Backwards & in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film (2017) by Alicia Malone


Alicia Malone has been one of my favourite film people since I was first introduced to her in an interview with her on Criterion Now. Malone’s passion for cinema easily comes across in her role as an interviewer, the segments she hosts for TCM, FilmStruck, and the videos she posts to her YouTube channel. The strength of Malone’s segments is her joy, contextual knowledge and her ability to use the stories of personal lives and production that entices the viewer to watch more great films more deeply.

The book’s title comes from a 1988 keynote by Texas Governor Ann Richards that Malone uses as her epigraph, and is perhaps revealing to the plight of women both in the film industry, politics, and every other area of life:

Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.

Backwards & in Heels has many familiar stories within it, profiling early female filmmakers such as Alice Guy-Blanché and Lois Weber, silent stars like Mary Pickford,  the stars of screwball comedies and ‘women’s pictures’, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, mythologised sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, New Hollywood icons like Jane Fonda, through to the present day with figures still working with Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer, and more recent directors such as Ava DuVernay. Although far from comprehensive, without an interest in women within the global film industry (although some international talent is mentioned in passing), Malone provides a strong series of empowering biographies (some a couple of pages, some closer to ten) written in an accessible way that encourages the reader to both read and watch more.

Many of the stories Malone tells are less familiar, remembering actresses and directors that might be less acknowledged, like with Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge or Ida Lupino. We learn of women who achieved far more for humanity and the world at large – and more intelligent – than we ever give credit for. Many of these stories have an element of tragedy: the marginalisation of actors of colour Hattie MacDaniel and Anna May Wong, even in the face of critical acclaim and major directors; the erasure of Rita Hayworth’s ethnic identity; the difficulty of Tangerine actress Mya Taylor to find positive trans roles, instead limited to prostitutes. There’s stories of women who lack agency or control, or were manipulated by men, or failed to get the due credit to support their careers. Hearing about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds after their passing still makes me so emotional. Malone hits her stride when she approaches the current era of filmmaking, addressing not only directors and actors but activists, producers, screenwriters, editors, cinematographers and so on, interviewing people like Rachel Morrison and Nicole Perlman that might be overlooked because of male directors overshadowing their contributions, but should instead be remembered for shaping the films as they are.

Although Malone doesn’t address narrative content so much, we need to consider how representation functions. Representation isn’t just made from depicting strong and empowered women on screen outside of sexist and misogynistic tropes, images and stereotypes, but in shifting the culture and placing women within creative positions to have an impact on how these stories are told.

With the most recent edition, Malone ties in the events of late 2017 and 2018, tackling the events following Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein and what this means for the film industry as a whole. As Malone concludes, “the only consistency [in Hollywood] is the struggle for women against discrimination, bias, sexual harassment, damaging stereotypes, and constant objectification”, with sexual assault “woven into the very fabric of the industry almost since the beginning.”

It’s a reminder that we need to support the work of female creatives (with films such as The Lure, Desert Hearts and Smithereens joining the largely male dominated Criterion Collection and FilmStruck), but also support journals like Another Gaze and cléo and the wide array of female critics out there – not only the historical voices of Pauline Kael or those still going (Molly Haskell, Amy Taubin) but modern voices today that include Malone, Angelica Jade Bastién, Kat EllingerLindsay Ellis, Sophie Monks Kaufman, Violet Lucca, Kim Morgan, Imogen Sara Smith and so many others.


Pandora’s Box (1929), dir. G.W. Pabst


On a Sunday afternoon in early December, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix Cinema (not to be confused with Leicester’s Phoenix), with a live piano score by Stephen Horne. Alongside fellow silent film enthusiast and Conrad Veidt lover Max, Max had attended their showing of Häxan (1922) a month earlier, with live narration by Reece Shearsmith. As we took the train down amid the chaos of cancellations, we sat down to an ornately decorated screen, as though in the pre-digital age of decades ago, before physical film projection was usurped by bootleg VHS tapes, torrents, DVDs and streaming, the pillarbox screen the centre of attention amid the wooden seats. Critic Pamela Hutchinson provided a brief introduction to coincide with her BFI Film Classics monograph, outlining some of the initial negative critical responses.

Though Pabst can often be overlooked in Weimar Cinema, he tackled social issues throughout his silents and talkies against the emerging New Objectivity. Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Wedekind’s narratives had been translated to cinema before with Leopold Jessner’s 1923 film, but Pandora’s Box became captivating through the energies of Pabst and Louise Brooks.

Greek mythology surrounding Pandora’s box and our relationship with evil may be diluted by time’s passage, the symbolism of Pandora reappropriated as a Danish jewellery company and the planet of Avatar (2009). But Lulu (Louise Brooks) explores this imagery well, embodied within Brooks’ cinematic image. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were “conducting an investigation into [Pabst’s] relations with women”, interested in the “flaming reality” of “sexual hate.” In his insightful 1983 essay Lulu and the Meter Man, Thomas Elsaesser argues Wedekind explored the femme fatale, and associations of transgression, violation and desire through the social milieu of class division. Pandora’s Box confronts not only bourgeois values but the male power curtailing the freedom Lulu seeks. Lulu’s relationship with newspaper publisher Ludwig Schön is formed of convenience of social standing, alongside his engagement to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, Charlotte von Zarnikow, caught between the power of the press, sexuality and the political elite. Lulu is an alluring temptress to male authority; Rodrigo Quast seeks to exploit Lulu as part of his trapeze act, with Pabst’s fast editing adopting theatricality as she dons her outfit, stunning the theatrical audience and the viewer themselves. Like the carnival freakshow of Freaks (1932), Lulu has a sexual and romantic identity of her own, beyond the dehumanising gaze placed upon her by accepted societal values.

Schön’s double-edged threat – forcing Lulu, with his gun, to stage her own suicide, is itself coercive, taking agency from her death away from her, an impossible choice captured in immaculate detail by Günther Krampf. As Schön becomes a victim of the very suicide threat he levelled, Lulu’s judicious process is tragic: in the trial, she is faced with five years for manslaughter, despite her victimhood. Framed in close-up, Pabst captures the emotion and power of the desperation of her tears, faced with a jury who never knew. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, Pabst had no “stock emotional responses”, but sought actors to reach emotion “like life itself”. As the fire alarm is set off as a cunning escape, Pabst captures the unfolding chaos wonderfully. Lulu isn’t far away from the feminist heroine Angela de Marco in Married to the Mob (1988): facing presumed guilt against her husband’s murder in the bathtub by a bullet, we witness structures of power against her, through her avoidance of cops and her biased interview. As Elsaesser argues, Brooks’ Lulu is presented “practically without origin, or particular cultural associations”, with sexual desire part of a “more generalized structure of exchange”; sexuality lacks emotional engagement, with sexual acts and Reichsmark holding equal value. J. Hoberman writes that Pabst sought to create a fractured sense of eroticism, wanting “men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs.”

In Lulu’s adventure in London, Pabst makes Lulu’s presence against male power most explicit. The mythology of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) is buried within sensationalism of the press and tabloids and the police letter coining the killer’s name, enduring through the mystery of the ambiguity of his identity. The concept of the Ripper has a morality to it: a mutilator and murderer of prostitutes, attacking female sexuality in the slums and poverty of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Equally, the Ripper was formed against waves of Jewish and Irish immigration altering make-up and sentiment within 1890s London. The pervasiveness of representations border on the ridiculous: in film, the fictionalised killer of Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the time travelling pursuer of H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), a frequent foil to Sherlock Holmes across mediums, and in comics, the Gotham-based serial killer of Gotham by Gaslight (1991) and its giallo fan film Ripper (2016), the subject of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1989-98), an alter ego to Mr. Hyde in Thunderbolts #167 and the foe of IDW’s Doctor Who comic story Ripper’s Curse (2011). As Hutchinson notes, “sexually motivated murders”, or “Lustmord“, “filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany”, from ‘The Butcher of Hanover’ to the Ripper’s role in Waxworks (1924) and Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. The conflict between Lulu and the Ripper, her reflection and the Ripper’s knife – recalls Lulu’s previous use of the gun, returning to the paradigm between Lulu’s agency and victimhood. In the Christmas mistletoe, Pabst builds a remarkable sense of suspense, seeking the reveal of who moves first.

Louise Brooks will always be defined by her age: as the 21 year old actress in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the disjuncture of seeing her graceful ageing in her latter years in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and Kenneth Tynan’s rediscovery in his New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1991 song itself embraces the temporal disjuncture of “ghosts of long ago”:

And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain

Still the grace remains, the face has changed

And you’re still the same

Having appeared in the avant-garde Denishawn troupe as a teenager and as a Broadway dancer, Brooks’ rising star emerged. As Hoberman notes, Pabst was inspired to cast Brooks after watching A Girl in Every Port (1928), attempting to borrow her from Paramount before she quit over a salary dispute. As German cinema fought against national boundaries, in a silent landscape supported by international coproductions and the universal language of the human face, American actress Louise Brooks could act alongside her German counterparts (with an Austrian director), a boundary that would continue to be stretched through the multilingual talkies that emerged, with a differently recorded version for each major market. Equally, as Siegfried Kracauer highlights in From Caligari to Hitler, the emergence of Kontingentfilme, or quota films, increased the distribution of foreign exports, with an increasing Americanization of Weimar cinema seeking to cater to American styles (1947:135).

Women in film are often underestimated, especially in melodrama, with “woman’s pictures” exploring women’s lives in deep, meaningful detail. With a handful of films, Brooks’ face joined the pantheons of women of early cinema, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, decades before Monroe rose to fame, in part through her interwar flapper design. Kracauer notes critics found Pabst “fundamentally wrong” in adapting a “literary play”, with characters serving to “illustrate principles” (1947:148). Lulu is not just a character, but a symbol of female morality and sexuality. As Elsaesser argues, Lulu’s lack of family ties, social obligations, education and culture, and her freedom from guilt and conscience, assigns her as a “construct, not a sociological portrait”. Lulu is but an alluring, unreadable cinematic face of ambiguity and mystique, to read onto how we wish. Designer Gottlieb Hesch drew a sharp visual dichotomy through the contrast of Lulu’s costumes, between the purity of her white dresses and the sinful darkness of her black dresses, taken to full advantage through the film’s monochrome locations and cinematography. In Asphalt, we follow another woman on the other side of the law: Else moves through Berlin’s urban criminal landscape in her need to survive, frequently interacting with police, using sex appeal to seduce men and explore her femininity just as Lulu did the same year.

Pandora’s Box carries illicit beauty as we witness the dance between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), continuing their motions despite leering male onlookers, a rebuke to male power. Decades later, the lesbian sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Carol (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Thelma (2017) and the Black Mirror (2011-present) episode San Junipero remain rare delights as we deconstruct the fetishising and eroticising male gaze, the emaciated international form seeking to conceal these relationships. The boat’s gambling den becomes but another Weimar underworld, alongside the havens of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and crime and kangaroo courts of M (1931), and, as Elsaesser writes, a “fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic”, but the underworld connotes a distinctly queer connotation, only emphasised by the West German-era underworlds of Fox and His Friends (1975) and the Isherwood based Weimar-era underworld of Cabaret (1972); Dietrich’s bisexuality made her but another element within this underworld. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, her residence at the Eden Hotel gave her a firsthand look at Weimar Berlin’s decadence, highlighting “girls in boots, advertising flagellation”, “agents pimped for the ladies”, sportsmen arranging “orgies” and the drag queens outside Eldorado, and the “feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians” at the Maly.

But Pandora’s Box is as much about Berlin as fleeing Berlin. With her passport, Lulu flees alongside her best friend, Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer), in far from ideal, squalid conditions. Like the foundational directors, seeking greater profits who fled to Hollywood, like F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Ernst Lubitsch, or fled anti-Semitism, like Fritz Lang, or Nazi-era directors like Douglas Sirk, or child refugees like Mike Nichols, without mentioning actors like Conrad Veidt, experienced dislocation from the country they were raised and born in amid developing tensions, adopting the United States as an inherited home. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler conveyed an international heist, but under the auspices of organised crime. Alwa and Lulu flee the country with urgency, emerging in Christmastime London that cannot escape Lulu’s inevitable fate, even amid the festive goodwill of Christmas puddings, window displays, gifts, snow and the marching Salvation Army. Posters, echoing the citywide search of M, warn of a criminal on the loose. Brooks was American, but in the following years, the Weimar cinema followed an inevitable collapse and migration. As Hutchinson argues, “geography carries crucial meaning”, highlighting Wedekind’s and Brooks’ own stays in London.

Günther Krampf’s immaculate visions have a tendency to be burned into cultural memory with his iconic image of the creeping shadow of Nosferatu (1922), but Krampf’s incredible eye is no stranger here either, illuminating in light the sinister London fog, prefiguring the film noir and its own femme fatales. Stephen Horne’s score provided a great compliment, integrating atmosphere, sounds of the train and fragments of Christmas carols within his piano performance. Like the greatest of live scores, Horne elevated the film he performed against to a place of beauty.

Logan Lucky (2017), dir. Steven Soderbergh


Since his Sundance debut with sex, lies and videotape (1989), helping redefine independent American cinema, Soderbergh walks between the experimental self-reflexivity of Schizopolis (1996), emphasising fictionality and the construction of its characters, and mainstream fare, like heist remake Ocean’s trilogy (2001-07) and Magic Mike (2012). Soderbergh struggles against the established system: as he explains in Film Comment, his experience on Che (2008) led Soderbergh to “simplify my process”, and not make “serious films anymore”. As he comments in The New York Times, Soderbergh “really lost my interest as a director […] in anything that smells important. […] I left that in the jungle somewhere.”

But Soderbergh’s return from retirement is a fallacy. As he mentions in The Guardian, he rejected painting: Soderbergh had been “shooting my mouth off for a long time”, making “declarative statements” he had to “walk back”. Although Behind the Candelabra (2013) symbolised a career end, Soderbergh never stopped working, directing The Knick (2014-15) and his monochrome regrade of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) and reedits of Psychos (1960/98) and Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut (1980). As Soderbergh comments, he quickly became involved with new projects, directing HBO’s branching narrative app/series Mosaic and executive producing Scott Frank’s series Godless.

