voiceover again at this moment in Farocki’s film, now quoting philosopher Günther Anders. It speaks of the need to blockade the ‘entrances to the murder installations’ – so that we might be prevented from repeating terrible crimes and oversights of the past, so that we might face the grave reality of our history. It is the absence of humanity in these images of pure arrangement and growing force that create a sinister tone.

IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR deals with evidence that escaped the eyes of the Allies, and the oversights rise like waves the more the past is studied. THE SHINING is widely believed to address, within the conventions of the horror genre, the massacre of the Native Indians in America – another holocaust which cannot be repressed in the historical consciousness. To see Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s story in such a crude metaphorical way is possible, but the fleeting reference to an Indian burial ground does not convince me that the whole of the film is structured on such a symbolic basis. Within the fiction itself, The Overlook Hotel is the site of past bloodshed and its dark history will not be held in check. Strange resonances affect its new caretaker, Jack Torrance, and his family with disturbing consequences. The final photograph that is seen hanging on a wall in the Overlook hotel is as mysterious and haunting as the image of the young woman studied in Farocki’s film, taken upon her arrival at Auschwitz. They each provoke unanswerable questions.

Kubrick also long researched and planned a film about the Holocaust called ARYAN PAPERS – a project that he never completed. Watching the waters as Farocki’s essay ends, I recall the references to the Nazis found elsewhere within Kubrick’s work, in DR STRANGELOVE (1964) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). A small hint of the potential of his unrealised project is imagined now, unexpectedly, in Farocki’s essay film – a curious thought process, but nonetheless an intertextual link that Farocki’s creative associations have, from the very first sight of those contained currents, stimulated.

“When the sea surges against the land irregularly, not haphazardly, this motion binds the gaze without fettering it and sets free the thoughts.”

Limits of the Image

Serpent’s Path (1998)

Shouting at the Screen: BBC4’s Sound of Cinema reviewed
The latest series about film history to be flagged by BBC4, and supplemented by a variety of radio broadcasts and a few film screenings to tie-in, is SOUND OF CINEMA: THE MUSIC THAT MADE THE MOVIES, the final episode of which aired last week. It followed on the heels of series about horror – presented by writer and actor Mark Gatiss – the British Pathé film and newsreel company and documentaries about Screen Goddesses, all of which were welcome additions to an often unremarkable schedule.
It was perhaps too much to hope for a worthy sibling to Mark Cousins’s Channel 4 seriesTHE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY. That series made admirable use of fifteen hours of television scheduling in 2011, to present a wide-ranging, passionate and informative history of moving pictures and has set a good and recent benchmark for television documentaries about cinema (THE STORY OF FILM is not at all free from critcism, but this is best considered in a standalone text). Could the BBC have batted back with a similar type of programme in which the creativity of film score composers, sound designers and mixers would be recognised? It was always unlikely, especially since the new series, hosted by musician Neil Brand, was only planned to extend to three one-hour installments.
The sound of cinema in the general public’s consciousness does not seem to go far beyond favourite musicals and their signature tunes; the bombastic orchestral scores of blockbusters or the slapped-on pop songs of cult films – with the whoosh of a lightsaber thrown in for good measure. And this series for the most part reinforced these popular notions. It seems reasonable to appoint Brand, a highly regarded accompanist at screenings of silent films to explain to us with some measure of musical insight just how music is utilised to enhance particular movies. But he and his researchers do not appear to have expanded their horizons beyond Tinseltown. There is no explanation for the absence of widely recognised, crucial figures such as Jacques Tati, Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, to name just a few. Cousins has already criticised popular histories of cinema for their lack of geographical scope and here we saw a seemingly respectable overview commit the same grave error. 
It is tempting to give Brand some leeway, since it appears evident from the series’ subtitle that any illuminating discussion of the sound of cinema was here going to be qualified by focusing on ‘Music’ and ‘the Movies’, typically understood as theme music from Hollywood fare. Of course, many of the composers interviewed by Brand come from outside of America – Lalo Schifrin, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and Clint Mansell – but the films under consideration here, to which they have lent their musicianship, were by and large English-language American studio features. 
Once this became clear, it was predictable that perhaps the most fervent interrogator and creator with film sound, and one of the most important filmmakers of cinema history, Jean-Luc Godard would not get a single mention, not even a passing reference to the oft-cited elegaic grandeur of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s film LE MEPRIS (1963). And what of Japanese cinema and the towering example of Toru Takemitsu? Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938) is a richer source of historical interest as far as the extent to which a legendary composer and director worked together to match image to score, than Steiner’s work on KING KONG (1933). 
Gottfried Huppertz, who was not referred to either, has been long recognised for his score to METROPOLIS (1927) by Fritz Lang, whose later M (1931) is one of the finest experiments in early film sound and even identifies its murderous protagonist by his whistling of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – the haunting sound of cinema. A later version of METROPOLIS was given a pop soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder who was here namechecked instead for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and Lang’s science-fiction film is an obvious template for BLADE RUNNER (1982), which appeared elsewhere in the series - such helpful intertextual references might have held all the information together more effectively. Giorgio Moroder’s use of six notes from ‘Cry Me a River’ to form part of his score to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS could have been likened to Hans Zimmer’s slowed down, ominous sampling of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in INCEPTION (2010), but it wasn’t. We did, however, get a brief surface comparison of Korngold’s score for KING’S ROW (1942) and John Williams’s inescapable STAR WARS (1977) theme. 
Even brief acknowledgements of Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Small, or the attention given to sound by director William Friedkin would have been in keeping with this series’ Hollywood-centric audiovision. 
It is easy to dismiss the series for neglecting to include all manner of composers and films that one thinks should be essential in any primer on the sound of cinema, so it is perhaps more constructive to identify some of the ways in which the programme failed to make the best use of the those interviewees it did have access to. 
David Lynch’s work was suitably included along the way, but the chance to discuss with composer Angelo Badalamenti the distinctive use of sound colour, editing and mixing for nightmarish effects in BLUE VELVET(1986), LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was ignored in favour of a reverential walk through the theme to the television series – not, more specifically, the subsequent film – TWIN PEAKS by his longstanding musical collaborator. The opportunity to talk with David Shire – an unexpected but inspired inclusion – about his exquisite scores for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974) and his more recent contribution to ZODIAC (2007) was passed up in order to celebrate what he referred to as his ‘easiest’ job, on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). 
The series began with a potentially instructive approach, whereby Brand commented upon John Barry’s score to THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), with its eastern European leanings to suggest the world behind the Iron Curtain. Brand sat at the piano talking us through how the notes worked together with the image to suggest more than the sight of Michael Caine making his morning coffee could do alone. But the initial sight of Brand stood at a breakfast counter re-enacting the early morning routine of Harry Palmer was an indicator of the inexplicable uses to which the presenter was to be put. Perhaps the clue is in the visit to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock and crew filmed THE BIRDS (1963): has Brand been taking notes from Slavoj Žižek’s THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006)? 
It is not unheard of for documetaries about cinema to visit shooting locations, but it’s an odd approach for one about film sound. Whisking the host off to wander around these monuments of film history only reinforces visual ideas, adding only a token cinephilic value and nothing whatsoever as far as musical analysis is concerned. The under utilisation of Brand’s knowledge as a musician reached its zenith when he was filmed wandering around Union Square in San Francisco dressed like Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION (1974). The film itself was a valuable addition to the series, although the fact that its composer David Shire’s comments on it weren’t taken – or, if they were, weren’t included – is also a disappointment. 
I haven’t yet heard any of the supplementary radio programmes that are intended to bolster the series, in which I understand some of the glaring omissions I have identified are covered. A wholly auditory approach to the use of sound in cinema would at least avoid the unnecessary postcards from star locations, which seem to me to be a terrible waste of money, or Brand’s ruminative milling outside Leicester Square Odeon. But it is already so commonplace to sever the scores from the films, as witnessed by recent Proms celebrations of great film soundtracks. The point really should be to focus on the ways in which sound and image work together in expressive and affective ways.
It is all too easy to keep comparing the approach here with Cousins’s too and it might seem a little unfair and not the best critical practice. But where Cousins took us confidently and bravely into unfamiliar margins of cinema, all the while helping us to connect the dots between seemingly disparate films and underlining the master craftsmanship at work, Brand simply reminds us of crass anthems, the power of marketing with often sixth-form-essay-standard dissections of works by Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa. The series was too enamoured with overplayed themes from mediocre films, overlooking more astonishing, if perhaps subtle and underrecognised, uses of sound on film. The show cannot even be defended for simply wanting to highlight the music that made the most successful movies – as the title suggests – since it didn’t discuss GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE GODFATHER (1972), JAWS (1975), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1985), BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) or most of the obvious ‘big films’ from the past, and Brand did explore a number of independent films that did not make much of a dent at the box office, though have attained a large number of admirers over time. 
The series did have the good sense to include Bernard Herrmann, whose achievements serve as a significant link, connecting several decades and major cinematic works from CITIZEN KANE (1941) to TAXI DRIVER (1976), via VERTIGO (1958). Two other figures would have served as similar sources for reflection on the myriad uses to which sound has been put and has continued to influence others, across the years and a variety of film works. Director Stanley Kubrick was commended for his work with Walter Carlos to include the warped, comic synthesizer renditions of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). I don’t, however, recall any mention of one of the most quoted musical passages in cinema and pop culture: the blast of Strauss’s ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Kubrick is a useful starting point from which we can consider the enduring associations of european classical and avant-garde composition with horror music, thanks to the excerpts of Ligeti and Penderecki in THE SHINING (1980); and the use of rock and pop and musical hits against a backdrop of violence – for which Tarantino is considered the best proponent – in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and FULL METAL JACKET (1987).
While Herrmann takes us neatly from Welles to Scorsese, a similar focus on the talents of Jack Nitzsche and his role in creating some of the most powerful sound and music for film since the Sixities, none of which was given a nod, would also have raised the bar substantially and paid respect to a frighteningly overlooked talent. From his input into PERFORMANCE (1970), where Moog voyages, Stones blues and voices of black power mingle; to the medicinal piped-in music put to terrific diegetic and non-diegetic use in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975); to the glacial chill of THE EXORCIST (1973) – the hugely familiar theme from which, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, was evidently dismissed; to his selection of punk songs to sit uneasily alongside ECM records extracts, Boccherini and an unsettling and wild foleyed sound mix in William Friedkin’s CRUISING (1980). It is interesting to note that despite being influenced by Herrmann’s work with Orson Welles on the 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and later CITIZEN KANE, Friedkin would later reject planned contributions by both Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin for THE EXORCIST. It would have been simple and beneficial to have included this monumental film into Brand’s narrative, above any of the others suggested. 
The late Ray Dolby might have figured more within this story as well, but one must wonder how the legacy of this sound engineer will be remembered as the film viewing public opts more and more for compressed streams on their laptops, through crappy speakers, via Netflix.
Sound remains an underappreciated aspect of film in popular discourse but is always present, always at work, the artistry often self-effacing and typically only discussed and remembered where it is most insistent and conspicuous. Lucrecia Martel treats sound with strict attention and to beguiling effect in her films LA CIÉNAGA (2001), THE HOLY GIRL (2004) and THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and has said, ‘Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator. Audio frequencies are experienced through the entire body.’ But again it’s that lame subtitle to the series that seems to prohibit any intelligent analysis of the sound of cinema Martel describes.
In his blog for the BBC, the series producer John Das mentions that, during his interview, Hans Zimmer had discussed the difficulty of scoring comedy films and the personal import of his work on THE LION KING (1994) – both of which seem to be intriguing areas of consideration, yet did not appear in the final broadcast. But, Das admits, ‘We were taking on a huge subject, and we knew from the start that it would be impossible to include all the scores and composers we admired.’
It is easy to fall under the spell of John Williams’s heart-tugging triumphalism and Vangelis’s reverberating synth washes, but the most effective uses of sound, as the example of THE BIRDS readily teaches us (and evidently taught Carter Burwell), is sometimes less obvious, yet more powerful. There is, usefully, much more offered across BBC radio as part of a season of programmes about film music which, a cursory glance confirms, includes shows about sound effects, Bollywood soundtracks and Hip Hop in the Movies – further hinting at a whole range of film musics that Brand’s series here neglected. On the basis of this admittedly brief series, however, I’m not tempted to tune in. For one thing I won’t be able to see how the sound is achieving its effect.

