Jean-Pierre Melville and Film Noir [Current Affairs]

Film noir is an elusive, amorphous thing, something you recognise when you see it but is incredibly difficult to pin down. There are things you can point to that you expect from film noir—plots from hardboiled crime fiction, cinematography from German Expressionism, private eyes, and femme fatales—but nothing firm. 

Paul Schrader wrote that film noir is defined by its tone—a fatalistic, hopeless one—but even that is slightly too specific. More than a genre, a style or a tone, noir is a vibe: something’s film noir if it feels like it is, and any definition is an attempt to backfill a reasoning. When classic films noirs were being made in Hollywood, the industry wasn’t consciously making film noir, the way people consciously made westerns—as James Naremore outlines in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, the idea was only defined retrospectively. The dozens of tropes, stock characters, and shooting styles that make up film noir don’t have a standard arrangement, or even an obvious connection to one another, but through the act of repetition, they collectively acquired new meaning. Film noir is fall guys, cynical detectives, down-and-out boxers, and struggling writers; it’s shadows cast from Venetian blinds, rain on a city night, low angle shots and first-person voiceover narration; it’s Humphrey Bogart looking as cool as possible while smoking a cigarette.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about one of my top two artists who fought in the French Resistance, Jean-Pierre Melville, and film noir! You can subscribe to read it here, or buy a copy of the issue here.

The Social Network and Me: A Love Story

Ten years ago, I saw The Social Network for the first time. It changed my life.

Saying something changed your life is a cliché in personal-essay-inflected media criticism: the truth is usually somewhere closer to “it is good and I like it,” exaggerated to something that might drive clicks. Individual pieces of art very rarely change lives, generally. But The Social Network changed mine. It’s the movie that made me love movies.

I’ve always really liked movies: as a kid, I would watch pretty much anything on TV, and in my early teens, Casablanca blew my hair back and I quickly became a big TCM guy. This gave me a somewhat skewed view of film history, where no-one could possibly think Ordinary People was an unworthy Best Picture winner. My mam showed me Kramer vs. Kramer and said I wasn’t allowed watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, before acquiescing a week later. I loved 1980s teen movies and Farrelly Brothers comedies and Steven Spielberg, and thought Fight Club was the most amazing film ever made. Then when I was sixteen, I saw The Social Network.

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It’s Unnatural, Innit? Men in Cages

Most people don’t think about prisons very often. Unless you are forced to interact with the prison system in some way, it mostly just hums along in the background. It’s unquestioned. It’s unquestionable. There are some people who are actively into it – who comment “bring back hanging!” on every news article about literally any crime and think high rates of reoffending are due to prisons being too nice – and there are certainly lots of people who object to the criminalising of specific actions, from drug possession to sex work to digital piracy, but for most people, most of the time, prisons just… exist. Always have, always will.

Television as a medium has a long love affair with the criminal justice system, but for the most part, only up until you get to the prison gates. There are an unfathomable number of shows about cops investigating crimes and lawyers prosecuting crimes, that take place in police stations and courts and even jails where the defendant awaits trial, but a relatively tiny few set among convicts in prison. There’s Orange Is the New Black, obviously. Oz. Prison Break. That time Deirdre went to prison on Coronation Street. I could probably name ten if I really tried (whereas I’m pretty sure I could name fifty cop shows in half the time while standing on my head). Partially this is due to the nature of the medium: police procedurals and courtroom dramas are both ideally suited to the hour-long TV episode, telling a self-contained story with characters we know and care about, with twists and suspense ideally timed to the ad breaks. It’s both exciting and familiar, and they always get the bad guys in the end. Truly great police or legal procedurals are, in many ways, what TV does best.

But there’s still something odd about a medium so obsessed with retelling the story of how someone gets sent to prison having almost no interest in what happens when they get there. I don’t particularly buy into on-screen representation as any kind of be-all end-all, but when most people don’t think about prisons very often, and television doesn’t portray prisons very often, it’s hard not to see it as an endless feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. The incarceration system relies on this: on us turning away, choosing not to see, not to think, not to question. Cop shows function in large part as propaganda for the police, but the prison system is harder to propagandise for. Cop shows depict a kind of idealised police force, facing down unimaginable danger to catch the bad guys, but there is no similar idealised vision of prison, that makes the audience root for heroic prison officers and glad the bad guys are locked up there. Invisibility is about the best they can do. Television teaches us to root for hero cops, but when it comes to prisons, it asks us to turn away, avert our eyes, keep our heads down. Just don’t think about it at all.

This is part of what makes Porridge such a special show. Originally airing on the BBC from 1974 to 1977, it’s a sitcom set in the fictional Slade Prison in Cumberland. The sitcom may seem like an unnatural format to set in a prison, but that format allows Porridge to depict prison life at a kind of mundane, everyday level. A lot of prison dramas portray the most fucked up, horrible stuff that happens in prison, like rape and violence, but Porridge depicts the thousand tiny dehumanisations that make up prison life even when things are running perfectly smoothly. The oppressiveness inherent to the system, and the tiny victories that make it bearable.