Logan Lucky’s model is itself experimental, questioning established distribution models and favouring creative control. As Soderbergh says in Film Comment, the film’s financial structure is “nothing that a studio would do”. The New York Times describes cast working for scale, with marketing money raised through selling digital rights to Amazon. Soderbergh worked with Bleecker Street, editing the trailer himself and refusing to test with audiences; Soderbergh had spent only 15% of advertising 3 weeks before release. As he comments, releasing trailers “four months in advance is ridiculous” within a landscape of consumption. Though “Joseph E. Levine was doing this 55 years ago”, Soderbergh argues cinema has become a “war of attrition”. Speaking in Little White Lies, Soderbergh argues “vertical integration” creates an atmosphere without “turnover in ideology”, unlike the failures of the studio system in the late 1960s.

But Logan Lucky is also positioned against socio-political debates, beyond the working class of Blue Collar (1978) or Norma Rae (1979). Trump’s election has ignited renewed national consciousness around the Midwest and the South, and broader questions of voting rights, gerrymandering, shifting population centres, the growth of cities and decline of industry. Though Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this perception of the white working class is partly imaginary, Strangers in their Own Land and Hillbilly Elegy (2016) feed this narrative, whether intended by its authors. But the South is not a monolith, comprising everyday people with individual issues and stories. Documentaries like Sherman’s March (1986) capture some of those perspectives, reconciling the legacy of the American Civil War with attitudes towards race, sexuality and religion. As Vance writes, though seen as “hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash”, for him they are “neighbors, friends and family.” As Soderbergh mentions in The New York Times, he was drawn towards “empathy for working-class characters who get to be more than caricatures”, though using “stereotypes to set the table”. But as Soderbergh points out in Little White Lies, the “rural, southern audience […] didn’t show up”, with West Virginia near the bottom. Though marketing “ignored New York and LA”, top grossing screens were in both.

Though Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) never strips, he isn’t so far from Magic Mike’s Mike Lane, trying to make a living in a world struggling to support him. A construction worker beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmy is affected by healthcare: walking with a limp, bureaucracy declares Jimmy as having a pre-existing medical condition, highlighting the ridiculousness of bosses never knowing the people working under them forced to make cuts. As Vance writes of the Rust Belt work ethic, workers have a “feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself”, unlike “the larger economic landscape of modern America.” The stadium stands above, lights blasting, customers and drivers literally above him. As Soderbergh mentions in Film Comment, screenwriter Rebecca Blunt extrapolated from a news story about “giant sinkholes [that] opened up under the Charlotte Motor Speedway”, creating a “subterranean world”. Soderbergh offers an alternative perspective from what we might presume about the Coca Cola 600, with NASCAR drivers and Fox analyst Jeff Gordon appearing in cameos.

West Virginia strives independence: Jimmy is untethered from the internet, without phone contract or social media account, keeping his phone solely to store images of his daughter. At the bar run by his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the fight with businessman Max (Seth MacFarlane) is a fight against the tourist eye: Max wants to exploit the bar for Instagram posts, even wanting to turn his burning car, lit aflame by Clyde’s Molotov cocktail, into a social media spectacle. The prison warden, Burns, contends against government intervention, covering up a riot and avoiding official visits. But as Wesley Morris writes, the prison has its own inherent bias, noting the framing of white characters with “black prisoners sat in the distance”. Working in a mobile clinic and delivering tetanus shots with My Little Pony plasters, Jimmy’s school friend Sylvia (Katherine Waterson) is testament to the small world, losing funding and relying upon private donations. Soderbergh is interested in West Virginian unity: school performances, natters in hairdressers, sports, county fairs, beauty pageants. Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid), spending most of their time on the sofa, might have the pretence of religious faith, as much a product of their upbringing as anything else, seeking moral justification for a federal crime, but their pretence falls apart. In a humorous diversion, a woman drives along in her purple car, demanding she gets to church on time.

Communal identity is also created through music: in the opening, we learn the Logans’ love of Take Me Home, Country Roads (1971), performed on stage by his 10-year old daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) in an ode to her father during the pageant, replacing her performance of Rihanna’s Umbrella (2007), evoking the audience’s hearts both inside and outside the film’s world. As Karen Han points out, Denver’s music has dominated Free Fire, Okja and Alien: Covenant. As Han writes, each film must be “in line with Denver’s ideals” of “peace and compassion” to receive approval, using “musical shorthand” for “preaching empathy” and provoking “sentimentality”. As artist LeAnn Rimes performs America the Beautiful at the Coca Cola 600, we witness the ritualism tied to musical identity and patriotism, refracted through NASCAR. As Soderbergh mentions on The Empire Film Podcast, he worked with David Holmes on creating the music selection, condensing 350 songs down to 20 and limiting original score, wanting dramatic scenes to play on their own.

Logan Lucky is about the familial and local: Jimmy visits Sadie, negotiating his relationship with ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), her new partner, and her sister Mellie (Riley Keough). As Soderbergh reflects in Film Comment, he anticipated viewers questioning why he “[came] out of retirement” to create a “light piece of entertainment”, but with a “broader emotional undercurrent” than Ocean’s Eleven. As Soderbergh points out on The Empire Film Podcast, Tatum rarely gets to play these parts; his restrained style revels in intimacy, Soderbergh’s actors never leaving their roles, working for a couple of hours with no break in energy. Clyde’s background relies upon the personal, defending his service in Iraq (a personal note for Driver, who spent two years training in the Marines) against the taunts of Max, his prosthetic arm a reminder and marker of his reliance on forces beyond him. The loss and subsequent retrieval and replacement of Clyde’s prosthetic arm reminds us of the importance of objects beyond items, tied to our very sense of self.

Logan Lucky’s heist conventions may seem implausible, involving Clyde crashing his car into a storefront, sentenced to prison as a means to consult with Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and shovelling money through the pneumatic tube system underneath the speedway. In a black and white uniform, never an orange jumpsuit, Joe’s masculinity contrasts against Bond: blonde hair, tattoos, his shirtless and naked form and Southern accent. As he licks an egg with salt, he defies us to look at his ridiculousness; he creates explosives out of gummy bears, beyond more cinematic devices in a security conscious world, with Craig somehow achieving his most confident role. The speedway’s levels – vendors at top, evading foreman Cal (Jim O’Heir) through the car park – might allude to the Vegas casino in Ocean’s Eleven, but Soderbergh keeps viewers in suspense even when he’s less flashy. As Soderbergh comments in Film Comment, he had “no desire” for shooting a race”, given the outcome is “unnecessary”, interested instead in the “background” to “create a slice of something without having to eat the whole pie.”

Soderbergh differentiates from Ocean’s Eleven’s faster editing, commenting in The Empire Film Podcast that he refused zooms, interested instead in movement, composition and cutting. The TV news report from the prison enshrines the heist’s crew as folklore heroes as “Ocean’s 7/11”. Though the heist in Ocean’s Eleven had a righteousness, Logan Lucky invokes a moral dimension. Structurally, Soderbergh wanted to avoid direct parallels, avoiding the “explaining scene” but creating an escalating sense of it “happening in front of you”. Our protagonists return to where they were, deploying a cyclical narrative: in montage, we see Joe in the same bed in prison; Sam and Fish laying on the same couch; Jimmy standing by stage edge during his daughter’s spectacular performance lit only in darkness, unable to grasp a larger relationship. As Soderbergh comments in Little White Lies, Soderbergh deviated from the “fantasy films” of the Ocean’s series, interested instead in something more “earth-bound”, allowing the film’s progression to “flip” its stereotypes to allow the viewer to “feel differently about the characters than you did at the beginning”. The team repay their victims to right wrongs, from Naaman’s paper envelope to Gleema Purdue’s birthday cake. Through the final act, with FBI agent Sarah Grayson’s (Hilary Swank), Soderbergh shifts from subversion to formula as Joe uncovers bags of money in the dirt once more, hinting towards an ongoing partnership that brings the band back together: creating the possibility of a sequel whether it exists within the mind’s eye or as a material possibility.

Logan Lucky’s recurring comedic dimension is a manifestation of the strengths of Soderbergh’s style. The scenes in the prison may seem surreal: rioting prisoners make their demands known, wanting library access to George R R Martin’s final volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), only to be shocked to discover The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring haven’t been published yet, tapping into a universal frustration amongst fantasy fans. Soderbergh took advantage of both available and practical lighting. As he details of his process in the Film Comment interview, using the RED EPIC he adjusted the film’s “color space”, avoiding the desaturated projected look in favour of pushing up the colour values. As he muses, every shot “should be a piece of a story”, not as “a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row.” Soderbergh’s approach to digital filmmaking technology is to embrace it, interested in the increasing freedom of the camera, speculating on “a camera that you can just Velcro to the wall”, noting its transformative effect on documentary cinema. Though Soderbergh’s style is largely held together by its simplicity, it is not without directorial voice. Soderbergh’s scenes in the car between Logan and Sadie are masterful, capturing the bond of their relationship without seeking to present anything more.

A Ghost Story (2017), dir. David Lowery


A24’s power as an independent studio is quickly rising. Founded in 2012, their first directly financed production, Moonlight (2016), fought La La Land at the Oscars and won. But A24 is more than its successes, supporting smaller scale productions, A Ghost Story gaining $1 million against its $150,000 budget. A24’s presence is welcome in a diversified film market supported by other recent players like Netflix, Amazon Studios and Neon. Distributed in the UK by Picturehouse Entertainment, Picturehouse have beaten out other studios to distribute recent releases like Elle and God’s Own Country that, in another time, might have received other methods of distribution.

As he tells on Vox’s I Think You’re Interesting, Lowery spent the early 2000s making use of Netflix’s DVD rental service, watching Cassavetes and much of that era’s wave of Asian cinema. Though Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon didn’t make Lowery a household name, it proved a breakthrough. As Lowery tells No Film School, A Ghost Story was his “summer vacation movie”, produced within a two-month window. Self-financing the film, Lowery was “prepared for it to fail”. Talking to Filmmaker in July 2016, Lowery described “[wanting] to make something small and tiny and handmade”. As he tells Filmjournal, Lowery never signed “oaths of secrecy”, allowing crew to post to Instagram.

With a 34-page script, Lowery recruited cast easily.

I just texted Casey and said, “Hey, I’m making a ghost movie this summer. Do you want to come be in it? You have to wear a sheet.” And he said, “Sure.”

Casey Affleck’s presence in any film is controversial, thanks to the sexual abuse case coming to light. Though Casey Affleck has had many roles, beginning with early films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Affleck has spent most of his career overshadowed by Ben Affleck until his Oscar-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea, protested by sexual-assault survivor advocate Brie Larson. In many ways, Manchester by the Sea parallels A Ghost Story: a film about life and mortality as Affleck’s Lee Chandler deals with the loss of his brother, caring for his teenage nephew. Manchester by the Sea equally approaches time as fluid, moving into flashback of the burning house without clear delineation. Lowery explores events leading up to C’s death with restraint, not resorting to melodrama but positioning his death through the mundane: a car crash. Speaking in Filmmaker, Lowery describes allowing us to “luxuriate in something […] profoundly personal”, depicting C “checking [his] email and watching a video on YouTube” in an earlier cut of the film.

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Lowery had been interested in ghosts since childhood. In his 1988 first film, inspired by Poltergeist (1982), a film he was “aware of but definitely hadn’t seen”, 7 ½ year old Lowery used his dad’s friend’s camcorder, its cloak, square frame, sound effects and fade to grey prefiguring what he would perfect with A Ghost Story. An 18 year old a decade later, Lowery shot Ghostboy during senior year on a Hi8 camcorder, a film so bad it “depressed [me] for the rest of the day”. As he tells No Film School, the image had been “waiting for the right movie”.

Although Affleck’s presence as a white sheet, communicating emotion through its circular eyes, seems not to require acting ability, Affleck still has some performance to give. As he points out in Filmjournal, Affleck was “really upset” when Lowery had to use another actor in reshoots and pickups. But Lowery found the sheet difficult to pull off; in early footage, the ghost had “no elegance, no grace, no sense of the ethereal”, like “a sheet stumbling through a frame”. Shooting in 33 frames per second, Lowery made the ghost “three-dimensional” through fabric, allowing arms to move and “making a trail”. As he points out on I Think You’re Interesting, the iconic image emerged from the theatrical tradition of burial shrouds, a tradition evoked as we view C’s cadaver underneath a cloak, Lowery’s camera holding on the body for a full minute. As he says, the ghost is a “very recognizable image”, existing as the Snapchat logo, an emoji and LEGO figure, but we “don’t really think about what that means”. Lowery drew from an existing canon of ghost films, from “Michael Myers [wearing] the sheet with the glasses” in Halloween (1978) and the rules established in Beetlejuice (1988) and Ghost (1990).

As a Hispanic family moves into the house, living breakfast and Christmas rituals, the ghost haunts as an active agent not invisible force, breaking plates and interacting with physical space. In the commentary, Lowery notes The Conjuring 2 as one of his favourite films, watching it before filming the sequence. As Andrew Karpan writes, Lowery’s long takes evoke the “malicious and unseen monster” of the Paranormal Activity series (2007-15); “the family, more reasonable than any in a horror movie, simply move out.” Lowery’s ghost interacts with physical space, granted a realm of communication with the house next door, waving towards what Lowery describes as a “grandma ghost” with a floral pattern (played by Lowery himself), utilising subtitles for the viewer to intuit conversation. Will Thede’s remix A Friendly Ghost Story makes A Ghost Story’s relationship with the existing canon explicitly clear, cutting clips of Casper (1995) against the trailer.