Shouting at the Screen: BBC4’s Sound of Cinema reviewed

The latest series about film history to be flagged by BBC4, and supplemented by a variety of radio broadcasts and a few film screenings to tie-in, is SOUND OF CINEMA: THE MUSIC THAT MADE THE MOVIES, the final episode of which aired last week. It followed on the heels of series about horror – presented by writer and actor Mark Gatiss – the British Pathé film and newsreel company and documentaries about Screen Goddesses, all of which were welcome additions to an often unremarkable schedule.

It was perhaps too much to hope for a worthy sibling to Mark Cousins’s Channel 4 seriesTHE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY. That series made admirable use of fifteen hours of television scheduling in 2011, to present a wide-ranging, passionate and informative history of moving pictures and has set a good and recent benchmark for television documentaries about cinema (THE STORY OF FILM is not at all free from critcism, but this is best considered in a standalone text). Could the BBC have batted back with a similar type of programme in which the creativity of film score composers, sound designers and mixers would be recognised? It was always unlikely, especially since the new series, hosted by musician Neil Brand, was only planned to extend to three one-hour installments.

The sound of cinema in the general public’s consciousness does not seem to go far beyond favourite musicals and their signature tunes; the bombastic orchestral scores of blockbusters or the slapped-on pop songs of cult films – with the whoosh of a lightsaber thrown in for good measure. And this series for the most part reinforced these popular notions. It seems reasonable to appoint Brand, a highly regarded accompanist at screenings of silent films to explain to us with some measure of musical insight just how music is utilised to enhance particular movies. But he and his researchers do not appear to have expanded their horizons beyond Tinseltown. There is no explanation for the absence of widely recognised, crucial figures such as Jacques Tati, Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, to name just a few. Cousins has already criticised popular histories of cinema for their lack of geographical scope and here we saw a seemingly respectable overview commit the same grave error.

It is tempting to give Brand some leeway, since it appears evident from the series’ subtitle that any illuminating discussion of the sound of cinema was here going to be qualified by focusing on ‘Music’ and ‘the Movies’, typically understood as theme music from Hollywood fare. Of course, many of the composers interviewed by Brand come from outside of America – Lalo Schifrin, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and Clint Mansell – but the films under consideration here, to which they have lent their musicianship, were by and large English-language American studio features.

Once this became clear, it was predictable that perhaps the most fervent interrogator and creator with film sound, and one of the most important filmmakers of cinema history, Jean-Luc Godard would not get a single mention, not even a passing reference to the oft-cited elegaic grandeur of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s film LE MEPRIS (1963). And what of Japanese cinema and the towering example of Toru Takemitsu? Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938) is a richer source of historical interest as far as the extent to which a legendary composer and director worked together to match image to score, than Steiner’s work on KING KONG (1933).

Gottfried Huppertz, who was not referred to either, has been long recognised for his score to METROPOLIS (1927) by Fritz Lang, whose later M (1931) is one of the finest experiments in early film sound and even identifies its murderous protagonist by his whistling of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – the haunting sound of cinema. A later version of METROPOLIS was given a pop soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder who was here namechecked instead for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and Lang’s science-fiction film is an obvious template for BLADE RUNNER (1982), which appeared elsewhere in the series - such helpful intertextual references might have held all the information together more effectively. Giorgio Moroder’s use of six notes from ‘Cry Me a River’ to form part of his score to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS could have been likened to Hans Zimmer’s slowed down, ominous sampling of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in INCEPTION (2010), but it wasn’t. We did, however, get a brief surface comparison of Korngold’s score for KING’S ROW (1942) and John Williams’s inescapable STAR WARS (1977) theme. 

Even brief acknowledgements of Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Small, or the attention given to sound by director William Friedkin would have been in keeping with this series’ Hollywood-centric audiovision.

It is easy to dismiss the series for neglecting to include all manner of composers and films that one thinks should be essential in any primer on the sound of cinema, so it is perhaps more constructive to identify some of the ways in which the programme failed to make the best use of the those interviewees it did have access to.

David Lynch’s work was suitably included along the way, but the chance to discuss with composer Angelo Badalamenti the distinctive use of sound colour, editing and mixing for nightmarish effects in BLUE VELVET(1986), LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was ignored in favour of a reverential walk through the theme to the television series – not, more specifically, the subsequent film – TWIN PEAKS by his longstanding musical collaborator. The opportunity to talk with David Shire – an unexpected but inspired inclusion – about his exquisite scores for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974) and his more recent contribution to ZODIAC (2007) was passed up in order to celebrate what he referred to as his ‘easiest’ job, on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977).

The series began with a potentially instructive approach, whereby Brand commented upon John Barry’s score to THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), with its eastern European leanings to suggest the world behind the Iron Curtain. Brand sat at the piano talking us through how the notes worked together with the image to suggest more than the sight of Michael Caine making his morning coffee could do alone. But the initial sight of Brand stood at a breakfast counter re-enacting the early morning routine of Harry Palmer was an indicator of the inexplicable uses to which the presenter was to be put. Perhaps the clue is in the visit to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock and crew filmed THE BIRDS (1963): has Brand been taking notes from Slavoj Žižek’s THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006)?

It is not unheard of for documetaries about cinema to visit shooting locations, but it’s an odd approach for one about film sound. Whisking the host off to wander around these monuments of film history only reinforces visual ideas, adding only a token cinephilic value and nothing whatsoever as far as musical analysis is concerned. The under utilisation of Brand’s knowledge as a musician reached its zenith when he was filmed wandering around Union Square in San Francisco dressed like Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION (1974). The film itself was a valuable addition to the series, although the fact that its composer David Shire’s comments on it weren’t taken – or, if they were, weren’t included – is also a disappointment.

I haven’t yet heard any of the supplementary radio programmes that are intended to bolster the series, in which I understand some of the glaring omissions I have identified are covered. A wholly auditory approach to the use of sound in cinema would at least avoid the unnecessary postcards from star locations, which seem to me to be a terrible waste of money, or Brand’s ruminative milling outside Leicester Square Odeon. But it is already so commonplace to sever the scores from the films, as witnessed by recent Proms celebrations of great film soundtracks. The point really should be to focus on the ways in which sound and image work together in expressive and affective ways.

It is all too easy to keep comparing the approach here with Cousins’s too and it might seem a little unfair and not the best critical practice. But where Cousins took us confidently and bravely into unfamiliar margins of cinema, all the while helping us to connect the dots between seemingly disparate films and underlining the master craftsmanship at work, Brand simply reminds us of crass anthems, the power of marketing with often sixth-form-essay-standard dissections of works by Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa. The series was too enamoured with overplayed themes from mediocre films, overlooking more astonishing, if perhaps subtle and underrecognised, uses of sound on film. The show cannot even be defended for simply wanting to highlight the music that made the most successful movies – as the title suggests – since it didn’t discuss GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE GODFATHER (1972), JAWS (1975), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1985), BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) or most of the obvious ‘big films’ from the past, and Brand did explore a number of independent films that did not make much of a dent at the box office, though have attained a large number of admirers over time. 

The series did have the good sense to include Bernard Herrmann, whose achievements serve as a significant link, connecting several decades and major cinematic works from CITIZEN KANE (1941) to TAXI DRIVER (1976), via VERTIGO (1958). Two other figures would have served as similar sources for reflection on the myriad uses to which sound has been put and has continued to influence others, across the years and a variety of film works. Director Stanley Kubrick was commended for his work with Walter Carlos to include the warped, comic synthesizer renditions of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). I don’t, however, recall any mention of one of the most quoted musical passages in cinema and pop culture: the blast of Strauss’s ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Kubrick is a useful starting point from which we can consider the enduring associations of european classical and avant-garde composition with horror music, thanks to the excerpts of Ligeti and Penderecki in THE SHINING (1980); and the use of rock and pop and musical hits against a backdrop of violence – for which Tarantino is considered the best proponent – in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and FULL METAL JACKET (1987).

