Fox and His Friends (1975), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder


Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a genius of New German Cinema, making 43 films in his 37 year life. As Charlie Fox writes in This Young Monster (2017), he was a “compulsive”; in his cocaine addiction, he felt an immense energy, experiencing a “shorter lifespan significantly more intensely [and] more imaginatively” within an unstable film industry. Recently, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation have prepared new restorations, allowing his films to be seen by new audiences thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy and cinema re-releases. Fassbinder, often starring in his own films, portrays Franz Bieberkopf, carnival act Fox the Speaking Head, symbolically reflecting Fassbinder’s own persona. In its style, Fox and His Friends is undeniably Fassbinder, from his melodrama to the composition of the frame.

Although American cinema struggled to explicitly depict queer identity beyond subtext until the 1960s and 70s, in part through the Hays Code, German cinema tackled issues of homosexuality since its inception. As Robert Beachy describes in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014), Different from the Others (1919) had been a box office success on its release, before protests by Protestant, Catholic and anti-Semitic groups led to censorship. Beyond the effeminate stereotypes of American cinema, Weimar cinema became caught in a cultural zeitgeist through the aufklärungsfilm genre, invoking queer relationships in films like Sex in Chains and Pandora’s Box (1928), and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), many of whose cast and crew became victims of the Holocaust.

As Beachy argues, Berlin as a city had been central to academic discourse around homosexuality as a distinct identity beyond individual sexual acts, through the work of people like Karl Maria Kertbeny and Magnus Hirschfield, altering understanding of gender identity in the process. By the 1970s, Paragraph 175, a law enabling a culture of blackmail and prostitution within queer subculture only worsened through the Nazi Party, remained in West Germany’s constitution, demarcated difference between queer and straight despite some reforms. Fassbinder creates a portrait of the subculture within this: Franz becomes viewed as a prostitute by Eugen, cruising at public bathrooms, yet Franz rejects this identity. Fassbinder represents the unity of community, gathered together between drag performers, young men, older men and English-speaking American servicemen, in everyone’s own uniqueness.

Fassbinder explored masculinity throughout his work, like Hans’ destructive alcoholism in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), caught in an abusive relationship with his wife. Fox and His Friends carries these themes forward. Franz is not a likeable protagonist, becoming a manifestation of Fassbiner’s “uniquely loathsome personal aura”. Forming a bond with Eugen, Franz rapidly elevates their relationship to sex, without time to think. Franz finds himself drawn to Eugen’s father, Wolf, enjoying a degree of privilege as Wolf accepts Franz on instinct, saying that he “like[s] him much better than the last one”, giving Franz an unofficial role as a bookbinder. Franz’s sister Hedwig becomes torn apart by his actions, leaving Franz alone by the end of the film. In one scene, we see her disassociation from the entire subculture, bemoaning the lack of heterosexual men in a party built upon diverging relationships, jealousy and the sexual gaze. All men screw the same men.

Fox and His Friends is filled with full-frontal nudity, yet Fassbinder is clinical, refusing to eroticise the male body, presenting desexualised flaccid genitals in a swimming pool. Yet Fassbinder keeps a continual sense of sexual gaze, as we sense eternal desire and unfulfilment. Going on holiday to Marrakech in Morrocco, Eugen and Franz seek further sexual fulfilment. Franz sets his gaze on a Tunisian migrant worker, portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, as he and Eugen follow him, inviting him back to their Holiday Inn as they take a taxi. Taking a seat at the hotel restaurant, the pair are caught in a dialogue split by cultural boundaries, trying to take him back to their room. Fassbinder focuses upon eyes and silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. As they walk to Franz and Eugen’s room, ben Salem’s character is barred, because he is an Arab, experiencing internal discrimination within his own country.

Fassbinder goes beyond the subculture to explore themes of capitalism and class. Society never rejects Franz for his queerness, but for his class position. Franz exists as a social outcast, his carnival show broken up by police leaving him with an identity he cannot adapt to. Franz is a swindler, betting on the lottery every day, racing in Eugen’s car to hand in his lottery ticket at the last possible minute, bartering with the store clerk; stealing money from a local florist. Franz is elevated to high society, receiving a 500,000 marks jackpot, never deserving it. He rebuilds a new life with Eugen, making an apartment for themselves, antique furniture juxtaposed against modern aesthetics. In his new life, he becomes in constant search of new loans to only further is wealth and physical ownership.

Franz’s identity becomes false. Eugen tries to force him to adapt to the conventions of high society. Going to a French restaurant, Eugen must explain the illegible menu to him, ordering the food for him as onlookers judge in disgust. Eugen bemoans Franz’s lack of cutlery, telling him the dessert fork is on “the left of your plate” as he attempts to eat a cake whole. At the table, he performs fairground tricks. He goes to tailors, trying on expensive clothes, using the iconic Fassbinder reflection shot, projecting front and back in dialogue simultaneously. Yet Franz can never escape his iconic, emblazoned denim jacket. Franz and Eugen’s holiday is booked at random, with no preplanning or worldly knowledge, based on brief descriptions from the travel agent. Franz finds a works for Wolf without any skills, mucking up a print run, never realising he wasn’t actually employed.