Rooney Mara, having excelled as Faye in Song to Song, remains one of cinema’s greatest actresses. As Mara notes, actresses are expected to “either be shy and very polite and well-spoken” or “the crass, brassy, cool girl who drinks and eats pizza”, but she fits into neither. Lowery depicts small moments, showing M’s intimacy with C as they kiss in bed and embrace, framed in tight close-up. As he notes in the commentary, Lowery called cut partway through, but let the camera roll. We see the arguments, beyond absolute perfection. As he notes in the No Film School interview, the scene had been 10-pages long, shot over the course of the day, inspired by an argument he had with his wife, Augustine Frizzell. As he says, they were “discussing the plans for our future” and “draw[ing] lines in the sand”; in the moment, he “could see the end of our relationship”, despite calming down and coming to “a very sensible resolution”.

Rooney Mara, M. Mamiya RZ67 / Mamiya-Sekor 90mm / f 2.8 / @kodak Portra 400

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M’s reaction to grief provides a useful counterpoint to Jackie. In Jackie, the First Lady’s grief is overwhelming as she falls apart. But M’s grief is epitomised by binge eating. As a neighbour pops by with a pie wrapped in tin foil, Lowery emphasises isolation and personal space as she consumes the pie within a single shot, before running to the toilet to throw up. The bodily experience – consuming and expelling – summarised within a single scene. Though Mara wanted macaroni cheese or chocolate chip cookies, Lowery let producer James M Johnston to cook a vegan gluten-free, sugar-free chocolate pie. M sits, not wearing shoes, as the ghost remains in the edge of the frame, in the back of her mind, observing events as she reshapes her relationship with the house. Lowery explains in Filmjournal wanting to “feel the sense of loss” as “tangible”, at a “more meaningful level” than “crying her eyes out in bed”, restricting to one take controlled by Mara’s “own volition” without blocking or discussing beforehand. Lowery let Mara draw upon Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), reflecting the book’s exploration of grief “manifest[ing] itself in the most mundane moments.” M must live life with absence, though C remains a presence. Meeting another man, we never get to know about their relationship or her feelings as a character, but the absence speaks volumes.

A Ghost Story is highly symbolic, the same year as Aronofsky confounded viewers through his similar transgression of horror, mother!, utilising allegorical narrative and archetypal characters. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery’s lights carry visual symbolism: the hospital drowned out by reds and blues; the reflecting light in the living room. Lowery asks what meaning objects, people and places we hold onto carry. Like Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story details trace present through paranormal visitations tied to personal mourning. The paranormal is itself about trace, from ghosts in photography in the 1800s, and series like Ghost Hunters (2004-16) seeking to provide videographic proof of a ghost’s existence. Our lives are series of traces, markers towards our presence on Earth left behind. M reads over a book, finding a trace of their relationship within its text: a shared library between a couple, with unspoken symbolic significance granted, no matter how mundane. Between copies of A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Nietzsche, all objects cannot be detached from the life they live. An epigraph drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House (1921) is equally a trace: “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.” Whilst emphasising relationship to physical space, the extract is itself a trace, detached from the work many decades after publication. Cinema depends upon intersection with the present: the act of watching a film, its trace within memory and preservation for future generations.

A Ghost Story has a Malickian element, following from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). As Lowery says of George Washington (2000), he was “influenced by Terrence Malick inasmuch as David Gordon Green was”, reflecting upon the voiceover in Days of Heaven (1978). As Marshall Shaffer parallels to Boyhood and The Tree of Life (2011), time is “elemental” to the production process, from Malick’s elongated edit, Linklater’s decade-long shoot and Lowery’s “furtive” summer, describing Boyhood as “strictly secular”, The Tree of Life as “religious” and A Ghost Story as “nebulously spiritual”. As Shaffer writes, each film depicts time as “both antagonistic and awe-inspiring”, with the “main conflict” being to “hasten its speed, fend off its advances or stop it altogether”.

The nihilistic monologue performed by Prognosticator (Will Oldham) perhaps makes Lowery’s existential philosophy most abundant: a person can make out, or be a labourer, or writer and carry a life of meaning, but the death of the universe and species is scientific fact. As Lowery says in The Verge, Prognosticator is “representative and reflective of my own thought process”. For Lowery, he lays “two-thirds of a pretty good argument”, with the film “[taking] it all the way” to truth and meaning. As he says in Filmjournal, he wanted to “address” his “existential dilemma” and “give myself some degree of relief”. Although Lowery describes himself as “very pragmatic” and subscribing to “some degree of spirituality”, a holdover from his deeply Catholic family and theology professor father, the film is more interested in our relationship with physical space. As he tells The Guardian, the trigger had been Kathryn Schulz’s article The Really Big One, in a heated political climate feeling like “the world was on its way to ending.” Lowery is interested in time before and after, exploring life’s cyclicality. In a flashback to the 1700s, we witness a family settling around a campfire in the 1700s, constructing the foundations of the house. In a cut, the family are murdered by Native Americans; in another, the family are reduced to rotting skeletons. As he says in the commentary, Lowery was assisted by director Shane Carruth, reshaping the film from his initially linear narrative. Lowery reminds us of the youth of the US itself, eliminated from existence within an instant.

Like the documentary Starboard Light, Lowery intersects the personal with physical houses, emerging from Lowery’s own spatial displacement against his personal identity. Speaking in the No Film School interview, Lowery recalls the argument with his wife that inspired the scene between C and M, remembering moving to LA and New Zealand for Pete’s Dragon when his “identity belonged in Texas.” As Tad Friend writes, Lowery grew up in a farmhouse in Irving he was “convinced was haunted”, before being self-diagnosed with “hypnagogic sleep disorder”. Lowery undergoes displacement of body and space, with Friend noting feelings of “being suffocated”. As Shaffer writes, all three films he analyses use Texas as “a spirit from which they can draw history, mythology and weight”, using the state’s “vast and multitudinous expanses” to “ponder the tension between the supreme importance of a given moment and its relative insignificance on a cosmic scale.”

Lowery pays close to natural elements like rain, using the house’s frames to parallel the frame of the film, panning from the window. In flashback, C and M visit properties, guided by an agent. On her laptop, M searches for other properties. Lowery’s use of digital displays leads to, as he describes on the Vox podcast, a contemporary yet elusive period that combines the antiquated and rural, a Macbook appearing but no phone. As he comments, growing up in the 80s he felt connected to an analogue world. In his absence, M packs up boxes, moving out, hiding paper within the walls of the house: securing a record of her existence as the doorframe becomes painted over. The ghost moves through the house as though moving through purgatory, before disappearing into disembodied nothingness by the film’s conclusion. The ghost’s persistent existence might seem a middle finger to Prognosticator’s dismissal of belief, but is this the case?

As Lowery recounts in the No Film School interview, producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston consulted with demolition companies to find “condemned properties”, finding the house’s owners “incredibly generous”, using their granddaughter as “Rooney’s stand-in” and as “one of the pioneers”. We move through time as the house devolves, crushed as paint wears away, a lizard taking over remains of human space. As the house is demolished and the ghost watches on, diggers and construction workers take their place. Watching George Washington, Lowery admired the film’s cinematic language, utilising the walls of cinema and landscapes of the natural world, contrasting open spaces and urban decay with the world’s imperfections. In the house, we sense a similar vibe. As Lowery mentions in the Filmjournal interview, he likes “the idea that when you leave a room” a “little bit of yourself behind”, with the energy transferring from the body in death “exist[ing] in the space you’re in.” Speaking in No Film School, Lowery mentions being “very open” to ghosts existing, but is “content to just wait for [proof] to present itself to me or not”. Working with the team at WETA that helped on Pete’s Dragon, the evolution of the house becomes a reflection of the transformation of the United States itself: the Texan house has become an indistinguishable office block defined by its lack, unnoticeable in its lights and sense of uniformity.

Part of what makes A Ghost Story stand out is visuals. The round edged 1:33:1 frame evokes an old picture developed, carrying archival and historical quality. The rounded frame of cinema has become outmoded, recent restorations of silent classics like Man with a Movie Camera (1929) only now expanding the ratio to glimpse the corners of the frame. As Charlie Lyne explores in his video essay Frames and Containers, repurposing the theories of Eisenstein, the cinematic frame can be manipulated beyond anamorphic widescreen across multiple devices, with films like Mommy adopting a 1:1 aspect ratio. As Lowery elaborates in the No Film School interview, he was drawn to 1:33:1 as a “thematic idea”, trapping the ghost “between four walls”. Lowery was inspired by Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold, emphasising the frame’s artificiality in an era of “widescreen televisions”, creating a “built-in frame”. Shooting on the ALEXA Mini, Lowery had the freedom to shoot widescreen, but chose to pillarbox the screen; as he explains on the Vox podcast, he added the vignette in postproduction as a “contextualizing frame”, commenting upon Instagram’s use of filters. As he mentions in No Film School, the “old photographs in my family albums have curved edges”, images he would view at “family gatherings” on a “slide projector”. Lowery’s evocation of the slide harkens back to a photographic trace of memory, tied directly into family history. Lowery’s frame exists beyond aesthetic: in locked off shots, Lowery pays close attention to the horizon, splitting the image into three sections. In 50mm close-ups upon Mara’s face, Palermo creates a sense of both containment and the personal. 

Lowery creates a compelling visual aesthetic, using off-white greys and blues within the hospital to emphasise unease. But Lowery also uses sound to great effect, working with composer Daniel Hart and his band Dark Rooms to create a haunting aural landscape. Hart combines soundscapes of breathing and heartbeats; through the credits, we hear sounds of children and wind. As Lowery mentions in The Verge, Hart wrote the score when the film was “almost completely locked”, with Lowery cutting “without temp music”, interested in not “[hiding] behind [the] score”, instead wanting the film to “[work] on its own terms”. As Lowery mention in the commentary, Hart incorporated vocal elements from Woolf, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Ecclesiastes 9:5.

The powerfully emotive I Get Overwhelmed cuts across the fabric of time and space itself. In the trailer, the song allows the trailer to relay the entire narrative and substance of the film. The young girl hums as she scribbles and writes, emerging seemingly from nothing and carrying through time after her death, with Lowery dubbing the song in the studio following the Sundance premiere. As C and M tour properties, the tune appears again, carrying a spiritual quality, with C drawn to the piano. As we follow C composing and recording, editing on Garageband, we feel M’s emotion tied into song. Placing her headphones on, we contrast two periods of time: the song, played through speakers, and played through headphones. Through sound, Lowery conveys temporal and spatial displacement perfectly.

As I left the cinema, A Ghost Story was an uneasy experience. I was left emotional and confused, in the midst of an existential crisis. Lowery never reminds us of life’s joy, but life’s meaninglessness. Prognosticator’s speech cuts to the core as the film’s thesis statement, with little in the film offering any alternative perspective or debate. By confronting his crisis, Lowery only exacerbates, unable to come to any conclusion. Belief and knowledge are series of mysteries; a film can never adequately confront these issues and form something definitive. A Ghost Story can only prompt something deeper, but A Ghost Story is not the height of examining existentialist thought within cinema.

Dunkirk (2017), dir. Christopher Nolan


Christopher Nolan might be one of the most recognisable directors this century, establishing an acclaimed body of work in less than two decades, with strong visions and a good base of collaborators. His Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) allowed DC to reclaim cinematic space with one of most successful blockbusters of all time, reconceiving complex mythology within worlds of noir and crime. Nolan had experienced Dunkirk first-hand, sailing across the channel with wife and producer Emma Thomas and friends, a very difficult crossing; the film was shot on the same beach on its 76th anniversary.

One of Nolan’s most interesting innovations is his dedication to physical film and 15/70mm IMAX. Though often associated with experiential, visual documentaries, IMAX has increasingly become a desirable format, beginning with Disney in the early 2000s but expanding with digital projection with The Dark Knight (2008), expanding the ratio during key sequences: sweeping pans over the corporate city, the bank heist, the Batmobile chase and hospital explosion. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) expanded this further, placing the viewer within the baseball stadium, with Nolan continuing with Interstellar (2014); Nolan notes that both Snyder and Abrams have borrowed the IMAX camera from him. But Dunkirk represents a first with the majority of its sequences shot in IMAX.

Speaking in Little White Lies, Nolan argues reduced costs of digital are a “fallacy”; for Nolan, “[e]very digital format so far devised is just an imitation of film”. Though digital can have many applications in lower budget and documentary cinema, Nolan’s use of 70mm makes a reasonable argument for its use in the blockbuster. Nolan is asking existential questions of upholding the cinematic experience in an age of streaming. But neither box office nor the industry follows simple, predictable logic, the films audiences will seek out for the big screen never set in stone. In part, Nolan is seeking nostalgia, retelling World War II history through a filmic method of filmmaking outside the norm, rather than looking towards the future. But cinema must apply a wide variety of styles to have future.

Dunkirk’s physical film offers a complicated question, presented across multiple mediums from widespread release in digital and IMAX projection but only a handful of major cities offering 35mm or 70mm IMAX projection. Watching in London’s Science Museum, its postage stamp shaped screen the size of a wall. The film leads in with digital adverts, perhaps a contradiction to physical film. A preshow video mocks the staginess of Dunkirk’s own era through the artificiality of monochrome in the style of a Ministry of Information video, detailing entrances and exits. As the film concluded, it felt as though we were back in the film itself, surrounded on a floor of RAF planes.

The IMAX aspect ratio (1.43:1), though not exactly Academy, offers a different cinematic experience to anamorphic widescreen: horizons become the middle of the squarer frame. Seaweed and coral become noticeable upon the shoreline; in the cockpit, we notice small details of markings and switches upon Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) spitfire. His head fills the frame, sitting in the cockpit with him. The voyage home and the setting sun towards the conclusion look incredible. For sequences with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Nolan fills the background of the frame with motion and fluidity. As he says in a conversation with his brother Jonathan in the film’s screenplay, Nolan states he wanted to “go back to the silent films that I love” and the “large images and the mass movement of people”, mentioning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)’s “silent-era mechanics”. As Nolan states in the Little White Lies interview, the wider frame “allows you to hold shots longer” giving audiences “time to scan the image”. Nolan’s limited use of dialogue creates an experience that is largely image based, allowing the viewer to focus upon physical motion. As Max Hastings writes, acting is “reminiscent of the silent movie era”, with its actors “merely required to look staunch, stressed, and indomitable at appropriate moments.”