While Herrmann takes us neatly from Welles to Scorsese, a similar focus on the talents of Jack Nitzsche and his role in creating some of the most powerful sound and music for film since the Sixities, none of which was given a nod, would also have raised the bar substantially and paid respect to a frighteningly overlooked talent. From his input into PERFORMANCE (1970), where Moog voyages, Stones blues and voices of black power mingle; to the medicinal piped-in music put to terrific diegetic and non-diegetic use in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975); to the glacial chill of THE EXORCIST (1973) – the hugely familiar theme from which, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, was evidently dismissed; to his selection of punk songs to sit uneasily alongside ECM records extracts, Boccherini and an unsettling and wild foleyed sound mix in William Friedkin’s CRUISING (1980). It is interesting to note that despite being influenced by Herrmann’s work with Orson Welles on the 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and later CITIZEN KANE, Friedkin would later reject planned contributions by both Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin for THE EXORCIST. It would have been simple and beneficial to have included this monumental film into Brand’s narrative, above any of the others suggested.

The late Ray Dolby might have figured more within this story as well, but one must wonder how the legacy of this sound engineer will be remembered as the film viewing public opts more and more for compressed streams on their laptops, through crappy speakers, via Netflix.

Sound remains an underappreciated aspect of film in popular discourse but is always present, always at work, the artistry often self-effacing and typically only discussed and remembered where it is most insistent and conspicuous. Lucrecia Martel treats sound with strict attention and to beguiling effect in her films LA CIÉNAGA (2001), THE HOLY GIRL (2004) and THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and has said, ‘Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator. Audio frequencies are experienced through the entire body.’ But again it’s that lame subtitle to the series that seems to prohibit any intelligent analysis of the sound of cinema Martel describes.

In his blog for the BBC, the series producer John Das mentions that, during his interview, Hans Zimmer had discussed the difficulty of scoring comedy films and the personal import of his work on THE LION KING (1994) – both of which seem to be intriguing areas of consideration, yet did not appear in the final broadcast. But, Das admits, ‘We were taking on a huge subject, and we knew from the start that it would be impossible to include all the scores and composers we admired.’

It is easy to fall under the spell of John Williams’s heart-tugging triumphalism and Vangelis’s reverberating synth washes, but the most effective uses of sound, as the example of THE BIRDS readily teaches us (and evidently taught Carter Burwell), is sometimes less obvious, yet more powerful. There is, usefully, much more offered across BBC radio as part of a season of programmes about film music which, a cursory glance confirms, includes shows about sound effects, Bollywood soundtracks and Hip Hop in the Movies – further hinting at a whole range of film musics that Brand’s series here neglected. On the basis of this admittedly brief series, however, I’m not tempted to tune in. For one thing I won’t be able to see how the sound is achieving its effect.

Violence // Discipline // Vanity

:: Taxi Driver (1976) ::

:: The Black Panther (1977) ::

Let the truth be known…
The truth about how the Master of Suspense actually made his films, specifically. Currently reading Bill Krohn’s magnificent book ’Hitchcock at Work’.

Let the truth be known…

The truth about how the Master of Suspense actually made his films, specifically. Currently reading Bill Krohn’s magnificent book ’Hitchcock at Work’.

Would You Believe It?

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Living in an increasingly secularized culture, where longstanding religious traditions have been passed over by many thanks to the speedy inculcation of scientific and atheistic thought, it has been eye-opening to read some of the recent literature on the prevalent role of irrationality in our lives. Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, among others, have unpicked the grand narratives and analyses of the self-professed logicians who manage economies and social infrastructure and have illustrated that intuition and irrationality have a significant role to play in organising the world.

Hand in hand with these popular studies is the widespread evidence that we as individuals are no less likely to embrace a fanciful story, even allow it to govern our actions, at a time when many of us feel we’ve outgrown the gullibility of our God-fearing forebears; that we’ve done the numbers and clawed the wool away from our eyes. Whereas thinkers like Kahneman and Taleb argue that we can benefit from opening ourselves up to our irrational instincts, two films that I’ve caught up with recently highlight the devastating consequences of not thinking things through slowly. For better and for worse, the course of everyday life often unfolds with a lack of reflection and prudent distrust of many of the competing stories that claim to truly describe the events occurring around us – and unchecked they evidently have the power to make us harm ourselves and others with ease.

Compliance (2012) and Imposter (2012) both concern the despicable manipulation of individuals by men claiming to be who they are not. The films differ in their treatment of the perpetrator: in Compliance we learn that the man pretending to be a police officer conducting an investigation into an alleged theft at a fast food restaurant is in fact a family man who works, ironically, for a credit card fraud protection department. Yet we are given little insight into his motivations or feelings about his behaviour, only that he obviously finds humour and sexual pleasure in the power game that he is playing. Imposter, on the other hand, is told largely from the point of view of serial identity thief Frédéric Bourdin, who at times conveys the difficulties of his childhood and the moral quandaries he experienced when impersonating missing American teen Nicholas Barclay, but just as often smiles smugly and ultimately claims that he only cared about himself.

The films also provide different reasons, but significantly more mystery as to why people would readily believe what in both cases are blatantly preposterous tales. It must be underlined here, though, that Imposter is a documentary film, which owes more than a little to the filmmaking style of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Compliance is a fiction film inspired by true events. The family of Nicholas Barclay can understandably be forgiven for allowing their grief to cloud their judgement; but their continued belief in Bourdin’s identity, once the authorities had gathered enough evidence to be certain that he was not their loved one, is startling.

It is not so easy to pinpoint why there is so much complicity with the cold caller who puts Chickwich staff member Becky through humiliating sexual abuse in the presence of her colleagues. Even the famous Milgram Experiment to which the film makes reference involved orders given by an experimenter in physical proximity to the test subject, orders which were to be carried out on an unseen and unfamiliar confederate. Obeying a voice on the end of a phone and degrading a friend is quite another thing. The use of language to control is clearly displayed – the phone conversations drive the entire plot – but the caller cannot con just anyone, as two of Becky’s co-workers quickly cast doubt on the whole situation. Both films reflect the power of suggestion and blind faith that persists in a culture that collectively gives the impression that it is smart enough not to be so easily led, that it can always smell bullshit when it’s close by. In a modern world where precarity appears to be a permanent condition and the old historical teleologies have all ended on a downer, the desire for security, self-preservation, love and recognition would appear to be so strong as to trump moral rectitude, compassion and dissent in the face of violence and exploitation, on a regular basis.

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Compliance has found a vocal admirer in William Friedkin, whose interest in the thin membrane that separates good from evil has been reflected. The restriction of the action to the back room and front counter of the restaurant and the dramatic development through intense, lengthy dialogue exchange is reminiscent of the older director’s two most recent films, both adapted from stage plays by Tracy Letts. In Bug (2006) we find a protagonist, Agnes, who is just as desperate to mask the absence of her missing boy as the Barclay family in Imposter are theirs, and as willing to believe the destructive lies of her new friend Peter as any of the victims of Craig Zobel’s and Bart Layton’s films (it is interesting to compare the history of abuse that both Bourdin and Peter Evans claim to have suffered). Friedkin’s film failed to capture the public imagination like those of the younger directors – though it is a much stronger work than both of them – but all of these stories point up the power that fictions can have over us, whether knowingly in the escapist thrill of a couple of hours in the cinema, or unsuspectingly and shockingly amidst the drab duties of our daily lives.    

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Lesley Sharp, as Valerie in Road (1987)

Judge and Genre

At its climax, Follow Me Quietly (1949) uses a simple filmic convention to bolster the ambiguity of its central criminal figure, The Judge. A dummy, like the one used by the police as a placeholder for the as-yet-unidentified serial killer throughout much of the film’s short duration, is ultimately put into action as a prop for The Judge’s plunge towards death. This occurs after the killer is revealed to be a somewhat unremarkable man, named Charlie Roy, and is chased down by police lieutenant Grant, to a vacant gasworks on the edge of the unspecified city where the story is set.

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“Here, the placeholder subsumes the place.”

This early film by one of Hollywood’s best directors, Richard Fleischer, has already been the focus of a rich, informative essay by B. Kite and Bill Krohn. (1) Rather than pay similar attention to the dummy – nicknamed Deadpan – as a link to the figure of the Golem, and the relation between spiritualist and materialist notions, I will focus more on the way in which the film creates a generic substrate for the serial killer film – a point which the two BK’s do not neglect to mention – while maintaining an interest in the metaphysics of the affair. It is useful to draw on some select passages from the existing article as I go.

“Deadpan is–among other things–the first image in cinema of the Profile, the keystone of the conceptual edifice of the serial killer genre”

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Deadpan is a monad, a smartly dressed basic unit, the serial killer as an inextinguishable force in society and crime drama. And this metaphysical status is confirmed primarily when the pursued Charlie Roy (identified from the profile of Deadpan by a local waitress) falls to his death resisting arrest by Grant. At this moment, ‘the placeholder subsumes the place’. According to the various script changes that Krohn makes reference to, this might not have been the case:

“So in the movie we get a shoot-out at the gasworks and lose the suggestive scene where Garant confronts The Judge for the first time in the empty subway car…Garant… shoots the man in cold blood”

Following this plan for staging the action, the film might have retained the powerful scene that forms the basis of Kite and Krohn’s essay – the moment when the dummy comes to life in the police station office – and enough raw material to give their analysis sufficient weight, but Deadpan’s status as ‘conceptual edifice’ would have been somewhat eroded. By forcing the figure of The Judge to revert ultimately to an inanimate, provisional element in the narrative – through the conventions of film at the time that required that either a stuntman or a dummy be used for dangerous actions – that staus is more fully intact at the end of the film.

