This article is part of the Double Features series, which pairs great films that taste great together. Check out part one here.


One of the things that make double features such a source of fascination, for me, at least, is how two films can bring certain aspects of each other to the fore. Most great films are multifaceted and rich in theme, you can and should look at them from any number of different angles. But it can be hard to do in isolation, when all of a movie’s themes and ideas are inextricably bound up in each other. But place two films side-by-side, or, in this case, one after another, and it’s like the similarities reach out to each other, making both their common ground and their differences more apparent and easier to appreciate.

All ten of these films deal in some way with the rupture between expectation and reality, between how we dreamed our lives would be and how they turned out, between what our society claims to aspire to and what the world is actually like. They all do a great job of navigating these themes alone, but, together, they’re even better.

Martin (1978) / Edward Scissorhands (1990)

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It’s hard to be a teenager, especially when you’re a murderous, blood-sucking vampire or have scissors for hands. Everyone has all these expectations of how you should behave and what you should want. No one understands you or your pain, and you’re terrified of trying to connect with anyone who might in case they reject you like everyone else. Also, you’re a murderous, blood-sucking vampire or have scissors for hands.

George Romero’s Martin is a strange, almost surreal film about a teenage orphan who might also be an elderly murderous, blood-sucking vampire. The film’s approach to Martin’s vampirism is very idiosyncratic: his vampire-hating uncle Tateh calls him a vampire and Martin admits to being one, but he makes fun of Tateh for treating him like a demonic presence rather than just a guy who eats blood. But does he even eat blood? It’s not clear how real the scenes where he murders people and eats their blood are, especially alongside the black-and-white scenes that depict him as a gothic vampire living in a castle. Are they memories? Or dreams? Is anything anything? All I know is that Martin is very sad and very uncomfortable with his sexuality, especially when older women come on to him.

Edward Scissorhands is even more strange, even more surreal, but its storybook quality makes it less viscerally off-putting. It’s like a live-action cartoon, whereas Martin whiplashes between verité and dream logic. Edward is also a teenage orphan who doesn’t like when adult women try to have sex with him. But he has scissors for hands and gets adopted by a family who live in a seemingly endless technicolour suburb, contra the desiccated post-industrial setting of Martin. They look nothing alike and their plots go to very different places, but they share a core fascination with the sadness and isolation of awkward teenage boys, presented in their most extreme form. They’re heartbreaking stories about not feeling at home in the world, and they’re both weird as hell.

The Nice Guys (2016) / La La Land (2016)

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2016 saw the release of two movies starring Ryan Gosling as a struggling professional in the City of Angels. On first glance, that’s where the similarities between The Nice Guys and La La Land end.

The Nice Guys is a neo-noir comedy about an amoral private investigator (Gosling) and a violent goon with a heart of gold (Russell Crowe) who team up to track down a missing woman before a pair of anonymous hitmen can blow her brains out. La La Land is a musical romance about a broke, world-weary jazz pianist (Gosling) and an idealistic middle-class actress (Emma Stone) trying to make it in the big city without compromising their values or their relationship.

The Nice Guys is silly and slapstick and deeply moral, whereas La La Land is as wry and sardonic as it is heartfelt and sincere. But, together, they’re two beautiful films that use Los Angeles – a city at the heart of the US entertainment industry – to tell stories about the dark underbelly of the American Dream. La La Land, as Ciara has written before, is a film about how capitalism sells us a fairy tale about how if we all just work hard enough and stay true to our dreams, we can have it all. The Nice Guys is an upsettingly realistic tale of high-level corruption so depraved that even two of the most cynical leads this side of a Billy Wilder movie are blindsided by it.

Both films evoke the style of classic film genres – noirs and musicals respectively – and use them to deconstruct the American Dream. And they’re both great.

Lady Bird (2017) / American Animals (2018)

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I strongly welcome any evidence of a trend toward reflections on life under the Bush administration now that people are tying themselves into knots to pretend Dubya wasn’t a complete monster just so they can compare him favourably to Trump. Lady Bird and American Animals are both tales of young people in the middle of the Bush years, the former about working-class high school student Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), the latter about a group of middle-to-upper-class college freshmen lead by Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan). Lady Bird ends in the autumn of 2003, where American Animals starts. You can almost imagine it’s the same day.