For some sequences, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema carries the 54-pound camera handheld. Through Nolan’s limited digital effects, Nathan Crowley’s matte paintings to disguise the promenade and Hoytema’s visuals create an incredible experience grounded within the materiality of cinema. Although the expanded ratio is often empty space, offering little information not glimpsed within widescreen presentation, the IMAX presentation remains more immersive. Dunkirk’s aesthetics are a gimmick in the best possible meaning, but narrative will always come first. Through the limitations of IMAX’s size and noise, the granular quality of the noise in the Panavision sequences upon the Moonstone conveys a home movie quality to the intimate and fatherly relationship between Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-McCarney) and George (Barry Keoghan). Hoytema’s night-time shots of the dark blue sky upon the ocean carry a haunted quality; Kristin Thompson parallels these images to James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, with “shadowy shapes of buildings or ships or distant shorelines” and a “barely distinguishable horizon line”. Though ratio often changes between scenes, this rarely distracts; shifting aspect ratios are often a useful technique beyond IMAX.

War and conflict unify humanity from man’s emergence; its persistence seems innate. Dunkirk joins a wide canon of films about World War II stretching back to the beginning of the war itself. Working within propaganda, Powell and Pressburger helped define British cinema; as Mark Harris explores in Five Came Back (2014), directors like Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra and Stevens were in combat or filming newsreels and propaganda on American values, pioneering documentary methods through (sometimes fabricated) reports from the frontlines, leaving a profound impact on each man. But as Nolan notes in his Little White Lies interview, newsreels interpose “a camera between the audience and the subject”. Post-war waves like Italian neorealism took film into the ruined streets. War epics of the 50s and 60s, often in Technicolor, presented a specific image of wartime heroism, British kids coming of age in the 60s and 70s exposed to the mythbuilding of comic series like Commando (1961-present) and Battle Picture Weekly (1975-88); American readers had Sgt Fury (1963-81) and Sgt Rock (1952-88). Its same techniques became part of the wartime aesthetic of Star Wars (1977).

Relationship to war was generational, connected to the immediate lives of parents. World War II reshaped values, borders, philosophy and state of being. Unlike conflicts of today, soldiers had been conscripted willingly or unwillingly into battle. But World War II continues to find narratives. With so many, lives and testimonies documenting every story would be impossible. But we should remember these narratives: though 77 years have passed, it is still living history in parents, grandparents and great grandparents, beyond abstract facts and statistics in textbooks outside of their context.

As Lynne Olson writes in Last Hope Island (2017), through the end of May 1940, Allied losses were “escalating” and troops were in “retreat”, with Churchill offering “material assistance” to French troops as the Belgian army took the “brunt” of the Blitzkrieg and surrendered to Germany. The threat was existential. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the events lasted 9 days, between 27th May and 4th June. As Hastings writes, the film offers no “historical background”, never referencing Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. As he tells in Little White Lies, Nolan drew upon eyewitness testimony to create a sense of immediacy. Speaking about A Bridge Too Far (1977), a multinational anti-war film depicting the defeat and sadness of the 1944 campaign, Nolan argues the representation of German High Command takes him “out of the experience”, creating too wide a scale to geopolitical events. As David Bordwell typifies of genre conventions, “Big Maneuver” films create a sense of “briefing rooms fitted out with maps and models of the terrain”, with a vast cast “played by instantly recognizable stars”. A Bridge Too Far can barely fit its cast onto its poster. Hastings praises Nolan for “declining to include even a token American […] showing the stupid English how battles should be fought”; as he concludes, drawing upon his analysis of Saving Private Ryan (1998), “if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.”

Nolan drew upon a well-documented period with conflicting feelings and observations. As Bordwell writes, Nolan’s interest in “subjectivity” follows war fiction, noting the “first-person present tense” of All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and the “jumbled memories” in Catch-22 (1961). Films like Ivan’s Childhood (1962) focuses the end of the war through the perspective of a young boy, whilst Overlord (1975), drawing upon archival footage, constructs a new narrative within the intimate life of an everyman soldier through training, his relationship with his girlfriend and the D-Day landings. Although Dunkirk is interested in “immediacy”, it remains a testament to scale: Nolan worked with marine and aerial units and 1300 extras, planes, props and Spitfires, working alongside marine construction to create a destroyer. Actors immersed themselves, eating corned beef on set.

Nolan’s interest in immersion requires attention to detail: soldiers lined up; a leaked container washing up on shore; Tommy’s base human needs, crouching down to take a shit before burying a body in the sand. In aerial shots, we witness black smoke emanating from the coast. Ships and bodies float in the water, untethered; on the boat, soldiers eat limited supplies of jam and tea. As the vessel sinks, bodies become charred as fire erupts in water. (Hastings notes 6 of the 39 destroyers sunk, with two thirds of men returning home on big ships.) Nolan avoids depicting decaying corpses, spilling blood, split fragments of brains: stretchers and helmets upon the beach say enough. As Nolan tells Little White Lies, Dunkirk is not a war film but a “survival story”, grounded within the present tense. Nolan is interested in human action, depicting routine and process upon the Moonstone: tethering rope, breaking glass windows, moving the wheel, depicting unrelenting tension.

Dunkirk is about defeat, but it is also about resilience. As his plane flies low, Farrier must accept his own death: he sets his plane aflame, captured by Germans; Hastings notes 41,000 British troops were captured. 338,226 soldiers were evacuated, including 193,000 British and over 100,00 French, with 11,000 British and 50,000 French dead. As soldiers are boarded onto trains, blankets offer respite, handed cans of beer through the window and lauded as heroes. But Nolan isn’t interested in cheering crowds. This exchange best summarises the film:

“All we did is survive.”

“That’s enough.”

But the events that follow hide an even greater cost. As Hastings writes, though the film suggests “the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches”, the British dispatched divisions of British and Canadian troops back to France. France was on the verge of armistice with Germany: as Dominic Tierney writes, a proposal passed parliament on June 16th proposing a Franco-British Union, laying the “seeds of the European integration project”, proposing “joint control of defense, foreign policy, finance, and economic policy” and a united parliament. As Hastings writes, “Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone”, allying with the USSR and US in 1941. The British army never fully recovered, the “effectively disarmed” by lost equipment and unable to “face a major European battlefield” until American assistance and tanks in 1944.

Nolan contrasts the wider scale of war with his human subjects. Though Nolan has been criticised for his lack of minority troops, we glimpse black soldiers as soldiers line up. In the opening, we follow Tommy running through the streets and climbing over fences, telling forces under fire he’s one of them, although Hastings notes there was “no ground fighting”. Whitehead drew upon stories he’d heard from his granddad serving in Korea and Burma. Nolan is interested in comradeship: Alex (Harry Styles) follows a long line of pop stars like David Bowie and Mick Jagger who transitioned into cinema, but Styles never really acts, unable to offer much for One Direction fans besides his face. Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) faces constant otherising, suspected as a spy and dismissed as “sauerkraut sauce” under a heated moment, threatened with a gun. From the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Captain Winnant (James D’Arcy) embody the film’s representation of authority, lost without clear guidance. (Hastings notes “the mole”, given the title of this section, is an “old term for a pier or jetty”.) As Olson writes, Churchill reacted to events with “shock and confusion”, troops and officers left “dazed”. As she writes, “the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function”, phone and supply lines cut, commanders only able to communicate through “personal visits.”

The section with Dawson, Peter and George plays as a Boy’s Own adventure, everyday people doing their bit, schoolboys enlisted to fight and needing to mature fast. Hastings notes Dawson’s similarity to Charles Lightoller, “a former officer on the Titanic” who saved 120 men on the Sundowner, aged 66, alongside “his son and a friend”. The crew must deal with the war’s personal effects; Peter tells Collins (Jack Lowden) that his brother died in the “third week into the war” flying Hurricanes. As Kristin Thompson writes, Nolan withholds this information, the viewer “inclined to sympathize with people in trouble” without needing “to motivate his decision”. As George’s loss is revealed to a teacher in sorrow, he becomes martyred in the newspaper. As Nolan reveals in his conversation with Jonathan, he drew upon accounts of young people who went to Dunkirk, finding it “very sad” in the way they were “memorialized” as “heroes” when their “life’s been cut short”. Farrier flies in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe in his Spitfire, with a cameo from Michael Caine communicating through the intercom, though Hastings notes aerial conflict happened thousands of feet in the air, “invisible to those on the ground or at sea”.

Through his multiplicity of voices, Nolan wanted to create a “constant reminder” that there is a “story that we’re not getting to hear”, embodying a representative experience through individual, physical and geographical dilemmas. Dunkirk’s effectiveness is elevated by its techniques, Hans Zimmer’s score elevating the sense of tension. Without using World War II-era music, Nolan creates a deeper sense of the immediate beyond cliché, utilising the illusive clocklike sound of a Shepard tone to place the viewer within the moment, aided by Richard King’s sound design. In his conversation with Jonathan, Nolan recalls the “relentless” synchronised sound of All Quiet on the Western Front, with its “shelling scene” going on “much longer than you can take.” War films like Saving Private Ryan equally use sound to great effect, bullets hitting American soldiers upon the beaches of Normandy, recreated with a sense of minute-by-minute precision. Hastings draws a parallel between Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, “wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes.”

Nolan’s manipulation of narrative structure is a hallmark, Following (1998) and Memento (2000) inverting its sequence whilst maintaining a linear structure. The Prestige (2006)’s focus on an alternative perspective to how we look at things is only an extension, whilst Inception questions the narratives embodied within dreams. Dunkirk makes its structure obvious, anchoring text for each section between air, land and sea, and intercutting between each. Though Bordwell notes each section “could have been presented as separate blocks”, Nolan creates “parallels” and “convergence” without utilising an “onscreen calendar or clock” or “explicit markers”. Nolan drew upon the impressionism and poetry of The Thin Red Line (1998), pointing to its nihilism. Nolan found author James Jones’ essay in Criterion’s booklet “quite sobering” as he wrote the script, outlining the “story models” of the war film and “shred[ding] them all” in contrast to personal experience beyond supposed virtuosity. The triptych structure bears comparison to the episodic delineation of Moonlight, each section given its own unique yet connecting identity. Though presented in a new way, it is far from radical, manipulating the confines of cinema but without anything substantial or innovative in its place. Nolan’s structure is an exercise in simplicity striving to create complexity.

The film’s immediacy allows a unique relationship with temporality, both to strength and detriment. In From Here to Eternity (1953), set against the onset of Pearl Harbour, each soldier’s life is driven by their relationship with women; Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) places Steve’s wartime sacrifice within the context of Peggy’s loss. Abstract values of freedom and democracy become embodied within human heroes. Films like Hacksaw Ridge issue a reckoning with belief in God and pacifism, carrying forward in war through faith through the life of Desmond Doss. But the characters of Dunkirk have no desires nor dreams to focus audience interest. Though rooting for survival, lack of deeper character makes it difficult to understand where these characters came from, or where these characters are going. Context is understood in fragments: a flyer falling from the sky; a commander and captain without routes of communication; Churchill’s iconic speech is presented not as radio broadcast but in press the following day. As Tommy melancholy reads aloud from the paper upon the train home, cut across montages of each arc, we sense how truly in the dark our characters are. As the train passes, the opportunity to gain knowledge could disappear in seconds.

Perceptions of war relied upon information available, filtered through propaganda and what the Ministry of Information was willing to reveal. At home, the war had become seen as the ‘Phoney War’. Before the Holocaust, wider purposes could not be fully grasped with, though visible in pieces. But Nolan never offers an alternative perspective, Germans an unseen spectre haunting from the fringes, more imagined than real. Though Nolan’s influences are anti-war, Dunkirk’s lack of deeper character and context creates a film entirely neutral. Although Nolan acknowledges loss, the film is malleable, shaped for what its viewers seek to see within. For Nigel Farage, the film becomes a plea for the young generation. As Hastings writes, the film “feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union”; he “half-expected Foreign Secretary [Boris] Johnson” to “hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel”. Dunkirk might not be a film about Churchill’s imperialism and genocide, but its neutrality places us within war and nowhere else.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), dir. D.W. Griffith


The Birth of a Nation is the worst film ever made.

Maybe this is controversial. The cover to the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, mimicking original promotional materials, brazenly declares the “8th wonder of the world”, alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In a contemporary review in Variety, Mark Vance described “a great epoch in picture making”. D.W. Griffith held enormous power in early cinema, producing 1-2 films per week, accumulating 400 one-reelers for Biograph. Before the studio system, cinema was driven by independents. In the footsteps of Edison and Porter, Griffith’s name is inescapable, his light bulb logo appearing on every intertitle. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen (1905), a version had been in development in Kinemacolour, but Griffith’s film represented a paradigm shift, helping to establish the United States as a major production centre, developed under the Aitkens on a $40,000 budget and 6 weeks of rehearsal. The Birth of a Nation distinguished itself from nickelodeons as a 12-reel film screened in theatres and opera houses, its screening in Los Angeles’ Clune’s Auditorium on February 8th held under heavy police guard. The film became a perennial success: in his essay Do Movies Have Rights?, published in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louis Menand notes the film reached an audience of 100 million people between 1915 and 1926 (2006:200).

But The Birth of a Nation’s release was tumultuous, just as The Clansmen’s play sparked riots in Atlanta and was banned in Philadelphia and Boston. As Dorian Lynskey documents, censors acknowledged the film’s racist content, situated in a debate alongside the “moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice” in cinema. As Brian Willan notes in his essay ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931 in Journal of Southern African Studies 39(3), Birth was released across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, but suppressed in France and South Africa (2013:624). As Menand writes, censorship was at the behest of authorities, banned in Minneapolis, Ohio, Newark, St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis but largely “overturned in court” (2006:184).

Although multiple individuals opposed, opposition was hardly unified; Griffith’s response to a critical editorial in the New York Globe emphasised the intelligence of “theater-goers” over the “organized attacks of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics”. The NAACP, founded in 1909, had a membership of 5000 and a white-dominated leadership; but, as Stephen Weinberger writes in his essay The Birth of a Nation and the Making of the NAACP in Journal of American Studies 45(1), the film “helped transform the association in ways no one could have imagined”, shifting to national issues as the film “moved from major population centers to smaller ones” (2011:92). As Weinberger highlights, opposition continued into the Civil Rights Movement, disrupting 50th anniversary screenings (2011:77).