Follow Me Quietly is the first film to focus on a cop whose obsession with catching a serial killer could well be his ticket to the bughouse.”

Describing the proposed subway car ending, Krohn refers to “a rather downbeat last scene at the bar to keep us from actually seeing the final transformation of cop into killer.” Although we do not see Grant literally kill Charlie Roy, who loses his balance and support and plunges from a high stairway at the gasworks after having the cuffs slapped on him by Grant, there is more than enough evidence to lead us to connect Grant and The Judge.

“The script has a more dramatic equation to propound: the dummy mediates a merger of personalities between cop and killer.”

By referring to different drafts of the script, Krohn suggests that the identification of Grant with The Judge had been more boldly underlined previous to the final film version. But the film does plenty to plant this troubling fact into its fabric. The first dramatic close-up in the film, in which the fourth wall is almost broken, comes as Grant expresses the necessity of having an image of The Judge’s face to identify with. It is Grant’s face that we are confronted with.

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When Deadpan is first unveiled he is given a voice by Grant. When the demonstration is over the police officers discuss the model with Grant standing face to face with the figure, dressed almost exactly the same. During the pursuit of Charlie Roy by Grant, each man tries to disable the other by attacking the right hand, and the shot of Grant’s steady climb up the gaswork steps to arrest Roy mirrors the moment when we get the first close-up of Roy, on the front steps of his apartment building.

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But it is the final scene that more subtly and most chillingly aligns the cop and the killer in our consciousness. Disguised as a joke about the inevitable and imminent nuptials between Grant and the crime reporter Ann Gorman, Sgt Art Collins claims that the police will be looking for another ‘Judge’ soon. At this moment there is a cut to Grant, with Gorman, enjoying a drink at the table of the Tavern.

“Its brisk 59 minutes contain, in embryo, virtually every theme of the serial-killer film as it later developed”

In Manhunter (1986), the identification between FBI special agent Will Graham and the killer known as the Tooth Fairy is established as the fundamental term on which the series of murders is brought to an end. The characterisation of Graham (not far off ‘Grant’ following American pronunciation) as a man tormented by his experiences in bringing other criminals to justice, and the imaginative leaps that he has had to make in empathising with, or sharing the viewpoint of, the killers makes Manhunter itself a template for many contemporary crime thrillers. After all, despite its prescience, Follow Me Quietly is little known. It is Hannibal Lecktor who confronts Graham with the fact of the agent’s own emotional similarites with the psychotic profiles he creates in order to assist the FBI. When we see Graham questioning the Tooth Fairy, yet all the while talking to himself, we not only glimpse the doubling that he is able to achieve, but also an echo of Grant’s late-night conversation at the station with Deadpan.

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Another influential example from recent decades is Seven (1995) which shares with Follow Me Quietly the creation of a knowingly generic identity for the pursued serial killer – his name is Jonathan Doe, and note how the artist’s sketch is almost as vague as the one of The Judge. Seven also resembles Fleischer’s film in its logic, which determines that by being killed Doe persists; his destructive schema is fully realised and his work will be studied for years to come. And here it is the cop who is the killer at the end, driven offscreen in the back of a squad car.

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But it is with William Friedkin’s controversial thriller Cruising (1980) that Fleischer’s film bears a more complex likeness. Not only is Cruising more properly a successor that portrays the serial killer as an indestructible type (not specifically a homosexual one, as most of the film’s detractors argue) but it also conveys this metaphysical condition in ways that foreground the artificiality of the reality onscreen; by reusing a shot seen earlier in the film, for instance, as well as adding the same distinctive recorded voiceover when the killer speaks. Just as Follow Me Quietly resorts to the use of the dummy and thereby reinstates Deadpan as the eternal placeholder for all future serial killers, the repeated shot of the leather clad figure approaching the underground bar in Cruising creates a confusing ambiguity and suggests that the criminal is still at large, and might even be the cop who has been after him. While Deadpan could be anyone – his outfit, height and build enough to see him in almost all of the men at the police conference and the everyman of the time and city – the culprit in Cruising is everyone, played by a different actor for each murder scene.

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At the end of Friedkin’s film we are left with an unnerving vision of Steve Burns, and his girlfriend Nancy (casually trying on Burns’s undercover clothing) both captured by the character and look of the interminable murderer.   

“when the paradoxes of the serial killer as boundary figure and faceless integer, as sacred scapegoat and as nameless Thing, finally took center stage after the Aristotelian form of the genre had flowered and decayed, this un-authored phantom in a film that Richard Fleischer seems to have forgotten he ever made would already have pointed the way.”

Notes:

(1) ‘Deadpan in Nulltown’ by B. Kite and Bill Krohn, published online in Mubi Notebook, 18 February 2013. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/deadpan-in-nulltown (NB: I am assuming which writer contributed each passage to the aforementioned article - any errors are my own).

Tactile

Silence (2012)

Die Wand (2012)

Manhunter (1986)

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.
Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.
The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.
The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.
Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.
And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.
“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

‘I think this is one of the shots I should hold, ’ says director Werner Herzog at the very end of his 1990 film Echoes from a Sombre Empire. His familiar, reflective voiceover narration has until now been absent from the story, which follows journalist Michael Goldsmith as he looks back on the history of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s rule in the Central African Republic. Interviewing Bokassa’s family members, colleagues and lawyers, as well as locals of all ages about their memories of his merciless command, an uncertain but unnerving image of the man is created.

Imprisonment was typical of Bokassa’s time in power, as head of state and later self-proclaimed emperor, which lasted from 1966 until 1979. Those suspected of working against the former French military officer were beaten mercilessly and kept confined, and thieves lost their ears. Experiences of captivity are recounted by several participants in the film, and Goldsmith himself was locked away, accused of being a spy whilst in Africa to report on Bokassa’s coronation.

The chimpanzee which appears at the film’s close is one of a few animals left in a closed down zoological garden – the end of a cruel circus, but the damage remains evident.  The domestication of nature, the taming of urgent impuses to life – those impulses felt in the equally startling vision of a multitude of red crabs scuttling inland at the start of the film, the depiction of a dream of Goldsmith’s.

The zoo attendant requests a cigarette from Goldsmith, who expects the African to smoke it, but his inability to light it is soon explained, as it is not he who has the nicotine addiction. The man hands the Marlboro over to the caged chimpanzee – he was told it was a gorilla. Lies, insanity and the echoes of death everywhere. Bokassa, we are told, treated people like his animals, and is widely reported to have been a cannibal, with human bodies stored in a refrigerator and prepared on his orders; a man who was considered an animal by others.

Goldsmith asks Herzog to promise that this sight will be the last shot of the film, bringing the collaborative decision making usually kept out of a picture into the content of the documentary itself. Or is this decisive moment staged? This history too is uncertain. A Schubert composition, Notturno Op. 148 plays on the soundtrack, and the majesty of the music gives the sombre image of the chimp a black humour. At once, it is an ending that captures the terrifying spectre that Bokassa cast over a country, Herzog’s disinterest in adhering to filmic conventions and the potential of cinema to offer images that can haunt us long after the credits.

And yet this image somehow mocks our desire for silence at the end of a film. Recognising our need for contemplation, which often dictates that we leave a theatre quietly, not speaking to our companions for several minutes, Herzog refuses to privilege our human silence or the hope we routinely seek as the drama onscreen fades out. Herzog gives us an unforgettable reminder of the violence of mankind. It provokes thought, but it despises the dignity we might simply perform for ourselves and others.

“Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.” – John Gray

Good Housekeeping

Taxi Driver (1976)

Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013

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1. OUT 1 – Jacques Rivette (Absolut Medien, Germany) Critic Brad Stevens once wrote: ‘It is surely evidence of how widely cinema is still considered a second-rate art that one of its supreme masterpieces has been denied to English and American audiences; if a similar situation existed where literature was concerned, we would only be able to read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the form of clandestinely circulated photocopies.’ For those who have relied upon a widely circulated fan-subbed Italian TV recording as their only way of experiencing Jacques Rivette’s magnum opus, the absence of the Raitre stamp in the top right hand corner of this wonderful DVD release of Out 1 may seem odd. Long desired for home viewing, rarely screened in cinemas, Germany’s Absolut Medien have finally done the legwork and got it done. Advantage cinephilia.

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2. SUPER-8 TRILOGY – Ericka Beckman (JRP|Ringier, Switzerland) I am very sorry to have missed the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Rituals of Rented Island this year, which is focused around a vibrant locus of performance art, in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Already deeply affected by the documentation of the works of Michael Smith, Stuart Sherman and Richard Foreman that I have been fortunate to see from this period, I have been eager to look further into the activities of the other artists involved in the exhibition. While I couldn’t make the trip to New York to visit the show, the accompanying catalogue is some consolation. And thankfully, Ericka Beckman’s Super-8 Trilogy has now been released on DVD – so some small rituals at home are now possible.

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3. ATTRACTIONS, INSTRUCTIONS AND OTHER ROMANCES – Peter Tscherkassky (Index, Austria) Another great collection of films by a titan of avant-garde cinema, Peter Tscherkassky, making available Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, a riveting experiment with a western, alongside other various works dating back to 1982. Together with the first collection, Films from a Dark Room, this constitutes an essential publication for anybody with an intense fascination with the possbilities of cinema as an art.

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4. VIOLENT SATURDAY/THE BOSTON STRANGLER – Richard Fleischer (Carlotta, France) Fleischer does not seem to appeal to auteurists, who perhaps see little more than a fine craftsman plying his trade in the heart of the industry, across myriad works and genres. But even if a personal vision or signature is difficult to discern, Fleischer was incontrovertibly one of the best Hollywood directors, whose early to mid 1970s run is almost flawless, and who has inspired countless filmmakers from William Friedkin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The appearance of Violent Saturday, a riveting multi-stranded film noir shot in widescreen colour, for the first time on Blu-ray and in its correct aspect ratio is a gift from the fine French label Carlotta. Alongside it, The Boston Strangler also reveals its longstanding influence on contemporary police procedurals, though outside of television series 24 few have dared to test their mettle with orchestrating split-screen action to create such a rich worldview and tension as Fleischer did here. 