But the reflections are very different. That is, in part, because of their real-life source material and the distinct approaches each director takes with it. Lady Bird is a semi-autobiographical film that draws from writer-director Greta Gerwig’s own experience of growing up as a weird, dramatic Sacramento teen. American Animals is based on the true story of the Transylvania heist, where a group of college students tried to steal millions of dollars of rare manuscripts from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. It features interviews with the real people depicted in its narrative, who sometimes even invade the story and interact with their fictional selves. But while they certainly reflect on events from a certain distance, director Bart Layton is more invested in the immediate and visceral feelings of his characters, who despise Lexington and their lives there.

It’s little surprise then that while Lady Bird is a kind of conciliatory film, a love letter to the city that Gerwig left behind, American Animals makes Lexington feel just as hollow and disappointing as its protagonists say. When Gerwig’s camera lingers on Sacramento, it feels like longing. When Layton’s lingers on Lexington, it feels like loathing. That isn’t to say that Lady Bird is more rose-tinted than American Animals: both are clear-eyed in their depiction of the brittle economic order that preceded the financial crash and the soul-crushing banality of life under the invisible hand of the market.

The Wrestler (2008) / Funny People (2009)

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It’s fairly well-known that Darren Aronofsky made The Wrestler and Black Swan as a pair. The Wrestler is about the beauty in the low art of professional wrestling, while Black Swan is about the horror in the high art of ballet. But, for my money, The Wrestler’s true spiritual successor – and perfect double feature partner – is Judd Apatow’s Funny People.

Both films are about over-the-hill performers reckoning with their legacies, though from very, very different perspectives. The titular wrestler is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who was a big star in the 80s but now lives in a trailer park, works part-time at a supermarket and continues to wrestle for a pittance on the New Jersey independent circuit. Meanwhile, Funny People’s George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a stand-up-turned-movie-star living alone in a mansion who hates the lowbrow piece of shit films he’s constantly making for money. (Yes, he is, in large part, literally just Adam Sandler). The class differences are key here. George is trapped in a bubble of suffocating privilege, while Randy is trying to survive day-to-day. George can’t escape his own success, but Randy is constantly trying to recapture his.

Death bears down on both men – George is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, while Randy has a bad heart – and both desperately seek the love of a woman to make them feel alive. But it’s in the love of their art that each, perhaps, finds a moment of redemption.

Primer (2004) / Time Bandits (1981)

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I don’t know that I understood Primer, exactly, but I really liked it. Shane Carruth’s directorial debut is often discussed as the most serious and rigorous time travel movie, requiring any number of advanced degrees to follow its plot, but it’s actually very simple. Two friends, Aaron and Abe, are a pair of inventors working out of a garage, hoping to make some big breakthrough or discovery they can use to get rich. Quite by accident, they invent time travel and use it to enrich themselves, but fall out over the potential risks of the technology.

Time Bandits was the breakthrough success of former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. Though he’d directed two previous films – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with co-director Terry Jones, and Jabberwocky – this was the movie that made him more than just an ex-Python. It’s about a little boy called Kevin who loves history, but whose parents only care about buying new appliances and otherwise maintaining an enviable middle-class life. When a medieval knight explodes a hole in his bedroom, he ends up on a time-traveling adventure with a group of dwarves who want to use a map of reality to steal riches from across history. If Primer is the most serious time-travel movie, then Time Bandits may well be the silliest. While there’s a straight narrative line and a character arc for our lead, time travel in Time Bandits is mostly just a way to set up gags, and more power to it.

But even as Time Bandits wraps up its nonsense story with a non-sequitur ending that’s equal parts abrupt and absurd, it’s not all Carrollesque gibberish. Much like Gilliam’s later film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it’s a spirited defense of imagination against the confines of rational, modern, capitalist life. Kevin is able to break free from his humdrum life and find adventure (mostly) without serious consequence. It’s a film that celebrates the childlike capacity to dream beyond the limits of the world. Primer, to put it mildly, takes a somewhat different tack, imagining two men who shed the shackles of this world, but are forced to grapple with the moral consequences of their freedom.

And yet, if you think about it, aren’t they both just stories about time-traveling friends who are sick of their daily lives? Makes you think.

 

2 thoughts on “Double Features #2: Sweet Dreams and Bitter Pills

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