Released upon the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War, The Birth of a Nation followed a wave of one-reelers that, as David Shepard comments in The Making of the Birth of a Nation (1993), focused upon the suffering of war. As America’s most recent national war, the Civil War was a part of national mythmaking. The son of a confederate officer, Griffith touched upon his own history. Before the historical epics and blockbusters of later decades, The Birth of a Nation embraces extravagance, telling a long and complex period of history over several years. Although focusing upon the lives of the Camerons and Stonemans, excursions are long: purple-tinted sequences follow Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers; as officials leave, he places his hands on his head, and prays, moving forward to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre during a production of Our American Cousin. Griffith positions the assassination through Elsie and Phil Stoneman, watching towards the stage through binoculars; Booth appears with his gun with the stillness of a photograph, as though a portrait from the time.

Griffith offers dedication to detail, drawing upon lithographs and photographs. Griffith aggressively references intertitles with footnotes, detailing key dates. Griffith acknowledges each set as “historical facsimile”, drawing the Wilmer McLean home from Campaigning with Grant (1897) and the executive office and theatre from Lincoln, a History (1890). Griffith excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), a college companion of Dixon’s often cited as declaring the film as “writing history with lightning”, though Lynskey highlights Wilson denying approving an “unfortunate production”. Joseph Carl Breil’s score utilises music familiar to the Civil War. As Gordon Thomas writes, Griffith wanted historical films to “operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation”, whilst remaining entertainment.

In his exploration of the Piedmont-based Camerons, Griffith appeals to nostalgia for a life that, per the intertitles, “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more”, elder sister Margaret “trained in the manners of the old school”, creating a green tinted image of Victorian extravagance in home and costume. As Thomas writes, Griffith taps into the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, imagining a “pastoral paradise eradicated by the war”. A kindly master pets numerous cats and dogs; Griffith tries to endear with suitors and romance, creating scale in his interfamily romance. Looking at Elsie’s life in Washington, Griffith moves inside the House of Representatives, creating political intrigue prefiguring decades of political thrillers as Austin Stoneman pushes abolition. Griffith injects comedy: Austin is constantly in need of adjusting his wig.

The Birth of a Nation might be best known for its representation of the KKK, but its racist images penetrate more deeply. Griffith traces slavery’s history: in the opening, we observe a young boy surrounded by leering traders, Griffith’s intertitle stating the “bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We move into the courthouse of abolitionists; the slave peers out, desperate, helpless. On the cotton fields, we focus upon white men as Ben admires an image of Elsie, black men back of the frame, barely seen, never acknowledging the human trauma, suffering and dehumanisation explored in films like 12 Years a Slave (2013). The products of their labour become Southern ermine, worn without acknowledging their source. In their 2-hour interval for dinner, slaves are celebrating, dancing and clapping in unending joy.

Griffith’s Reconstruction is rooted in deep racism: offered enfranchisement, a freedman votes twice, peering to the audience as white officials are oblivious, when voter ID laws continue to disenfranchise black voters; intertitles state “the ignorant” are misusing the “charity of a generous North”. In the South Carolina legislature, Griffith pushes the ludicrous: black officials rest their feet without shoes, swig from the bottle, eat fried chicken; the speaker rules all members must wear shoes, an image Kevin Brownlow notes in his essay We Can Never Censor the Past is drawn from a political cartoon; motions suggest intermarriage and white salutes. As Thomas notes, Birth follows the ideology of “the Dunning school”, following the concept of “negro incapacity” of blacks as “childlike beings”. In one of the most ubiquitous images, Flora Cameron is pursued by the animalism of Gus, played in blackface, jumping to her death from a cliff at threat of marriage. Gus becomes another black victim lynched by the KKK, rallying a mob. In The Clansmen, Dixon Jr. is more explicit, depicting a mother and daughter who commit suicide after being raped by a gang of blacks. In drunken fervour, Silas Lynch speaks of revolution, building a Black Empire on the streets, coercing Elsie into marriage. Black characters become caricatures, “black trash” in accented intertitles. Griffith defended his representation of “faithful Negroes who stayed with their former masters and were ready to give up their lives to protect their white friends”, alluding to characters like blackface servant Mammy.

In the intertitles to the 1921 reissue, Griffith rebuffs calls for censorship, arguing for the “liberty” granted to “the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Intolerance (1916) is but an affirmation: as William M. Drew writes in the Masters of Cinema booklet, Griffith was dramatizing “consequences of attempts by powerful forces to control human thought and behavior”, emphasising his right to hold his beliefs. In The Birth of a Nation, the KKK is normalised, traced prior to their dissolution as a terrorist organisation in 1871 and their actions during the Civil Rights Movement and today. The confederate flag persists in the banal, used to wipe a woman’s face. White women become complicit in their persistence, stitching together KKK costumes. Griffith sets their arrival to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (1870): purple-tinted silhouettes march across the hills; on horseback, we feel their speed as they carry the cross, intercut against Lynch’s intimations of intermarriage. The Birth of the Nation isn’t state-produced in the same way as Triumph of the Will (1936) or October (1928), but it is propaganda, understanding the power of images in crafting political narrative. Just as the aesthetics of propaganda have become lauded for contributions to cinematic language, so too have those innovated by Griffith.

White supremacy cannot be divorced from The Birth of a Nation. In an intertitle, the KKK describe themselves as an “unconquered race” of “old Scotland’s hills”; another intertitle states their “Aryan birthright”; a flag declares how the confederacy is just, for “VICTORY OR DEATH”. Vance’s review seems to make Griffith’s intended audience clear, appraising how his “picture would please all white classes.” The Birth of a Nation only strengthens a toxic ideology, even within miscegenation laws that refused to allow white women to play against black actors on film or on stage, anti-immigration rhetoric and a climate supporting eugenics as a viable solution within philosophical and scientific though.

With The Clansmen and his Reconstruction Trilogy (1902-07), Dixon Jr. intended to “teach the north” about “the awful suffering of the white man”, anointed by “Almighty God” to reign “supreme”. Lynskey highlights a quote included in an NAACP pamphlet where Dixon Jr. describes his intention to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people” and “prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood”, seeking “all Negroes removed from the United States.” In scenes present in the premiere under the title The Clansmen, excised from the finished cut, Menand describes scenes of “white women being abducted by black rapists”, a declaration that Lincoln “did not believe in racial equality” and a closing scene described as “Lincoln’s solution”, depicting the deportation of blacks to Africa (2006:185).

Although Brownlow notes “dispute about whether the film led to the revival of the Ku Klu[x] Klan or whether that was a result of the Great War”, Lynskey comments that the resurrected Klan based its logo “on a still from the movie”, describing its first public appearance at the Atlanta premiere, publicists using KKK emblazoned hats and aprons to promote the film; the KKK utilised the film for recruitment. Though the Klan initially had a few thousand members, the organisation grew to 100,000 by 1921 and 2-5 million by 1925, though dropping off by the end of the decade. As Joshua Rothman describes, the Klan became “superficially innocuous” with a sense of “patriotic respectability” and fraternity, appealing to middle classes with “festivities, pageants, and social gatherings”, alongside “baseball teams and beautiful-baby contests”, “charity drives”, “Christmas parties for orphans” and “wedding ceremonies, christenings and funerals”.

America was founded on manifest destiny. Though the passage of time from The Birth of a Nation might call for a sense of historical detachment, white supremacy remains potent, with the white supremacy rally at Charlottesville occurring without police intervention, creating a gathering place for neo-Nazis and the KKK. As Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies (2017), online culture of sites like 4Chan encourage a transgressive, nihilistic culture embedded within the alt-right and anti-Semitism. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his article The First White President, Trump is a white supremacist with no “black facsimile”, supporting a “white coalition” beyond the white working class, as the country refuses to accept its “bloody heirloom” of racism that remains “at the heart of this country’s political life.”

Although Dixon Jr.’s writing contained intimations of racial war, The Birth of a Nation is profoundly anti-war. Though early scenes show the happiness of marching off to war, with the pageantry of cheers and drums (later contrasted by the KKK’s same march upon horseback), Griffith is depicting a march towards death. We follow Ben into the battlefields, receiving a letter from his big sister two and a half years after he departed. Through the perspective of a family, Griffith allows us to view the war’s effects over time. We follow the Cameron brothers, Wade and Duke, and Tod Stoneman, joining the regiment, entering battles like the Battle of Bull Run. Griffith depicts the sense of sheer panic at the arrival of guerrilla raids and black regiments, white residents running inside for shelter. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer pans the film’s solitary camera across the battlefield, surveying destruction and smoke, witnessing its scale from overhead. Griffith holds the camera upon bodies of dead soldiers, refusing to look away; as Thomas parallels, reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the battle of Petersburg. As Brownlow notes, production began a month before the outbreak of World War I, on 4th July 1914, with Griffith believing its “pacifist message […] might even stop the war”, the intertitle preceding the 1921 release announcing its intent to convey the “ravages” and “abhorrence” of war. Willan notes opposition from British censors to some sequences of war.

Moving into a hospital, Griffith allows us to witness war’s effects. As Richard Brody writes, Griffith offers “humanly profound moments” in “universal circumstances”, praising his “breathtaking shot” of a “huddling mother and children” and the “harrowing and exalted grandeur” of a “classical moment of tragedy.” The conclusion, much like Intolerance’s ending upon a spiritual plane, follows romance towards a double honeymoon, taking a train carriage to sunset by the beach; couples dream of a “golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.” As characters merge, a Messianic image of Jesus appears avowing peace, a scene Vance speculates will “in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah.”

The Birth of a Nation has persisted in part for its legacy upon the cinematic medium. But silent cinema has a vast canon of innovators beyond Griffith, acting equally and far more deeply into radicalism, each effort growing what cinema can do. The Birth of a Nation uses an impressive array of effects, reconfiguring the temporality of editing by intercutting between scenes. Griffith’s use of the circular frame allows for a kinetic cinema, displaying different or multiple parts of the frame to be revealed at a certain time, focusing in upon the romantic meeting by the pond in “Love Valley”, parts of the battlefield or moving out from the gallery during Lincoln’s assassination. In certain scenes, the colour tinting pierces the eye alongside Griffith’s use of silhouettes, depicting the power of bonfire celebrations. Through textual documents, Griffith relays narrative through letters and newspaper headlines, immersing the viewer within a multifaceted world. Griffith’s commitment to staging is shown through gesture and small movements; dancing is given a sense of motion, moving in the dancehall with the array of people.

But we should reckon with The Birth of a Nation’s legacy. The Birth of a Nation persisted with Dixon Jr.’s lost The Fall of a Nation (1916) released the following year; by 1930, it had been issued in sound, a prologue featuring Griffith and Lincoln. Menand points to the Aitkens’ efforts to produce a remake, trying to lure a “broken and broke” Griffith and Dixon in the 1930s and another in 1954, unable to secure financing (2006:200). Brody speculates why there was “no movie documentary in which former slaves bore witness to their experience” a la Shoah (1985), or “a full and classic drama about the agonies of slaves in the prewar South, and the full measure of horrific exactions by the Klan and the decades of Jim Crow.” But Hollywood’s at counter responses largely floundered, with Lynskey highlighting a screenplay that never materialised as a finished film between the NAACP and Universal, Lincoln’s Dream; The Birth of a Race (1918), set back by white financiers, devolved from a 3 hour epic response to a film about World War I, with only directors like Oscar Michaeux filling the void. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) sought to reclaim the title for African-American empowerment and struggle, only to be set back by emerging testimony of sexual assault.

Before watching The Birth of a Nation, my least favourite film had been Catwoman (2004), itself about an empowered black female. Of course, Catwoman has an impact upon our own world, representative of the heroes we celebrate and allow budgets for. But Catwoman’s innumerable flaws of plot, character and style have no immediate bearing compared to the persistence of ideologies of white supremacy and the subhumanization of racial minorities. Aesthetic form cannot be detached from content; the two together form a message. The Birth of a Nation is irredeemable, unable to be celebrated. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t deserve exhilaration: it deserves great sadness.

12 Angry Men (1957), dir. Sidney Lumet


Adapted from Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay, broadcast on CBS’ Studio One (1948-58) and directed by Franklin J Schaffner, 12 Angry Men has transcended its origins to become a cornerstone. Produced by renowned actor Henry Fonda for $350,000 through the independent Orion-Nova and distributed through United Artists, 12 Angry Men was emblematic of an emerging wave of low-budget independent film, as cinema reconfigured its relationship with television. Nominated for an Academy Award, 12 Angry Men barely had a chance to find an audience, with its New York premiere at Loew’s Flagship only having the first few rows filled, running only a week.

Courtroom dramas extend deeply, across cinema, television, documentary, tabloids and fiction. But 12 Angry Men is unique for its use of the confined space of the jury room, without interruption, an outgrowth of the live television limitations of the teleplay, requiring a balance of staging, blocking and performance. One of Sidney Lumet’s early teleplays (alongside Rose), Tragedy in a Temporary Town (1956), produced for the strand The Alcoa Hour (1955-57) makes this confinement clear, reducing an entire community to the artifice of a set. Neither was 12 Angry Men the first film to utilise limitations of space, from the one-frame narratives of early silent cinema, Hitchcock’s pioneering in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954), the confined houses of Saw (2004) and Carnage (2011), and the military-under-fire of Buried (2010). Whereas TV’s confinement is inherent, broadcast to a box in a living room, cinema offers expansion. But as Thane Rosenbaum notes, audiences expected “gunfights in the mountainous Wild West or leading men and women falling in love in exotic places”.