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You Should Watch Santa Sangre

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema. Even though it’s almost exactly two hours, it feels longer – not because it’s dull or slow, but because it’s so full to bursting with different styles, genres and stories that it seems impossible that it could all fit inside a two-hour movie. It’s a four-hour sprawling epic that is somehow, through some kind of time warp, only two hours long.

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Hollywood, the Bush Years, and America’s Memory Hole [Current Affairs]

Few films have tried to interpret the Bush era, but the ones that have are worth examining in detail. W.Vice, and The Report are some of the few major films about the Bush administration that Hollywood has produced, and despite their different approaches to history, each speaks to an important truth: to the personal moral character of George Bush; to the moral character of Republican Party in the decades before Donald Trump; and to why, exactly, America chooses to forget. 

I wrote about W., Vice, and The Report for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

The Mere Possibility of the Movie Musical

Earlier this year, video essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a dissection of the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Cats is a cinematic monstrosity that has to be seen to be believed, and Ellis’s video seeks to figure out why. Cats (2019) is awful in ways both rooted in the source material – the whole thing is basically a succession of cats walking into frame and singing a song about what kind of cat they are – and entirely its own – the uncanny valley visual effects make the cats somewhere unsettling between human and cat – but Ellis places a lot of the blame on the tricky business of moving from stage to screen.

“Some musicals – not all, but most of them – require a visual medium that jives with the way the musical itself is constructed. Les Misérables was constructed for the stage. Cats was constructed for the stage,” Ellis says, citing the way actors on stage frequently pantomime props or sets that aren’t there, “That is the thing about theatre… it is constructed so that the audience has to imagine what’s going on in the story. Overcoming that suspension of disbelief is built into the design of the medium in a way that it is not with film.”

These ideas about the film musical – that the suspension of disbelief required for musicals as a genre is at odds with film as a medium, or that the process of adaptation from stage musical to film is a particularly and perhaps uniquely fraught one – are really common. People talk about film musicals as particularly difficult to pull off in ways they don’t about pretty much any other genre. “The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp” is “alienating for modern audiences”, according to Film School Rejects. Ellis basically concludes that film adaptations of stage musicals are totally unnecessary, at least outside of animation. Musicals as a form are naturally suited to theatre in ways they’re just not suited to film, is the point. But all of this is bizarre: it sounds hypothetically plausible, but isn’t at all borne out by the evidence of nearly a century of movie musicals.

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You should watch No More Jockeys [Digital Spy]

Originally invented by Mark Watson and Tim Key in 2001, No More Jockeys had a brief life on the BBC Comedy website in 2009 as a spin-off from Horne, Key and Watson’s panel show We Need Answers. But it was given new life earlier this year when the guys started filming episodes over video call during lockdown.

I wrote about the brilliant, wonderful, delightful No More Jockeys for Digital Spy. You can read it here!

Notes on The Conjuring

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, The Last Jedi.

The Conjuring was a smash hit on release in 2013. It tested so well with audiences that Warner Brothers moved its release from the February dead zone to the summer blockbuster season. It was the first horror film to get an A from CinemaScore, who calculate an average score based on surveys of cinema audiences (and have been since 1979). It’s inspired an entire cinematic universe of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, with three more in the works. It was critically praised, too: reviews routinely described it as a classy throwback to films like The Exorcist, a kind of slow-burn horror in marked contrast to James Wan’s directorial debut, torture porn pioneer Saw.  

The problem with this, of course, is that The Conjuring sucks. Here’s why. 

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Swift as Jackass: The Forgotten Genius of Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s 2005 satirical sitcom about the East London media scene and tech-saturated hipsterdom, was a flop when it first aired on Channel 4: by episode five of its six-episode run, its audience had dropped to just 500,000 (a 2% share). The title character, played by Nicholas Burns, was originally created for Brooker’s TV listings parody website TVGoHome as the star of a documentary called Cunt. Nathan is softened for the sitcom from an outright cunt into an insufferable twat: he’s a self-described “self-facilitating media node”, running a website called Trashbat.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands) where he posts prank videos and assorted shite. “It’s an online urban culture dispatch,” he says. The sitcom puts Nathan in contrast with Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), a frustrated cynic working at SugarApe magazine (stylised to emphasis “rape”), an obvious parody of Vice. In the first episode, Dan writes an article about the rise of the idiots, lambasting people like Nathan and his colleagues at SugarApe. Nathan and all the other idiots think it’s genius. It’s a brilliantly funny, weird little show, alternating between unabashed silliness and jet-black shock humour.  

A second season of the show was never commissioned. Morris and Brooker both went on to bigger things – Brooker created Black Mirror, and Morris continues to be an incomparable genius – as did much of the cast – a host of now big stars play bit parts, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Ben Whishaw – but it has not prompted much of a return to Nathan BarleyDigital Spy once claimed it became a cult hit on DVD, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Every retrospective on some flop no-one remembers claims it later became a cult hit. It’s not like people are going to Nathan Barley conventions dressed as Nikolai the Barber’s dead cat. 

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