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5. THE DRIVER – Walter Hill (Twilight Time, USA) A masterpiece of American cinema, shown in its best, crepuscular light.

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6. FEAR AND DESIRE – Stanley Kubrick (Eureka! Masters of Cinema, UK) Though the history of cinema is one of lost treasures, destroyed negatives and neglect, it is heartening to know that the entire completed works of one of the artform’s supreme visionaries are now available in the best format possible for home viewing. Thanks to the Masters of Cinema label, the long unavailable early films of Stanley Kubrick can now be seen, giving us a clear view of the artist’s development. Fear and Desire is an impressive debut, a war drama in which the trauma of combat, the identification between opposing sides, the inherent violence of humanity and the insanity of institutions anticipates many of the director’s later films.

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7. WAKE IN FRIGHT – Ted Kotcheff (Drafthouse Films, USA) “New to the Yabba?” A real revelation and the cause of nightmares, this is the story of a respectable teacher stranded in a small town, plied with drink and dragged into a psychological vortex by its sinister locals. Visually and dramatically arresting, the stifling onscreen environment is powerfully discomforting and the lead performances are perfectly accentuated to convey a world unhinged.

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8. EARLY FASSBINDER – Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Eclipse, USA) It is a cruel irony that one of cinema’s most prolific, colourful and complex artists is largely represented with lacklustre DVD releases and barely any sumptuous Blu-ray treatment. Still, this boxset released by Eclipse packs enough punch in the film material alone that grievances about curatorship go out the window.

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9. ANNA – Grifi and Sarchielli (Viennale, Austria) Admittedly, I haven’t sat down to watch this yet, but it is through releases such as this that the current wealth of the Blu-ray and DVD market is reflected. With specialist labels unearthing and presenting all manner of long-forgotten or barely-recognised-in-the-first-place works from many countries and eras, the enthusiastic cinephile today would appear to have better access to the history of film images than previous generations and is tasked with enriching and even revising popular notions about the development of the art form, shedding new light on surprising encounters, overlaps and resonances across time and space.

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10. ALPS – Yorgos Lanthimos (Artificial Eye, UK) Alps explores the fantasy of replacing beloved family members after death, as a kind of exploitative service that will inevitably be sold, shoddily, to vulnerable people as technology stakes its claim to more and more of the metaphysical terrain of existence. Lanthimos and Filippou have again crafted material that is comedic, full of pop cultural references, but which hits heavy and moving moments. By foregrounding matters of performance and by stripping language of its sincerity Lanthimos deprives us of two key elements that cinema still so often relies upon to captivate audiences. Or, at least, the film challenges itself with regard to these commonplaces up front, in order to get to other places. As a result, something unexpected and affecting happens.

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11. EYES OF THE SPIDER/SERPENT’S PATH – Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Third Window, UK) Kurosawa has always been a filmmaker who has worked at curious intersections between crime, horror, fantasy and family drama though for too long his talents were subsumed under the J-Horror bracket. These two films are appropriately packaged together, since they were filmed back to back over the course of two weeks with the same cast and crew. Taking the revenge thriller beyond trite and sensationalistic black-and-white moralising, and the typically questionable vigilante heroics of  Death Wish, the films open onto a bleak existential terrain where personal responsibility is placed under rigorous interrogation. The influence of Lumet and Boorman are evident here, in the clarity of the mise en scene and the psychological expression through not only performance but non-linear editing also.

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12. PARADISE TRILOGY – Ulrich Seidl (Soda, UK) In his usual manner, Seidl here depicts contemporary life as fundamentally lonely, where love is a transaction, or a ritual, or unrequited, and communion seems hopeless. The films are linked by lead characters and refer back to Seidl’s previous films Jesus, du weißt and Der Busenfreund (with a surprising return to the screen of the master of mathematics and mammaries, Rene Rupnik). Seidl has always placed personalities and bodies that might be deemed too crude or ugly by most into his stringently composed tableaux. The static, rectilinear shots always present to us the characters and their environments together, their interrelation. As always, there is a black humour in the work - a much-needed opposition to the crap slapstick and frat boy inanities that still dominate commercial cinema. “I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too.”

Another year of film viewing begins…

Another year of film viewing begins…

The Limits of Seeing on Notebook

A contribution to Mubi Notebook, concerning Airminded - an essay film that challenges the unchecked celebration of aviation heritage in Lincolnshire.

Notes on The Offence

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In his book Making Movies, the director Sidney Lumet surprisingly makes almost no reference to THE OFFENCE (1972). Elsewhere, the circumstances which led to its production are more often discussed than the particulars of the film itself, as they have been just recently in a short appraisal in Offbeat, edited by Julian Upton. Financed as part of the contractual agreement which saw Sean Connery return to his most famous role as James Bond – for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971) – it showed the star’s talents in a somewhat different light but perhaps unsurprisingly it made little impact at the box office. It is only in France that the film appears to have been presented for home release in its original aspect ratio, and with an informative supplementary documentary.

While Lumet’s career-surveying insights into the choices made at every step of the production process and their possible effects certainly helps us to assess why he favoured certain formal and technical decisions made for THE OFFENCE, the film would have made for an illuminating object of closer study over and above several other of Lumet’s films, had the director only dedicated a number of pages to it. It is not even included in the neat list of story summations that Lumet provides for many of his better known works, although a combination of several of his comments here do suit THE OFFENCE:

“How and why we create our own prisons.”

“We are much more connected to the most outrageous behaviour than we know or admit.”

“The struggle to preserve what is sensitive and vulnerable both in ourselves and in the world.”

Even in Fergus Daly’s excellent, recent exploration of Lumet’s films, ‘Sidney Lumet: Experimental Filmmaker?’ in which the author discusses some of the unusual stylistic moves across the director’s body of work which he sees as being essential to Lumet’s ‘very subtle analysis of the political life of the individual, in the broadest sense of the individual’s ability to inhabit a community’, there is not a single reference to THE OFFENCE.

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Few fears dominate the British public’s consciousness today as much as those concerning the welfare of children. As more and more stories of child abduction and molestation fill the newspapers and fire conversation about the safety of the young and the moral failures of abusive adults, the image of a young girl venturing home from school alone and met by an unidentified man seems as illustrative as ever of contemporary concerns. Rather than shocking the viewer with seedy details shot in harrowing close-up, this early scene in THE OFFENCE leaves us helpless as the small figure of the girl recedes into the distance, held in a long shot across an open field as she heads ominously toward a shadowy underpass. It is when she is far from the camera lens, and from us, that a dark-clad figure suddenly emerges from among the trees and stops her.

Despite its topicality, it is unlikely that this police procedural drama would appeal to a wide audience today, even if it were screened more often. The film’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Johnson, played by Connery, is far from being the moral beacon expected of an officer of the law. Dedicated copper yes, but so psychologically damaged from the crimes that he has witnessed that we must question his own impulses and rationality. Worse still, we cannot be certain that a child will be safe left alone with him – it is most peculiar that he does not identify himself immediately after he later discovers the kidnapped girl alive, within the woodland at night, and the manner in which he does attempt to reassure the distressed child is unnerving. There is no comfort in the home either, as Johnson’s marriage is in tatters; his wife is not privy to his deepest fears and bleakest experiences, only subjected to extended berating.

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There is a blankness and evident disrepair even in the backdrops to the action in THE OFFENCE. The police station is undergoing renovation, with ceiling tiles absent, electrical cabling hanging down, bare rooms and concrete walls. Everything is grey, ragged. The station seems to manifest Johnson’s mentality, the deeper layers underneath the surface revealed, unsightly. The bland suburban landscape against which these crimes are occurring offers a cold social backdrop, and the land we see is waterlogged. Drains are searched by the police, in an attempt to locate a missing child: the moral sewer of 1970s police dramas here finds a fitting summary image. Similarities with US cop films of the Seventies are not so hard to discern, a period in American film when corruption within the police force and the abuses of power were frequently drawn out and writ large across the screen. Johnson mirrors the obsession and violence of ‘Popeye’ Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) for instance, but the source of the former’s torment is somewhat more unsettling. There are fewer influential films among British crime cinema of this period, but we might reasonably presume, as has been suggested to me, that Lumet’s vision here has resonated as far as Japan, and provided some degree of inspiration for the 1990s films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Director Romuald Karmakar too has acknowledged his interest in the film, selecting it for his list of Films You Should See Before it is Too Late

Lumet later directed an equally little seen television film called STRIP SEARCH, comprised of interrogation scenes reminiscent of Johnson’s confrontation with the suspected child murderer, Baxter. STRIP SEARCH responds to the effects of September 11th on individual liberties and the treatment of suspected terrorists. The questioners seem to insist on their own account of reality over and above that of the detainee, though there is scant evidence to incriminate them, putting the reliability and professionalism of the authority figures into question.

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THE OFFENCE conveys a sense of uncertainty from the outset, as decontextualised, slow motion images of policemen running around the precinct, with evident but unexplained alarm, are shown under the superimposition of what appears to be a lamp light – it obscures our vision, suggesting an unclear point of view. The audio too is pitched down, submerged in Peter Zinovieff’s electronic droning. It’s an unsettling, but cinematically arresting opening.

Following the stage play upon which the film is based – This Story of Yours by John Hopkins – the action is dominated by two lengthy dialogues at the police station and one between Johnson and his wife at home. These characters clash in drab, colourless settings; the look of the parking bay and corridors of the apartment building and the police station much the same. But the images of brutality that plague Johnson are revealed in more vivid flashes – a sudden shot of a red parrot, luminous yellow daffodils and the blood of murdered bodies. These memories are more striking and unforgettable for Johnson than he can bear and they impress themselves upon the viewer all the more due to their conspicuous life – these images of death.