12 Angry Men is intensely visual: small details of law and action are not just narrated, but acted out; characters move around the room, examining details of the knife within evidence, diagrams and staging the movements of a witness across the room. With only a window to the outside world, the pounding summer storm heightens the intensity of the room, reflecting the room’s internal strife. But 12 Angry Men’s space isn’t just the courtroom, but setting: New York City. As Stephen E. Bowles writes in Sidney Lumet: A Guide to References and Resources, Lumet had been “a product of New York’s east side” (1979:4); through his filmmaking, he “helped establish New York City as a major production center long before it became fashionable” (1979:3). Just as the television industry behind CBS had been driven by New York, as Rosenbaum notes, the film was shot in New York, with most of its actors, largely from stage and television, emerging from the New York School of filmmaking that drew attention to “social consciousness” and “realism”.

Rose’s teleplay had been drawn from his own experience from a manslaughter case. Over the summer, I sat on a jury for a couple of weeks. 12 Angry Men quickly became a talking point, some recalling watching it in law class and the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The social space of the court returns each day with the regularity as school or work. An entire world exists within artificial barriers, concrete and wooden panels remnants of the 70s; the courtroom an odd hybrid of technology, testimony relayed through DVD-Rs and Skype. Phones turned off or left behind in the jury room, every fag break offering interlude. My confinement had been exacerbated through social anxiety: waiting to be assigned for a case whilst reading in excess, unable to bond with an assembly of strangers and a jigsaw puzzle. The outside world offers strange release: a return to nature, a bus back home, a connection to the social internet. The jury is built through the repetition of routine, with its set of customs and expectations, costumes and wigs. I sat, as my thoughts wandered.

12 Angry Men’s main protagonists initially refuse to engage with process, formulating an immediate conclusion, desiring a return to normality as quickly as possible, passing time with charades or tic-tac-toe. 12 Angry Men allows us to doubt certainty, questioning the fallibility of memory and testimony: the question of the last film you watched at what time; the woman across the street, who probably couldn’t see without glasses; the narrative constructed within the case. The suspect, an 18-year-old kid from the slums threatened with death, allows a degree of social consciousness, exploring not only justice but class and ghettoisation. In Tragedy in a Temporary Town, Lumet engaged with similar issues, exploring mob justice among the underprivileged, the rape of a teenage girl and a Puerto-Rican suspect. As Rosenbaum writes, both Lumet and Rose were “children of the Great Depression” who understood the feeling of “the other” whilst believing in the American Dream.

Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of 12 Angry Men is its length. Lumet relays the film’s narrative in real time throughout the 90-minute narrative. But deliberation was never brief, nor were we seeking to get out of quickly, stretching on days. Each day might pass quickly, living by moving hands of the clock upon the wall, lunch breaks, teas and coffees and mid-afternoon’s close, but time freezes in the deliberation room, words spoken and repeated until the mouth can barely say another word. By day’s end, I sit back on the sofa, drained, unable to do much else, scenes and testimony playing through my mind at night. I still get flashbacks.

The centre of 12 Angry Men is a commitment to truth. The oath, even among non-believers, carries power: truth not only to man’s world and society, family and the law, but the spiritual world. But absolute truth is difficult, if impossible, to formulate: jotting down notes, recording key quotes and details, highlighting written evidence. Weighing evidence is hard: what justifications we conjecture, what should be emphasised, what should be thrown out, what doesn’t make sense? The verdict was some of the deepest tension I’ve ever experienced: anxiety in my stomach rising, sipping water in dread, looking down at my feet. I played a small role in altering the path of a life separate from my own. It’s an uneasy burden to hold.

The opening pan in the courtroom establishes the film’s jurors in equal standing, each with their own part; the suspect sits, unspeaking. But each man has distinguishing characteristics beyond names: hats and ties, the scrawl of their handwriting on each ballots. Each character has individual goals, like a baseball game in the evening, and occupations: a football coach, stockbroker, architect, labourers and advertising executives, from the youth of the dissenting juror 8 (Henry Fonda) to the age of juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney), reprising his role from the television production. Within the jury room, they establish freeform democracy, electing foreman and process. Ballots and hands offer anonymity, beyond the openness as each character mentions private lives. Through the film’s 2 weeks of rehearsals and 19-day shoot, Lumet allows performances to carry through the film’s moral questions, both in interactions and monologues. We root for characters from personalities: bluntness, charisma, ideas. As Drew Casper notes in his audio commentary, the lack of make-up allows realism to carry through. Both cinematographer Boris Kaufman, having refined his style in the avant-garde expressions of Jean Vigo and the documentary observations of John Grierson, and editor Carl Lerner allow rhythm in composition and pace, drawing attention to each character.

The jury is arbitrary: assembled through electoral register, defined by their decision to determine the future of the country as a cross-section of the populous. I expected to be alone amid a sea of adults, but the modern jury is representative beyond the largely white men of 12 Angry Men: young adults, the middle-aged, the retired, each bringing their own experiences from their work, their lives, values and beliefs, women refracting their own perspectives. I barely remember anyone’s names. The anonymity of Lumet’s jury rings true, each juror reduced to nameless archetype defined by face, voice and look. From the courtroom, I construct a film within my mind. The television becomes a frame-within-a-frame. My eye line darts, moving between judge, defence, prosecution and witness. As I leave the room, I keep my head down, still offering a brief look at the face of the accused as I pass. An entire life becomes perception and construct, grounded within what can be revealed over a few days.

The Graduate (1967), dir. Mike Nichols


The Graduate is one of the greatest films ever made. Landing with Embassy in summer 1965, The Graduate was a major success, opening in 950 cinemas and grossing $35 million dollars; Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director. In a 1968 press release, producer Joseph E. Levine described the film’s success as “like an explosion, a dam bursting”, predicting the film would become “the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history”. But The Graduate was equally shaped by the experimentation emerging from the French New Wave, on the cusp of the emergence of New Hollywood amid transformations in technology, film schools and American counterculture. As Mark Harris explores in Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood (2009), aging executives and the commercial failure of big budget family friendly musical spectacles like Doctor Dolittle left room for new voices. But as Nicholas Godfrey writes, many of New Hollywood’s lesser-known works display “formal and thematic adventurousness that far exceeds the ambition of the films now typically identified with the New Hollywood canon”, offering “stylistic maximalism” and “politicised self-critique”; the influence of Godard is “difficult to perceive”, accounting to a “general loosening of intellectual shackles”.

The Graduate was shaped directly by its period. Nichols had directly engaged with the Civil Rights Movement: as he tells in Mike Nichols: An American Master (2016), he performed with Elaine May at Selma, recalling the 20,000 marchers and people fainting. Jacob R. Brackman describes in his illuminating New Yorker piece the “national nervous breakdown”. In his 1987 audio commentary for the Criterion laserdisc, Howard Suber notes a scripted deleted scene with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) hitchhiking.

“Why aren’t you there?” the man would have asked, again and again, referring to, but significantly never mentioning the word “Vietnam”.

“Because I’m here,” Ben would have replied.

As Frank Rich notes, the characters are “uniformly upper-middle-class (or wealthier) and white”; Benjamin never smoked pot and doesn’t fear the draft; Berkeley’s students are “unreconstructed frat guys” from “the Eisenhower fifties”. Brackman offers a different picture, celebrating the film’s “look of today”, arguing the Berkeley students aren’t from a “dozen years ago”. But as Harris writes, “Eisenhower was barely out of office when Webb had first gotten the idea for his novel” (2009:122); Doris Day and Reagan were considered for the Robinsons.

Upon release, The Graduate created a cultural conversation. As Harris describes, “the film’s release marked the first time in many years that so many American moviegoers had felt the direct sting of a generational insult” (2009:381), becoming a hit amid college students and baby boomers, no longer relying on the epics and musicals their parents chose for them (2009:382). As Suber notes, what was new was “how many people there were”; Braddock’s peer group had increased by 60%, the amount of college students doubling. Writing in Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner notes students at Columbia University in spring 1968 “took turns sneaking out of the occupied president’s office to go see The Graduate”. But some objected to the lack of radicalism; as Brackman comments, the “subversive message” is that you “cannot sustain an opposition to America”; youth must “find someone to submit with”.

A 21 year-old graduate from Williams College, the same college author Charles Webb graduated from, Benjamin Braddock conduits the anxieties and uncertainties of drifting in an uncertain world. According to Harris, Nichols saw Braddock as “Holden Caulfield’s literary descendant” (2009:50), over a decade after The Catcher in the Rye (1951). As screenwriter Buck Henry tells Harris, him, producer Lawrence Turman and Nichols saw themselves as the “protagonist of the book” (2009:119). But Hoffman’s casting was controversial: speaking in American Film in 1979, Levine thought Hoffman was a “plumber who had come to fix the leaks” (2009:276). Hoffman returned to New York registering for unemployment (2009:311). Speaking in a 2007 commentary with director Steven Soderbergh, Nichols described Hoffman’s as “organic”; he never contemplated “changing anything” in the industry of stars.

Benjamin’s awkwardness and isolation is rarely captured on film. Hoffman “worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera”, shaking through “the entire movie” (2009:311). In a deleted scene from the screenplay, Benjamin is shown giving his valedictorian speech (2009:291), but Nichols introduces Benjamin as an emptier slate. In the opening, we pan out from Ben upon the airplane, as the intercom announces their descent. He stands in isolation, down the escalator against the white wall; luggage reiterates his isolation, asking if the tags match, when Ben has no match of his own. At his parent’s house in Pasadena, this isolation becomes pronounced. Family friends list off awards and accolades: a track star, the college newspaper, debating club. Mr McGuire attempts to seduce Benjamin, suggesting a career in plastics. Suber notes a deleted scene from the screenplay where a “miniature set” depicted mute adults as “giants” hosting a dinner party. But his life is his own. The camera moves through upstairs, drifting through like Ben. Production designer Richard Sylbert achieves genius in Benjamin’s room: a fish tank, dartboard, model ships, sailboats and a globe, juxtaposing an outgrown childlike sense of play and yearning for escape; a framed picture of a sad clown in the corridor reflects his inner state. In reflections upon the glass aquarium, Buck Henry sought to convey “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in synch with” (2009:314).

But perhaps one of the most well executed elements is its use of the family pool as communal space. In his commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols recalls conflict with Turman over the scene in the wetsuit, wanting to create an image of Hoffman as a “creature in the corner”. Shot through an Aeroflex camera, we follow Benjamin through first person perspective, forced into the water by his parents. As Suber parallels, both The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) encased its protagonists in “technological apparatus”, focusing on “deep, aspirated breathing” to reflect “a combination of terror, isolation and imminent suffocation”. The Graduate is built by images; as Harris notes in Scenes from a Revolution, Sylbert wanted a “colder, more muted palette” that “refract[ed] Los Angeles through a prism of East Coast amusement”, photographing “every ostentatious new faux-whatever mansion with a swimming pool” in Beverly Hills they could find. One deleted scene from the script panned out in a helicopter to reveal 30 identical homes and pools. Speaking in a 2007 audio commentary with Katharine Ross, Hoffman comments he “had been born into a generation not dissimilar to this”, his father a Depression baby embracing materialism and consumerism; Nichols and Hoffman wanted to depict drowning around the “worship of objects”. Benjamin must negotiate his relationship with his parents: he sits by the pool sunglasses on, unable to see their faces. As he shaves by the mirror, steam engulfing the room, his mom pries into affairs; learning to shave, but still cutting his thumb. Over breakfast, his mom mixes pancake batter, acting as a clear family construct; suggesting he get with Elaine (Katharine Ross). At the suggestion of marriage, his mom lets out an excited screen; as the phone is picked up, the toast pops, right on cue.

Benjamin exists within a liminal space, without purpose: he sits in his bedroom watching TV over a beer, needing to get off his ass. Benjamin has expectations of what life has in store for him, but cannot put his finger on it; as Nichols tells Soderbergh, those “who expect wonderful things have serious problems”. Author Charles Webb remembers his mundane existence before the film’s release, stocking perfume in a Pasadena department store, working as a shipping clerk and in life insurance. The disillusionment of Benjamin extends beyond the generational sense of loss of 60s youth and an unclear path in life; as Harris writes, Nichols realised Benjamin was a “Jew among the goyim”, “a visitor in a strange land” (2009:319), mirroring his adolescence as an immigrant from a German mother and a Russian Jewish mother growing in Berlin. As Nichols recalls in An American Master, he attended a “special Jewish school”, remembering “Blackshirt kids taking my bike”. As his boat from Germany departed, he stood as he listened to Hitler’s “unintelligible” speech. Speaking in Vanity Fair, Nichols remembers the Bremen landing in New York, shocked by a “delicatessen with Hebrew letters” and “Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola”. Hoffman experienced anti-Semitism through his childhood and casting, living in “anti-Semitic neighborhoods” in L.A., returning to those same neighbourhoods where he felt aware “of how different I looked from them” that he’d escaped in New York.

Pursuing a secret sexual relationship with family friend Mrs Robinson (Anne Brancoft), Benjamin adopts a pseudonym as Benjamin Gladstone. Nichols underlines neat juxtapositions through his awkward comedy: elderly couple pass at the hotel entrance, a vision of the age that will meet him one day; crossing between contexts, the clerk (screenwriter Buck Henry) asks if he’s “having an affair”; the party mistakes him for a porter. Benjamin’s sexuality is covert: communicating with Mrs Robinson over the payphone asking for the room number; taxis and guests crowding around the booth. The immaturity of his rite of passage is a mess of contradictions; the act of booking a hotel room is a sign of status and adulthood, devalued by his inability to interact with hotel staff. In the Soderbergh commentary, Nichols comments the young man/older woman formula is a “classic situation” and how “most guys started their sex lives”; it “happens again in every generation”. Driving in his red Alfa Romeo across the sunset bridge, moving through trees, green lawns and night gives a feeling of freedom. We speed through the climax, running out of gas and running out of breath.

Both Mrs Robinson and Benjamin negotiate power dynamics. As an older woman, Mrs Robinson has power and allure. During one scene in rehearsal, Hoffman describes “break[ing] the scene” as both him and Nichols cracked up; he “stood against the wall” and “started banging my head”. Benjamin’s relationship has foundations within immorality, but Mrs Robinson never acknowledges her own power, victim blaming and twisting Benjamin into a “rapist”, becoming increasingly acidic. Dave Grusin’s score underlines their generational difference, utilising a jazzy music cue. But Benjamin looms over with the upper hand, decrying her to Hell as a “broken down alcoholic”, their relationship the “sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me”. When he tells Elaine it’s all over, it “was just something that happened”. The stresses and anxieties of the past become just another anecdote.

Mrs Robinson’s coercion should not go unacknowledged. As Ben takes her home at night, it’s under the guise of protection, feeling safe with the light on; she offers a drink attempting to seduce him; violates his own private space; she enters the room naked, appealing to her own desires. She asks Benjamin if he would like her to “seduce” him, throwing back Ben’s question as though appealing to his desires. Surtees and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt are immaculate in using setting and outfit to reflect character, from Mrs Robinson’s black dress to leopard skin coat; she sits on her black sofa watching TV with bourbon, greenery overgrowth behind her; Sylbert wanted to literalise the image of Robinson as a wild beast. In the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols points to the fact he had “months and months” to prepare, allowing thought to be taken into strap marks visible on Mrs Robinson. Mrs Robinson still has her story: the cigarettes she smokes, her fractured marital relationship, her tears as Nichols moves out from her crying face, her abusive scream as Ben tries to tell his own story. Her husband’s initial brief interactions with Benjamin communicates perfect dramatic irony and comic timing, giving Benjamin relationship advice on women filled with assumptions, suggesting he “ought to sow a few wild oats” and that he has to “fight ‘em off”; Benjamin responds with emotionlessness. As Mrs Robinson recalls the conception of Elaine in the back of a Ford, Benjamin must deal with the reality of Elaine’s age and the nature of their relationship. Nichols creates suspense: as he confronts Elaine about his relationship with her mother, Mrs Robinson’s head appears in the doorframe, foreshadowing Jack Torrance’s murderous rampage in The Shining (1980). In his commentary, Suber emphasises Mrs Robinson’s and Benjamin’s separate narrative arcs: Ben’s narrative is a comedy, ending in “integration and fulfilment”; Mrs Robinson experiences tragedy, ending in “alienation and frustration”. Mrs Robinson is a narrative function as the active agent and aggressor; at the pivot, Benjamin “seizes control” of “destiny”.

Elaine is introduced from the beginning: in Mrs Robinson’s bedroom, a picture of Elaine sits behind them, watching in in plain sight. The 60s bought its own wave of films about love, sex and relationships; The Graduate is but another lens to express values about sexuality and relationship politics, positioning marriage as a rite of passage. As Hoffman notes in his commentary with Ross, Benjamin’s dates with Elaine carry a 1950s vibe, going to a drive-in burger place; as he describes, they’d be “Republican kids”. Benjamin is rebellious, driving across the curb; taking her to a stripper. On the Boulevard, Nichols captures a documentary quality, moving past young teenagers through a long lens. Elaine’s presence allows for a different environment in which to view these characters: the study halls and sports halls of the University of California, shot over 1 day without permission in the Berkeley campus. But Benjamin and Elaine have little chemistry; Benjamin has few date ideas besides coffee; he stares at her across campus through a fountain. Elaine’s relationship with Carl becomes a perfect Redford stand-in: blonde, inoffensive, walking through the zoo as Benjamin stalks her. Marriage carries uncertainty: Ben’s conversation with his parents about his intention to marry is a masterpiece in comic diffusion, stressing his “half baked idea” is “completely baked”, before admitting “she doesn’t like me”. In bed, as he asks her, tired and asleep, yawning and embracing; she tells him “I don’t know”. Their screwball comedy-esque wedding has become the centrepiece, shot with a focus on close-ups as Ben screams for Elaine. The final scene parallels Elaine’s earlier departure on the bus, Ben running runs after her. They sit in silence, uncertain of their future. As Nichols tells in the Soderbergh commentary, the ending was “created by my unconscious”; rather than laughing, they look terrified and upset. As Nichols concludes, his “definition of shooting a movie” is to shoot “until something happens than no one could have predicted”.

Benjamin’s relationship with Mrs Robinson opens a question around what sex represents. In the age of the production code, sexuality was repressed, but as the production code tore itself apart and foreign cinema pushed boundaries, The Graduate allowed shock cuts to the breasts of a stripper substituting for Bancroft. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in a contemporary review in New Republic, the “moral stance” is “refreshing”, accepting “a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter”, though “[m]oral attitudes” are “getting stricter and stricter”. As he concludes, beyond the “moral revolution” of “contemporary American fiction” from decades ago, cinema makes these statements “intrinsically new and unique”.

Mrs Robinson realises it’s his “first time”, stressing it’s “nothing to be ashamed of”. Benjamin’s inexperience plays in subtle movements: unable to take hangers off the rail, touching her breasts, undoing her zip, but without devolving into lewd sexuality. In the bedroom, Surtees uses shadows; Benjamin kisses Mrs Robinson, inhaling smoke. Nichols took advantage of Hoffman’s experiences: he asked him when he first had “any action at all” (a junior high production of The Jazz Singer, performed in blackface) (2009:294) and his struggles buying rubbers from a female clerk (2009:310). In the novel, Benjamin spent three weeks on the road post-graduation, admitting to his father he slept with a few prostitutes. By removing this backstory, Nichols elevates Benjamin’s awkward inexperience around sex to a place of greater universality; more people have had bad, awkward sex or should expect bad, awkward sex than have slept with prostitutes. Nichols was caught between two uneasy places: an industry of sex comedies that, as Harris writes, featured “as little sex as possible” (2009:313), and a film under Levine that didn’t feature sex, with Levine suggesting an arthouse poster with Hoffman and Bancroft naked (2009:361). Writing in the Vanity Fair piece, Turman recalls novelist Calder Willingham’s “vulgar” draft of the screenplay, incorporating “gratuitous homosexual and man-woman sex.” Benjamin seeks human connection within a relationship that cannot allow it: he wants to “liven up a little conversation”, before finding there’s nothing to talk about. As Kauffmann writes, the film’s “sexual dynamics” allow Benjamin to “assess and locate himself in every aspect” in identity formation, beyond the “sexual sphere”.

Perhaps one of the most important elements is the soundtrack, using a selection of songs by Simon & Garfunkel. But The Graduate isn’t a Simon & Garfunkel film, without the commercial backbone of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) though still promoting an artist and album in the process. Though some films play best in silence, a good soundtrack isn’t just interested in the charts, but in consistency. Simon & Garfunkel’s split might still feel tragic, but their 6 years together produced gems; my parents grew their relationship together to Simon & Garfunkel, and did the same to their kids.

The recurring theme of The Sound of Silence, cutting between the blackness, the pool, water and reflections, reflecting Benjamin’s “deep depression” of his “emotional suicide” of “fuck[ing] Mrs. Robinson” (2009:360), and its return in the final scene, and Scarborough Fair during the montage at the zoo, are incredible beyond words. During the final race to the church, Simon riffs along, in the zone. As Hoffman recalls in his commentary with Ross, Nichols told Hoffman the film has “no second act”; the “second act is Simon & Garfunkel”. As Nichols tells in his commentary with Soderbergh, Paul Simon “was so clearly Dustin’s voice” because his voice was still “searching”. Nichols had listened to Simon & Garfunkel as a morning ritual (2009:358), the duo receiving $25,000 and reaching the top of the billboard.

Having trained in theatre, Nichols embraces the theatricality of cinema in his attention to performance and small details, through 3 weeks of rehearsals (2009:290) and 100 days of shooting. Speaking in An American Master, he recalls being stunned when he first saw A Streetcar Named Desire and the power of its performances. But The Graduate is equally made by visuals, with freedom to move and shoot from a long distance that would continue through New Hollywood in films like The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Surtees pays close attention to the sun and rain, reflections upon the hotel table upon Benjamin’s meeting with Mrs Robinson and in the car window, and the dimmed lights as Elaine’s father confronts Benjamin. Kauffmann enthused of Nichols’ formal effects: his “expansion and ellipsis”, “subjective time” in sound editing and the “balletic”, “quintessential rhythms” akin to Kurosawa. As Brackman enthused, Nichols was like “a child who has been given a great many presents at once”, discovering the “camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding.”

Speaking in in the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols cites the long takes and filled frames from A Place in the Sun (1951), and Preston Sturges’ endless shots where it felt “like something really happening”. Speaking in An American Master, Nichols rejects the notion of auteur theory. Nichols argues “French guys with cigarette ashes all over them” had “misunderstood the whole thing”, whilst “ignor[ing] our greatest directors”. As he concludes, whilst “[o]ne man can’t make a movie”, the film itself has to “come from one mind”.

When I first watched the film aged fourteen, the same year I watched Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936) and Seven Samurai (1954) for the first time, I was transfixed by how radical its filmmaking style felt. But I’d already been introduced much earlier: in The Simpsons (1989-present) episode Lady Bouvier’s Lover (1994), the closing scene in the church is transposed with Grampa and Jacqueline Bouvier, complete with a parody rendition of The Sound of Silence. The Graduate has lived on in the popular consciousness: Saving Face (2004) modelled its final act on the church in The Graduate, using the same tropes to explore 21st century Asian American lesbian identity and generational love. The Sound of Silence has become one of the most precious memes. But The Graduate’s power has never left.

Body Double (1984), dir. Brian De Palma


The controversial success of Scarface (1983) had been a struggle for Brian De Palma, thanks to its excessive language and violence. Having worked with Columbia on Obsession (1976), De Palma found himself with a 3-picture deal never fulfilled, though he would later produce Casualties of War (1989) with Columbia. Body Double self-reflexively explores the medium of film and the male gaze. In the opening, we’re confronted with artifice: sunset backdrops, smoke machines, a melodramatic angel in a graveyard. The typography in the title card bears no relation to the film itself: vampiric red and white cast against a desert backdrop. Made up in white hair, make-up and black leather, claustrophobic actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is unrecognisable as the camera moves out, a fire breaking out on set. The director, Rubin (Dennis Franz), is a clear analogue to De Palma, wearing a jacket and bearded haircut emulating De Palma’s own aesthetic. Blow Out (1981)’s opening used a similar technique: we follow a pornographic sex party through the gaze of a slasher villain, moving into the cutting room as Jack Terry applies foley effects.

Borrowing a house from Sam (Gregg Henry), filmed from the Chemosphere on Hollywood Hills, Jake is an antecedent to Jeff in Rear Window (1954). In Rear Window, Jeff observed neighbours from his Greenwich Village apartment, constructing a narrative from what he could see with his eyes. The telescope acts as the lens of the camera: Jake watches Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) undressing, drinking wine and dancing, spreading her legs and ogling her breasts. Jake controls focus; the telescope is mobile, scanning across the widescreen apartment. Pino Donaggio’s score emphasises idolisation and fantasy, combining erotic synths with a female voice, playing as a music video we cannot look away from. Cinematographer Stephen H Burum allows voyeurism through design: looking through the window, our gaze is limited by blinds, a visual motif repeated in the red-tinged poster and the minimalistic black-and-white lines across the walls of the apartment.

Brought back into reality by Sam, Jake moves back into the video, watching The House is Burning by Vivabeat (1979) from bed, providing the answer to what Talking Heads asked with Burning Down the House (1983). We enter another music video as Jake drifts back to the telescope with erotic desire, joined by Donaggio’s score. De Palma introduces the Rear Window element in silence: a man breaks a safe, moving back to the girl crying. Unlike Hitchcock, De Palma uses the apartment as unifying pillars: Jake has no broken leg; he is free to move. De Palma reconfigures our gaze from the perspective of the Indian; we are ourselves being watched. Jake’s set-built apartment, in its black leather, red highlights and blue and pink neon lights is as artificial as the apartment in Rope (1948), raising a toast to the skyline. The bed is extravagant, spinning next to the TV and phone; plants are maintained as a superfluous addition; a fish tank in pillars. Los Angeles’ nighttime city – its joggers and satellite dishes – has a stillness.

The dizzying enclosed atrium of the Rodeo Collection celebrates consumerism in its endless elevator and multiple entrances, facilitating Jake’s stalker gaze: he watches Gloria in the changing room mirror through the window, moving to the other side when noticed by a clerk. DePalma’s split focus dioptre emphasises this relationship with the gaze: positioning both Jake and the clerk in focus, De Palma allows us to use our eyes for ourselves and examine what we choose to see.

De Palma’s cinematic deconstruction is equally structural. De Palma creates a tragic ending for an archetypal hero: buried alive, soil falling into unending blackness. De Palma emphasises artificiality, creating stylised depth as only the frame can be seen from deep within. We move onto the set, dragged into the fantasy-yet-real world, descending waves of the smoke machines paralleling the waterfalls of the Los Angeles aqueduct system. Jake’s claustrophobia reflects the forgotten side of acting: sheer terror, running from one failed audition for the Shakespeare festival as Jake tries to find a way in, finding his “inner self”. In a tight, claustrophobic close-up, framed inside a rectangular compartment, De Palma moves back inside the film, as buzzers signal a new take and Rubin’s camera moves towards us. The film’s ‘reality’ is comprised of implausible tropes: the Indian a rubber mask, torn in half. The heroic actions of the dog, reprising his role from White Dog (1982), moves into melodramatic film logic as the man falls to his death in the reservoir.

De Palma moves out once more into an even more artificial world for the closing credits. As he tells in the featurette The Mystery, this scene had been the opening, but was moved to allow the thematic duality to develop more slowly. De Palma was inspired by the explicit shower scene in the opening to Dressed to Kill (1980), recalling the rapid cutting of the murder mid-way through Psycho (1960) whilst pushing extremes into full-frontal nudity and masturbation. Where Hitchcock showed through implication, De Palma showed, whilst evading pornography. We move through a window, surrounded by bats; Jake returns to his role as vampire. The scene is held as the body double, Mindy, is moved into position, sexuality dissipated by the mechanics of cinema: touched up by make-up assistants; sound equipment moving across; Mindy confesses she’s been on her period recently. Rubin and De Palma’s camera becomes so focused on the gaze it becomes parody: the camera focuses entirely on Mindy’s breasts; as blood runs down, kinkiness is replaced with sheer terror. The camera pans across the production crew: Rubin tries to think; the crew seem equally bored.