When the sea surges

“The reality must begin. That means: the blockading of all entrances to the murder installations which permanently persist must be equally persistent.”

Günther Anders, 1983

The 1988 essay film IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR begins with the image of an indoor wave generator. A narrator describes how looking at the sea can set thoughts free. It is a calm precursor to a series of surprising and upsetting segments about photography, history, the limits of images and the knowledge that they give rise to. At times the film approximates the style of an educational video, of technical interest; it looks analytically at images of concentration camps, the brutality of the Nazi regime and the failures of the Allies’ intelligence; it is critical and horrifying, but it is also poetic. Filmmaker Harun Farocki organises historical facts and audiovisual excerpts in an unpredictable and inventive way, countering deeply ingrained stylistic approaches typical of television documentary and commercial cinema, as well as other dispositifs that organise archives and history, outside of the mass media.

The same wave installation appears again throughout the film. It becomes a chilling reminder of the murderous experiments of the German totalitarian state during the Second World War. Likening the Third Reich’s genocidal ‘scientific research’ with the study of the violent force of the waters in a Hannover compound, the effect of the image shifts from having a romantic flight-of-the-imagination association, to evoke the destructive power of the Nazis.

The wave generator is seen yet another time, toward the end of the film, in a single rectilinear shot that mirrors its opening image. Its geometric design and the controlled, laboratory setting brings to mind the type of shot composition that director Stanley Kubrick favoured. As the relatively still waters of the trench are disturbed and the mass is forced toward the camera, forming waves that crash around, Farocki’s film seems suddenly reminiscent of the iconic elevator scene in THE SHINING (1980). It is not the vague surface resemblance alone that produces the unexpected connection – after all, the lobby of the Overlook hotel and a research facililty for the study of wave motion are hardly comparable – but also the memory of that reference to the Nazis, and the addition of the voiceover again at this moment in Farocki’s film, now quoting philosopher Günther Anders. It speaks of the need to blockade the ‘entrances to the murder installations’ – so that we might be prevented from repeating terrible crimes and oversights of the past, so that we might face the grave reality of our history. It is the absence of humanity in these images of pure arrangement and growing force that create a sinister tone.

IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR deals with evidence that escaped the eyes of the Allies, and the oversights rise like waves the more the past is studied. THE SHINING is widely believed to address, within the conventions of the horror genre, the massacre of the Native Indians in America – another holocaust which cannot be repressed in the historical consciousness. To see Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s story in such a crude metaphorical way is possible, but the fleeting reference to an Indian burial ground does not convince me that the whole of the film is structured on such a symbolic basis. Within the fiction itself, The Overlook Hotel is the site of past bloodshed and its dark history will not be held in check. Strange resonances affect its new caretaker, Jack Torrance, and his family with disturbing consequences. The final photograph that is seen hanging on a wall in the Overlook hotel is as mysterious and haunting as the image of the young woman studied in Farocki’s film, taken upon her arrival at Auschwitz. They each provoke unanswerable questions.

Kubrick also long researched and planned a film about the Holocaust called ARYAN PAPERS – a project that he never completed. Watching the waters as Farocki’s essay ends, I recall the references to the Nazis found elsewhere within Kubrick’s work, in DR STRANGELOVE (1964) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). A small hint of the potential of his unrealised project is imagined now, unexpectedly, in Farocki’s essay film – a curious thought process, but nonetheless an intertextual link that Farocki’s creative associations have, from the very first sight of those contained currents, stimulated.

“When the sea surges against the land irregularly, not haphazardly, this motion binds the gaze without fettering it and sets free the thoughts.”

Limits of the Image

Serpent’s Path (1998)

Shouting at the Screen: BBC4’s Sound of Cinema reviewed
The latest series about film history to be flagged by BBC4, and supplemented by a variety of radio broadcasts and a few film screenings to tie-in, is SOUND OF CINEMA: THE MUSIC THAT MADE THE MOVIES, the final episode of which aired last week. It followed on the heels of series about horror – presented by writer and actor Mark Gatiss – the British Pathé film and newsreel company and documentaries about Screen Goddesses, all of which were welcome additions to an often unremarkable schedule.
It was perhaps too much to hope for a worthy sibling to Mark Cousins’s Channel 4 seriesTHE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY. That series made admirable use of fifteen hours of television scheduling in 2011, to present a wide-ranging, passionate and informative history of moving pictures and has set a good and recent benchmark for television documentaries about cinema (THE STORY OF FILM is not at all free from critcism, but this is best considered in a standalone text). Could the BBC have batted back with a similar type of programme in which the creativity of film score composers, sound designers and mixers would be recognised? It was always unlikely, especially since the new series, hosted by musician Neil Brand, was only planned to extend to three one-hour installments.
The sound of cinema in the general public’s consciousness does not seem to go far beyond favourite musicals and their signature tunes; the bombastic orchestral scores of blockbusters or the slapped-on pop songs of cult films – with the whoosh of a lightsaber thrown in for good measure. And this series for the most part reinforced these popular notions. It seems reasonable to appoint Brand, a highly regarded accompanist at screenings of silent films to explain to us with some measure of musical insight just how music is utilised to enhance particular movies. But he and his researchers do not appear to have expanded their horizons beyond Tinseltown. There is no explanation for the absence of widely recognised, crucial figures such as Jacques Tati, Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, to name just a few. Cousins has already criticised popular histories of cinema for their lack of geographical scope and here we saw a seemingly respectable overview commit the same grave error. 
It is tempting to give Brand some leeway, since it appears evident from the series’ subtitle that any illuminating discussion of the sound of cinema was here going to be qualified by focusing on ‘Music’ and ‘the Movies’, typically understood as theme music from Hollywood fare. Of course, many of the composers interviewed by Brand come from outside of America – Lalo Schifrin, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and Clint Mansell – but the films under consideration here, to which they have lent their musicianship, were by and large English-language American studio features. 
Once this became clear, it was predictable that perhaps the most fervent interrogator and creator with film sound, and one of the most important filmmakers of cinema history, Jean-Luc Godard would not get a single mention, not even a passing reference to the oft-cited elegaic grandeur of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s film LE MEPRIS (1963). And what of Japanese cinema and the towering example of Toru Takemitsu? Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938) is a richer source of historical interest as far as the extent to which a legendary composer and director worked together to match image to score, than Steiner’s work on KING KONG (1933). 
Gottfried Huppertz, who was not referred to either, has been long recognised for his score to METROPOLIS (1927) by Fritz Lang, whose later M (1931) is one of the finest experiments in early film sound and even identifies its murderous protagonist by his whistling of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – the haunting sound of cinema. A later version of METROPOLIS was given a pop soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder who was here namechecked instead for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and Lang’s science-fiction film is an obvious template for BLADE RUNNER (1982), which appeared elsewhere in the series - such helpful intertextual references might have held all the information together more effectively. Giorgio Moroder’s use of six notes from ‘Cry Me a River’ to form part of his score to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS could have been likened to Hans Zimmer’s slowed down, ominous sampling of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in INCEPTION (2010), but it wasn’t. We did, however, get a brief surface comparison of Korngold’s score for KING’S ROW (1942) and John Williams’s inescapable STAR WARS (1977) theme. 
Even brief acknowledgements of Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Small, or the attention given to sound by director William Friedkin would have been in keeping with this series’ Hollywood-centric audiovision. 
It is easy to dismiss the series for neglecting to include all manner of composers and films that one thinks should be essential in any primer on the sound of cinema, so it is perhaps more constructive to identify some of the ways in which the programme failed to make the best use of the those interviewees it did have access to. 
David Lynch’s work was suitably included along the way, but the chance to discuss with composer Angelo Badalamenti the distinctive use of sound colour, editing and mixing for nightmarish effects in BLUE VELVET(1986), LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was ignored in favour of a reverential walk through the theme to the television series – not, more specifically, the subsequent film – TWIN PEAKS by his longstanding musical collaborator. The opportunity to talk with David Shire – an unexpected but inspired inclusion – about his exquisite scores for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974) and his more recent contribution to ZODIAC (2007) was passed up in order to celebrate what he referred to as his ‘easiest’ job, on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). 
The series began with a potentially instructive approach, whereby Brand commented upon John Barry’s score to THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), with its eastern European leanings to suggest the world behind the Iron Curtain. Brand sat at the piano talking us through how the notes worked together with the image to suggest more than the sight of Michael Caine making his morning coffee could do alone. But the initial sight of Brand stood at a breakfast counter re-enacting the early morning routine of Harry Palmer was an indicator of the inexplicable uses to which the presenter was to be put. Perhaps the clue is in the visit to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock and crew filmed THE BIRDS (1963): has Brand been taking notes from Slavoj Žižek’s THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006)? 
It is not unheard of for documetaries about cinema to visit shooting locations, but it’s an odd approach for one about film sound. Whisking the host off to wander around these monuments of film history only reinforces visual ideas, adding only a token cinephilic value and nothing whatsoever as far as musical analysis is concerned. The under utilisation of Brand’s knowledge as a musician reached its zenith when he was filmed wandering around Union Square in San Francisco dressed like Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION (1974). The film itself was a valuable addition to the series, although the fact that its composer David Shire’s comments on it weren’t taken – or, if they were, weren’t included – is also a disappointment. 
I haven’t yet heard any of the supplementary radio programmes that are intended to bolster the series, in which I understand some of the glaring omissions I have identified are covered. A wholly auditory approach to the use of sound in cinema would at least avoid the unnecessary postcards from star locations, which seem to me to be a terrible waste of money, or Brand’s ruminative milling outside Leicester Square Odeon. But it is already so commonplace to sever the scores from the films, as witnessed by recent Proms celebrations of great film soundtracks. The point really should be to focus on the ways in which sound and image work together in expressive and affective ways.
It is all too easy to keep comparing the approach here with Cousins’s too and it might seem a little unfair and not the best critical practice. But where Cousins took us confidently and bravely into unfamiliar margins of cinema, all the while helping us to connect the dots between seemingly disparate films and underlining the master craftsmanship at work, Brand simply reminds us of crass anthems, the power of marketing with often sixth-form-essay-standard dissections of works by Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa. The series was too enamoured with overplayed themes from mediocre films, overlooking more astonishing, if perhaps subtle and underrecognised, uses of sound on film. The show cannot even be defended for simply wanting to highlight the music that made the most successful movies – as the title suggests – since it didn’t discuss GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE GODFATHER (1972), JAWS (1975), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1985), BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) or most of the obvious ‘big films’ from the past, and Brand did explore a number of independent films that did not make much of a dent at the box office, though have attained a large number of admirers over time. 
The series did have the good sense to include Bernard Herrmann, whose achievements serve as a significant link, connecting several decades and major cinematic works from CITIZEN KANE (1941) to TAXI DRIVER (1976), via VERTIGO (1958). Two other figures would have served as similar sources for reflection on the myriad uses to which sound has been put and has continued to influence others, across the years and a variety of film works. Director Stanley Kubrick was commended for his work with Walter Carlos to include the warped, comic synthesizer renditions of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). I don’t, however, recall any mention of one of the most quoted musical passages in cinema and pop culture: the blast of Strauss’s ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Kubrick is a useful starting point from which we can consider the enduring associations of european classical and avant-garde composition with horror music, thanks to the excerpts of Ligeti and Penderecki in THE SHINING (1980); and the use of rock and pop and musical hits against a backdrop of violence – for which Tarantino is considered the best proponent – in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and FULL METAL JACKET (1987).
While Herrmann takes us neatly from Welles to Scorsese, a similar focus on the talents of Jack Nitzsche and his role in creating some of the most powerful sound and music for film since the Sixities, none of which was given a nod, would also have raised the bar substantially and paid respect to a frighteningly overlooked talent. From his input into PERFORMANCE (1970), where Moog voyages, Stones blues and voices of black power mingle; to the medicinal piped-in music put to terrific diegetic and non-diegetic use in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975); to the glacial chill of THE EXORCIST (1973) – the hugely familiar theme from which, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, was evidently dismissed; to his selection of punk songs to sit uneasily alongside ECM records extracts, Boccherini and an unsettling and wild foleyed sound mix in William Friedkin’s CRUISING (1980). It is interesting to note that despite being influenced by Herrmann’s work with Orson Welles on the 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and later CITIZEN KANE, Friedkin would later reject planned contributions by both Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin for THE EXORCIST. It would have been simple and beneficial to have included this monumental film into Brand’s narrative, above any of the others suggested. 
The late Ray Dolby might have figured more within this story as well, but one must wonder how the legacy of this sound engineer will be remembered as the film viewing public opts more and more for compressed streams on their laptops, through crappy speakers, via Netflix.
Sound remains an underappreciated aspect of film in popular discourse but is always present, always at work, the artistry often self-effacing and typically only discussed and remembered where it is most insistent and conspicuous. Lucrecia Martel treats sound with strict attention and to beguiling effect in her films LA CIÉNAGA (2001), THE HOLY GIRL (2004) and THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and has said, ‘Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator. Audio frequencies are experienced through the entire body.’ But again it’s that lame subtitle to the series that seems to prohibit any intelligent analysis of the sound of cinema Martel describes.
In his blog for the BBC, the series producer John Das mentions that, during his interview, Hans Zimmer had discussed the difficulty of scoring comedy films and the personal import of his work on THE LION KING (1994) – both of which seem to be intriguing areas of consideration, yet did not appear in the final broadcast. But, Das admits, ‘We were taking on a huge subject, and we knew from the start that it would be impossible to include all the scores and composers we admired.’
It is easy to fall under the spell of John Williams’s heart-tugging triumphalism and Vangelis’s reverberating synth washes, but the most effective uses of sound, as the example of THE BIRDS readily teaches us (and evidently taught Carter Burwell), is sometimes less obvious, yet more powerful. There is, usefully, much more offered across BBC radio as part of a season of programmes about film music which, a cursory glance confirms, includes shows about sound effects, Bollywood soundtracks and Hip Hop in the Movies – further hinting at a whole range of film musics that Brand’s series here neglected. On the basis of this admittedly brief series, however, I’m not tempted to tune in. For one thing I won’t be able to see how the sound is achieving its effect.