Jake embodies a trait familiar to many De Palma and Reagan-era protagonists: a sense of conspiracy. Going back to Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), De Palma creates constant pursuit, tied to the identity and fate of a woman. He drives, watched from across the street; in the elevator, tension heightens as people in gym clothes fill up next to him. De Palma hated the chase sequence’s tracking shots and clichés, but it underlines the question of who is following who? Jake is treated with continual doubt by Detective McLean (Guy Boyd), dubbing him “Hollywood’s busiest sex offender”, just as Kate contends with institutional sexism in Dressed to Kill, Jack’s audio tapes in Blow Out and Eriksson fights against a military allowing sexual abuse of Vietnamese women to occur in Casualties of War (1989). Jake’s paranoia is at home with John Nada’s uncovering of corporate messages through sunglasses in They Live (1988) and Bill Whitney uncovering his family’s high society lives in Beverly Hills through a cassette tape in Society (1989). Like Nada and Whitney, Scully’s reality blends with hallucinations. In the corridor by the beach, this is most clear: Jake is almost debilitated as it fills with light; chasing after Holly (Melanie Griffith) in a Ford Bronco, hit by the red lights of a police car, he witnesses her whacked by a crowbar. In flashbacks, reality unravels as he finds greater clarity, but there remains mystery.

De Palma isn’t just interested in the film industry: he’s interested in the porn industry. Like cinema, pornography seduces us with images on both an aesthetic and value-oriented level. Though porn carries shame, taboo and censorship, it’s normal. As De Palma comments of the anti-porn movement in a 1984 interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment (republished in Indicator’s booklet), “If you can’t prevent me from smoking cigarettes then you can’t prevent me from buying porn.” The lines between cinema and porn have always been blurred, from arthouse cinema, schlock and grindhouse, experimental artists like Andy Warhol and more recent films like Shortbus (2006) and Love (2015) that use unsimulated sex for narrative means. In Body Double, De Palma is interested in examining a Hollywood underworld existing in plain sight, like the Fleur-de-Lis escort service in L.A. Confidential (1997) and the death of Misty Mountains and the hunt for a film reel in The Nice Guys (2016). Hollywood has its share of secrets, from assaults to illicit affairs, queer relationships kept out of view. Here, porn actors have their own fight for union rights: an actor complains at the desk for being more than a “stunt cock”; the Adult Film Group proudly displays hits in a row of posters.

De Palma’s exploration of the porn industry is shaped by the emergence of VHS, beyond the limitations of physical film; Jake asks behind the counter in Tower Records for a porn tape. From his apartment, De Palma creates a frame within a frame: he watches Linda in close-up, rubbing her breasts and taking off her bra. Linda takes sexual satisfaction from her openness to voyeurism: she confesses to being an exhibitionist (or expositionist), saying how “excited” she gets when she knows “they’re all out there watching me”. Like the hallucinatory BDSM broadcast on CIVIC-TV in Videodrome (1983), De Palma questions the sexual images reaching our own living rooms. Jake reacts passively, desensitised, drinking alcohol to get through it. De Palma places us within the curved edges and scan-lines, watching a commercial for the voyeuristic Holly Does Hollywood. We follow through in a one-take shot, scanning across the set. A window is closed, to avoid an onlooker; crewmembers hang around with sound equipment; make-up is applied. Holly Body dances to music entirely in her element, a tattoo on her butt, as though no camera is watching. Her body is detached, evoking “Hollywood Boulevard”. The pull quotes are equally revealing, with positive reviews from Hustler; Eros Magazine declares it as “The GONE WITH THE WIND of Adult Films”. Holly Does Hollywood isn’t just porn; in its hyperbolic façade, it seeks to be cinema. De Palma revels in stretching the limit of film titles: Deep Ghost, The Mating Game, One Night at a Time, Bold Obsession, Star Whores. De Palma used real porn actors, adding a layer of authenticity. As he comments in the featurette The Seduction, he dissuaded women from auditioning from the film to avoid affecting their career; Melanie Griffith tested out with a porno queen, capturing the right movements on screen.

De Palma makes his self-reflexivity most explicit when he takes us within a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video for Relax. Every time Relax is played on the radio, it bemuses me, a sexualised piece of excesses and orgasms. The MTV Generation reshaped youth culture ever since Video Killed the Radio Star (1979) was broadcast in 1981, creating a new medium for the industry beyond concert films and promo videos. We’re walked inside the set of the grand staircase of a house, miming along. The aesthetic epitomises the 80s: on multiple levels, there’s punk couples dancing; leather costumes; people fucking; drinking at the bar. Jake is dressed as a total dork; his expression of total shock. Crew are caught behind in the mirror as Jake watches Holly enter; the crew comments that it isn’t Last Tango in Paris (1972). De Palma cuts out of the video to reality, before returning to the orgasmic climax. In the underworld, Jake takes on a false identity as porn producer, grooming his hair and wearing a leather jacket, taking Holly back.

De Palma’s films repeatedly explore female sexuality, from the problematic, phallic disempowerment of murderous trans woman Bobbi and Kate’s experience sexually assaulted on the subway in Dressed to Kill, to Eriksson’s rejection of masculine peer pressure and the dehumanisation of women in Casualties of War. Through the industry, De Palma offers another lens into how we view female sexuality. Speaking in the featurette The Controversy, De Palma brushes off complaints of sexism; Shelton argues she had agency, and that she couldn’t judge it from “what I believe moralistically in my own life”. The Indian’s penetrating drill has a phallic quality of male domination, an aspect De Palma comments in the Film Comment interview as a twist on the murder mystery in a world of “electrical instruments”. Body Double becomes almost a slasher: he strangles her with the phone line, Jake on the other end. De Palma uses awkward humour, the plug coming out of the socket, utilising comedic gore, the drill dripping with blood through the ceiling.

Jake is introduced in romantic devotion, driving in happiness; at home, pictures proudly frame his love for Carol (Barbara Crampton) and their dog. De Palma is frank, creating a tragic punchline: he walks in on her fucking another man. But from the moment we’re introduced to Jake drinking shots at the bar, he remains unlikable and distasteful. His pursuit of Gloria carries unrelenting creepiness: he recovers her underwear from the trash, following to the beach and erotically embracing to Donaggio’s romantic score. Rehearsing to the telephone later on, he won’t leave her alone, telling her he’s the “guy that almost fucked you at the beach today.” De Palma is interested in sexual duality between Gloria and Holly, blurring their identities into one: as he places his hands on Holly’s butt, De Palma intercuts with Jake with Gloria on the beach. De Palma embraces Hitchcock as a cinematic language. Commenting in The Seduction, De Palma wanted to create a “meditation” on the “elusive, beautiful, evocative woman character” of Vertigo. The artificiality of the 360-degree rear projection soundstage spin feels most clearly Hitchcock, rotating against a plate of the background on a soundstage.

Though Body Double is far from the height of De Palma’s career, it’s a strong effort crossing between genres and styles with multiple themes to explore.

Persona (1966), dir. Ingmar Bergman


By the mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had other responsibilities, heading Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. As he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, the theater was in “an advanced state of disintegration”, without a repertoire or contracts. (1990:44) He was lost. But Bergman found Persona the film that “saved my life”, proving he wasn’t “all washed up”. Shooting over two months in summer 1965 in the Filmstaden studio and Fårö, Persona’s experimentalism might suggest an atypical work, but Persona has the pathos and character that define Bergman, exploring the interior of the soul. As Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads aloud about anxiety, Bergman focuses close attention upon Fårö’s landscape of rocks. Equally, Alma’s admiration of religious belief carries shades of Bergman’s exploration of loss of faith. Through Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), fears of pregnancy and stillbirth equally mirror Marianne and Evald’s nihilistic conflict over her pregnancy in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Persona’s chilling early scenes in hospital reflect Bergman’s state as he wrote the screenplay. Wanting to develop a project entitled The Cannibals with Andersson and Ullmann, Bergman was confined to the Sophiahemmet royal hospital with pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. Over 14 days, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona from hospital. Early scenes are largely silent, framing clinical shots of bodies in a morgue in abstract close-ups; immobile vessels of bodies become another part of nature itself. A young boy rises, eyes opening; he puts on glasses, reading a storybook in bed. He moves his hand out to a screen, reaching out to us. In hospital, Alma and Elisabet develop a caring mutual relationship. But the hospital is also a place of routines, meticulously applying make-up and peeling potatoes, in constant search of something to do. The future and marriage stand off in the undetermined.

The young boy reaches his hand in the morgue out to us

Alma and Elisabet find escape, moving to a house by the sea with company where they have freedom to read books. They become adoptive sisters; Alma has never had the opportunity. Although some might perceive a queer element, Bergman largely frames their relationship as explicitly sisterly. Alma speaks of past relationships, powerfully recounting a sexual encounter: a boy fucked her and her friend on the beach, leading to her impregnation and abortion. Her description is never fetishising nor titillating: she recalls each action with detachment, as he moved against her body and came. Particularly for American audiences, these scenes would have been shocking: in the last days of the Production Code, Hollywood still attempted to cling onto morality around sexuality. Alma speaks of an abortion as no big deal, never maligned because of it. Bergman asked Andersson to rerecord her performance in the mixing studio, allowing for greater intimacy than in the original scene.

Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) develop a sisterly relationship

Bergman creates a ghostly environment within the house, rain hitting the window; both women walking through the night in white nightdresses amid the sound of foghorns. But their relationship is quickly tested; Elisabet writes personal information about Alma in a letter, details she trusted her to tell no one about. Andersson and Ullmann’s visceral performances carry the weight of the film, truly sensing discomfort as their relationship falls apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist pans through trees and the beach in a rush, Elisabet running away from Alma as she attempts a needed apology. The final scene is of loss: Elisabet packs her bags, walking by the ocean in the opposite direction to Alma in the prior scene, waiting for the bus with her luggage. It is a resolution of simplicity, but nonetheless effective.

Persona is equally about our and Bergman’s relationship with cinema. The working titles, Cinematography and A Piece of Cinema, emphasised this connection more explicitly. In the opening, we witness the physical process, self-reflexively looking at filmstrips, white lights, sprockets, scratches and the countdown as the reel begins. Bergman intersperses shock cuts to a wide selection of images: frames from a cartoon, a clip of skeleton costumes framed by a white border, an erect penis (censored from initial US and UK releases), guts spilling out a slaughtered animal, a tarantula walking across the white screen, an impaled hand with a nail akin to Jesus’ crucifixion. In less than a minute, Bergman encompasses almost every genre: animation, farcical silent pantomime, pornography, documentary, monster movies and religious parables. Bergman establishes images of its landscapes: trees covered in snow; a close-up of a gate. Through the boy, offering circularity as he reaches his hand out in both the opening and closing, Elisabet’s face as an actress, moving in and out of focus, Bergman, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, presents cinema as “the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s selfhood and identity”, separating body and image. As Elsaesser writes, Bergman follows Brechtian distance and “modernist self-reflexivity”, approaching film as a mirror alongside the techniques of the French and Italian New Waves.

Persona’s editing is decidedly experimental. In the opening credits, not only are colours inverted, framing black text against a white background, but Bergman follows a rhythm between fractions of a second, prefiguring film with images of a monk on fire, a lake of water, character faces, a policeman’s chase and so on. Midway through, Bergman uses a technique similar to the reveal of editor Yelizaveta Svilova assembling frames in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before revealing the film fully cut together. In a moment of crisis, the frame splits, unable to process elevated drama, fracturing not only friendship but the physical film, an element lessened by subsequent digital releases and screenings. As editor Ulla Ryghe recalls of the premiere at the Spegeln cinema on 18th October 1966, film cans were marked with red labels as projectionists feared the film was burning up. In their confrontation, Bergman draws a parallel, juxtaposing faces against each other whilst moving across time, takes and performances.

As an actress, Elisabet is a product of cinema. We’re introduced to Elisabet as star, performing a role in a production of Sophocles’ Electra: she smiles, lights behind her and bathed in make-up. Bergman never tells us much about her, rarely elaborating on her background or co-stars, instead communicating her identity through images. Persona explores the economy of images and its relationship with the eyes. Old performances are transmitted on television as Alma watches, immersed, with the indignity of the passage of time, captured as cinematic beauty for eternity; Elisabet judges herself against the standard set by a film years ago.

Elisabet is a product of the cinema

The insular hospital becomes penetrated by television: Elisabet watches coverage of a burning monk in protest against Vietnam. In an incredible wide shot, she backs away from the television, unable to comprehend what she is witnessing, broadcast across the world. Around the same time, a similar scene plays in Night of the Living Dead (1968): the seclusion of the house anticipates the threat through continual coverage of chaos outside. As theorists like Marshall McLuhan began to question the media we consume, Bergman questioned the world we formulate in images. As Bergman wrote, his films “cannot melt, transform, or forget”, but he “shall never rid myself of those images”. American cinema’s reaction to contemporary events was slow, struggling to find relevancy before New Hollywood began to emerge. But within the elevated production of Swedish cinema – writing screenplays quickly, turning around filming and editing in a few months – Bergman responded to the chaos around Vietnam succinctly and effectively.

Later, Bergman plays a similar scene, cutting as he zooms closer and closer into the small details of a photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland surrounded by SS, his fate predicated within an image itself. The image alone might reveal little, but surrounding context tells us this boy is likely dead. On the beach, Alma shoots her camera out at us, capturing an image of the audience watching the film, as though we are another rock in the landscape. In the reunion with Mr Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) towards the conclusion, Bergman invokes sight, an essential element to the process of watching. Touching his face and removing his tinted glasses, Vogler might be blinded, but is still able to sense the physical world.

The photograph of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto highlights our relationship with documented conflict

As he wrote in his essay The Snakeskin, Bergman felt creativity as a “sort of hunger”; his cinema “communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies” in a “rage”. Bergman began to question why he made films or staged plays. Laying in hospital, he had “driven all my engines at top speed”, shaking his “old body until it fell apart.” (1990:51) Persona is Bergman’s reckoning with his career, leaving open many masterpieces to come.