Shouting at the Screen: BBC4’s Sound of Cinema reviewed

The latest series about film history to be flagged by BBC4, and supplemented by a variety of radio broadcasts and a few film screenings to tie-in, is SOUND OF CINEMA: THE MUSIC THAT MADE THE MOVIES, the final episode of which aired last week. It followed on the heels of series about horror – presented by writer and actor Mark Gatiss – the British Pathé film and newsreel company and documentaries about Screen Goddesses, all of which were welcome additions to an often unremarkable schedule.

It was perhaps too much to hope for a worthy sibling to Mark Cousins’s Channel 4 seriesTHE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY. That series made admirable use of fifteen hours of television scheduling in 2011, to present a wide-ranging, passionate and informative history of moving pictures and has set a good and recent benchmark for television documentaries about cinema (THE STORY OF FILM is not at all free from critcism, but this is best considered in a standalone text). Could the BBC have batted back with a similar type of programme in which the creativity of film score composers, sound designers and mixers would be recognised? It was always unlikely, especially since the new series, hosted by musician Neil Brand, was only planned to extend to three one-hour installments.

The sound of cinema in the general public’s consciousness does not seem to go far beyond favourite musicals and their signature tunes; the bombastic orchestral scores of blockbusters or the slapped-on pop songs of cult films – with the whoosh of a lightsaber thrown in for good measure. And this series for the most part reinforced these popular notions. It seems reasonable to appoint Brand, a highly regarded accompanist at screenings of silent films to explain to us with some measure of musical insight just how music is utilised to enhance particular movies. But he and his researchers do not appear to have expanded their horizons beyond Tinseltown. There is no explanation for the absence of widely recognised, crucial figures such as Jacques Tati, Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, to name just a few. Cousins has already criticised popular histories of cinema for their lack of geographical scope and here we saw a seemingly respectable overview commit the same grave error.

It is tempting to give Brand some leeway, since it appears evident from the series’ subtitle that any illuminating discussion of the sound of cinema was here going to be qualified by focusing on ‘Music’ and ‘the Movies’, typically understood as theme music from Hollywood fare. Of course, many of the composers interviewed by Brand come from outside of America – Lalo Schifrin, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and Clint Mansell – but the films under consideration here, to which they have lent their musicianship, were by and large English-language American studio features.

Once this became clear, it was predictable that perhaps the most fervent interrogator and creator with film sound, and one of the most important filmmakers of cinema history, Jean-Luc Godard would not get a single mention, not even a passing reference to the oft-cited elegaic grandeur of Georges Delerue’s score for Godard’s film LE MEPRIS (1963). And what of Japanese cinema and the towering example of Toru Takemitsu? Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938) is a richer source of historical interest as far as the extent to which a legendary composer and director worked together to match image to score, than Steiner’s work on KING KONG (1933).

Gottfried Huppertz, who was not referred to either, has been long recognised for his score to METROPOLIS (1927) by Fritz Lang, whose later M (1931) is one of the finest experiments in early film sound and even identifies its murderous protagonist by his whistling of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – the haunting sound of cinema. A later version of METROPOLIS was given a pop soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder who was here namechecked instead for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and Lang’s science-fiction film is an obvious template for BLADE RUNNER (1982), which appeared elsewhere in the series - such helpful intertextual references might have held all the information together more effectively. Giorgio Moroder’s use of six notes from ‘Cry Me a River’ to form part of his score to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS could have been likened to Hans Zimmer’s slowed down, ominous sampling of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in INCEPTION (2010), but it wasn’t. We did, however, get a brief surface comparison of Korngold’s score for KING’S ROW (1942) and John Williams’s inescapable STAR WARS (1977) theme. 

Even brief acknowledgements of Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Small, or the attention given to sound by director William Friedkin would have been in keeping with this series’ Hollywood-centric audiovision.

It is easy to dismiss the series for neglecting to include all manner of composers and films that one thinks should be essential in any primer on the sound of cinema, so it is perhaps more constructive to identify some of the ways in which the programme failed to make the best use of the those interviewees it did have access to.

David Lynch’s work was suitably included along the way, but the chance to discuss with composer Angelo Badalamenti the distinctive use of sound colour, editing and mixing for nightmarish effects in BLUE VELVET(1986), LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was ignored in favour of a reverential walk through the theme to the television series – not, more specifically, the subsequent film – TWIN PEAKS by his longstanding musical collaborator. The opportunity to talk with David Shire – an unexpected but inspired inclusion – about his exquisite scores for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974) and his more recent contribution to ZODIAC (2007) was passed up in order to celebrate what he referred to as his ‘easiest’ job, on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977).

The series began with a potentially instructive approach, whereby Brand commented upon John Barry’s score to THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), with its eastern European leanings to suggest the world behind the Iron Curtain. Brand sat at the piano talking us through how the notes worked together with the image to suggest more than the sight of Michael Caine making his morning coffee could do alone. But the initial sight of Brand stood at a breakfast counter re-enacting the early morning routine of Harry Palmer was an indicator of the inexplicable uses to which the presenter was to be put. Perhaps the clue is in the visit to Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock and crew filmed THE BIRDS (1963): has Brand been taking notes from Slavoj Žižek’s THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006)?

It is not unheard of for documetaries about cinema to visit shooting locations, but it’s an odd approach for one about film sound. Whisking the host off to wander around these monuments of film history only reinforces visual ideas, adding only a token cinephilic value and nothing whatsoever as far as musical analysis is concerned. The under utilisation of Brand’s knowledge as a musician reached its zenith when he was filmed wandering around Union Square in San Francisco dressed like Harry Caul in THE CONVERSATION (1974). The film itself was a valuable addition to the series, although the fact that its composer David Shire’s comments on it weren’t taken – or, if they were, weren’t included – is also a disappointment.

I haven’t yet heard any of the supplementary radio programmes that are intended to bolster the series, in which I understand some of the glaring omissions I have identified are covered. A wholly auditory approach to the use of sound in cinema would at least avoid the unnecessary postcards from star locations, which seem to me to be a terrible waste of money, or Brand’s ruminative milling outside Leicester Square Odeon. But it is already so commonplace to sever the scores from the films, as witnessed by recent Proms celebrations of great film soundtracks. The point really should be to focus on the ways in which sound and image work together in expressive and affective ways.

It is all too easy to keep comparing the approach here with Cousins’s too and it might seem a little unfair and not the best critical practice. But where Cousins took us confidently and bravely into unfamiliar margins of cinema, all the while helping us to connect the dots between seemingly disparate films and underlining the master craftsmanship at work, Brand simply reminds us of crass anthems, the power of marketing with often sixth-form-essay-standard dissections of works by Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa. The series was too enamoured with overplayed themes from mediocre films, overlooking more astonishing, if perhaps subtle and underrecognised, uses of sound on film. The show cannot even be defended for simply wanting to highlight the music that made the most successful movies – as the title suggests – since it didn’t discuss GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE GODFATHER (1972), JAWS (1975), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1985), BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) or most of the obvious ‘big films’ from the past, and Brand did explore a number of independent films that did not make much of a dent at the box office, though have attained a large number of admirers over time. 

The series did have the good sense to include Bernard Herrmann, whose achievements serve as a significant link, connecting several decades and major cinematic works from CITIZEN KANE (1941) to TAXI DRIVER (1976), via VERTIGO (1958). Two other figures would have served as similar sources for reflection on the myriad uses to which sound has been put and has continued to influence others, across the years and a variety of film works. Director Stanley Kubrick was commended for his work with Walter Carlos to include the warped, comic synthesizer renditions of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). I don’t, however, recall any mention of one of the most quoted musical passages in cinema and pop culture: the blast of Strauss’s ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Kubrick is a useful starting point from which we can consider the enduring associations of european classical and avant-garde composition with horror music, thanks to the excerpts of Ligeti and Penderecki in THE SHINING (1980); and the use of rock and pop and musical hits against a backdrop of violence – for which Tarantino is considered the best proponent – in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and FULL METAL JACKET (1987).

While Herrmann takes us neatly from Welles to Scorsese, a similar focus on the talents of Jack Nitzsche and his role in creating some of the most powerful sound and music for film since the Sixities, none of which was given a nod, would also have raised the bar substantially and paid respect to a frighteningly overlooked talent. From his input into PERFORMANCE (1970), where Moog voyages, Stones blues and voices of black power mingle; to the medicinal piped-in music put to terrific diegetic and non-diegetic use in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975); to the glacial chill of THE EXORCIST (1973) – the hugely familiar theme from which, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, was evidently dismissed; to his selection of punk songs to sit uneasily alongside ECM records extracts, Boccherini and an unsettling and wild foleyed sound mix in William Friedkin’s CRUISING (1980). It is interesting to note that despite being influenced by Herrmann’s work with Orson Welles on the 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and later CITIZEN KANE, Friedkin would later reject planned contributions by both Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin for THE EXORCIST. It would have been simple and beneficial to have included this monumental film into Brand’s narrative, above any of the others suggested.

The late Ray Dolby might have figured more within this story as well, but one must wonder how the legacy of this sound engineer will be remembered as the film viewing public opts more and more for compressed streams on their laptops, through crappy speakers, via Netflix.

Sound remains an underappreciated aspect of film in popular discourse but is always present, always at work, the artistry often self-effacing and typically only discussed and remembered where it is most insistent and conspicuous. Lucrecia Martel treats sound with strict attention and to beguiling effect in her films LA CIÉNAGA (2001), THE HOLY GIRL (2004) and THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and has said, ‘Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator. Audio frequencies are experienced through the entire body.’ But again it’s that lame subtitle to the series that seems to prohibit any intelligent analysis of the sound of cinema Martel describes.

In his blog for the BBC, the series producer John Das mentions that, during his interview, Hans Zimmer had discussed the difficulty of scoring comedy films and the personal import of his work on THE LION KING (1994) – both of which seem to be intriguing areas of consideration, yet did not appear in the final broadcast. But, Das admits, ‘We were taking on a huge subject, and we knew from the start that it would be impossible to include all the scores and composers we admired.’

It is easy to fall under the spell of John Williams’s heart-tugging triumphalism and Vangelis’s reverberating synth washes, but the most effective uses of sound, as the example of THE BIRDS readily teaches us (and evidently taught Carter Burwell), is sometimes less obvious, yet more powerful. There is, usefully, much more offered across BBC radio as part of a season of programmes about film music which, a cursory glance confirms, includes shows about sound effects, Bollywood soundtracks and Hip Hop in the Movies – further hinting at a whole range of film musics that Brand’s series here neglected. On the basis of this admittedly brief series, however, I’m not tempted to tune in. For one thing I won’t be able to see how the sound is achieving its effect.

Violence // Discipline // Vanity

:: Taxi Driver (1976) ::

:: The Black Panther (1977) ::

Let the truth be known…
The truth about how the Master of Suspense actually made his films, specifically. Currently reading Bill Krohn’s magnificent book ’Hitchcock at Work’.

Let the truth be known…

The truth about how the Master of Suspense actually made his films, specifically. Currently reading Bill Krohn’s magnificent book ’Hitchcock at Work’.

Would You Believe It?

image

Living in an increasingly secularized culture, where longstanding religious traditions have been passed over by many thanks to the speedy inculcation of scientific and atheistic thought, it has been eye-opening to read some of the recent literature on the prevalent role of irrationality in our lives. Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, among others, have unpicked the grand narratives and analyses of the self-professed logicians who manage economies and social infrastructure and have illustrated that intuition and irrationality have a significant role to play in organising the world.

Hand in hand with these popular studies is the widespread evidence that we as individuals are no less likely to embrace a fanciful story, even allow it to govern our actions, at a time when many of us feel we’ve outgrown the gullibility of our God-fearing forebears; that we’ve done the numbers and clawed the wool away from our eyes. Whereas thinkers like Kahneman and Taleb argue that we can benefit from opening ourselves up to our irrational instincts, two films that I’ve caught up with recently highlight the devastating consequences of not thinking things through slowly. For better and for worse, the course of everyday life often unfolds with a lack of reflection and prudent distrust of many of the competing stories that claim to truly describe the events occurring around us – and unchecked they evidently have the power to make us harm ourselves and others with ease.

Compliance (2012) and Imposter (2012) both concern the despicable manipulation of individuals by men claiming to be who they are not. The films differ in their treatment of the perpetrator: in Compliance we learn that the man pretending to be a police officer conducting an investigation into an alleged theft at a fast food restaurant is in fact a family man who works, ironically, for a credit card fraud protection department. Yet we are given little insight into his motivations or feelings about his behaviour, only that he obviously finds humour and sexual pleasure in the power game that he is playing. Imposter, on the other hand, is told largely from the point of view of serial identity thief Frédéric Bourdin, who at times conveys the difficulties of his childhood and the moral quandaries he experienced when impersonating missing American teen Nicholas Barclay, but just as often smiles smugly and ultimately claims that he only cared about himself.

The films also provide different reasons, but significantly more mystery as to why people would readily believe what in both cases are blatantly preposterous tales. It must be underlined here, though, that Imposter is a documentary film, which owes more than a little to the filmmaking style of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Compliance is a fiction film inspired by true events. The family of Nicholas Barclay can understandably be forgiven for allowing their grief to cloud their judgement; but their continued belief in Bourdin’s identity, once the authorities had gathered enough evidence to be certain that he was not their loved one, is startling.

It is not so easy to pinpoint why there is so much complicity with the cold caller who puts Chickwich staff member Becky through humiliating sexual abuse in the presence of her colleagues. Even the famous Milgram Experiment to which the film makes reference involved orders given by an experimenter in physical proximity to the test subject, orders which were to be carried out on an unseen and unfamiliar confederate. Obeying a voice on the end of a phone and degrading a friend is quite another thing. The use of language to control is clearly displayed – the phone conversations drive the entire plot – but the caller cannot con just anyone, as two of Becky’s co-workers quickly cast doubt on the whole situation. Both films reflect the power of suggestion and blind faith that persists in a culture that collectively gives the impression that it is smart enough not to be so easily led, that it can always smell bullshit when it’s close by. In a modern world where precarity appears to be a permanent condition and the old historical teleologies have all ended on a downer, the desire for security, self-preservation, love and recognition would appear to be so strong as to trump moral rectitude, compassion and dissent in the face of violence and exploitation, on a regular basis.

image

Compliance has found a vocal admirer in William Friedkin, whose interest in the thin membrane that separates good from evil has been reflected. The restriction of the action to the back room and front counter of the restaurant and the dramatic development through intense, lengthy dialogue exchange is reminiscent of the older director’s two most recent films, both adapted from stage plays by Tracy Letts. In Bug (2006) we find a protagonist, Agnes, who is just as desperate to mask the absence of her missing boy as the Barclay family in Imposter are theirs, and as willing to believe the destructive lies of her new friend Peter as any of the victims of Craig Zobel’s and Bart Layton’s films (it is interesting to compare the history of abuse that both Bourdin and Peter Evans claim to have suffered). Friedkin’s film failed to capture the public imagination like those of the younger directors – though it is a much stronger work than both of them – but all of these stories point up the power that fictions can have over us, whether knowingly in the escapist thrill of a couple of hours in the cinema, or unsuspectingly and shockingly amidst the drab duties of our daily lives.    

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Tactile
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Favourite Blu-rays and DVDs of 2013
Notes on The Offence
When the sea surges
Limits of the Image
Violence // Discipline // Vanity
Would You Believe It?

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