In the film’s most emotional scenes, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire becomes Franz’s personal anthem.

Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Rejected by Eugen, taking control of their flat, Franz undergoes a devolution, ostracised by his own sister. For all he tries, he cannot move beyond his origins. Selling his modern car at a dealer’s, Franz is met by casual anti-Semitism, joking that he isn’t a Jew as he swindles Franz, buying the car for peanuts within a crumbling market.

In the closing scene, Franz becomes a symbol of Fassbinder, a corpse laying in a subway station, overdosing on valium prescribed by his doctor. Franz’s worldly possessions are taken, a group of kids stealing his iconic jacket and his money. As Charlie Fox writes of Fassbinder, “death was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette in the alley.” For all of Fassbiner’s “Dionysiac excess”, Franz and Fassbinder could not escape death.

My 2016 in Film: The 1970s

The 1970s as a decade are perhaps most notable for coinciding with my parents’ coming-of-age. My dad’s CD collection has basically ensured that I’m enamoured with any and all progressive rock released in the early 1970s. Whenever I’m watching a film from the 70s, I end up thinking in the back of my mind that my parents have probably watched it at some point.

The Last Detail (1973), dir. Hal Ashby

Released by Indicator later this year, The Last Detail is something to get excited for. Although Hal Ashby is better known for Harold and Maude (1971) and Being There (1979), The Last Detail is one of the greats. Jack Nicholson’s performance as a foul mouthed naval signalman is one of his best, as we see him and Mulhall (Otis Young) moving a teenage sailor (Randy Quaid), through Washington, Philadelphia and Boston over to a naval prison in Portsmouth. Part of the film’s appeal are the locations, giving a fly-by tour of the East Coast of America. But more than that, the film is just genuinely hilarious.

In its evoking of radical new spirituality, and a city populated by brothels, the film might feel somewhat dated, still lingering from the radical late-60s LSD trips of Easy Rider (1969). Yet it never loses any of its interest; its datedness still reveals a timeless narrative about three men in an uneasy situation.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), dir. Joseph Sargent

Tony Scott’s 2009 remake may be better known today, and though I’ve not seen it, Sargent’s film feels like the definitive version. There’s something unquestionably claustrophobic about the Subway. The Subway is an icon of New York City. With daily commutes and tourist travel, we may become complacent with it – but it’s still an underground tunnel, cut-off from the outside, descending into the unknown. The Tube is one of my biggest fears – it becomes almost suffocating, though I can just about deal with it. Projecting these anxieties into a fear of the unknown creates a gripping negotiation thriller. Though our focus remains on a contained space, the film never feels slow and never loses any tension, occasionally cutting to other parts of the city as the mayor decides to negotiate, assigning the police to shift the money over at near-fatal speeds.

Within the George W. Bush rhetoric of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, the film feels distinctly 1970s. Yet danger is still inherent with the Subway. In the short documentary Man Under (2015), we become aware of how suicides can affect the psychology of drivers working for the MTA.

Rather than merely an everyday space, the Subway is a multidimensional space, connecting people from all walks of life, run by many different people. The film remains thrilling to the very end, as we close on an in media res ending. We never get a truly developed insight into the motivations of the film’s trenchcoat-wearing terrorists, yet as we see their disorder and squabbling, they become far more interesting than what could have been characterised as a caricature of a street thug or a Muslim (or Russian) terrorist.

The Day of the Locust (1975), dir. John Schlesinger

The Day of the Locust‘s biggest problem is that it runs too long. Yet in spite of this, its incredible exploration of life in 1930s Hollywood forgives its overlong length. At times, the film is difficult to get through, but in the end it’s worth it. Adapted from Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel, written on the brink of World War II, the film shifts from contemporary to reflective, approaching the 1930s 35 years later. If told today, the film might feel too romanticised, or detached from the era it’s meant to represent. Yet here, there is still a sense of attachment to a period much of the film’s crew would have lived through.

Donald Sutherland excels in his portrayal of the alcoholic and angry Homer Simpson, whose namesake was reportedly borrowed for The Simpsons (1989-present) itself, becoming far more iconic than West’s character (or Sutherland’s portrayal) ever was. Sutherland is terrifying, and justifies watching the film alone. The film’s most powerful scene is in its final act, as we see a riot break out outside the famed Chinese Theater, and chaos descend in the streets. The film forces the viewer to look away because of the scene’s power. It has the power to make everything feel sinister: even nursery rhymes.

Jeepers creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers?

Deep Red (1975), dir. Dario Argento

Dario Argento is perhaps the greatest example of a filmmaker whose focus is on style over substance. The cinematic image in itself carries primacy to Argento. Mastering the giallo, every frame is seeped in colour. Visuals evoke other visuals, as the nighttime bar in Rome, still lit up in the darkness, alludes back to Nighthawks (1942). The mystery which frames the film may carry with it a narrative, but this is never the focus – Argento prefers the image and the setpiece.

Just as important is Goblin, who, as with Tangerine Dream in American cinema, became soundtrack giants of Italian cinema, scoring Zombi (1978), Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Contamination (1980), among many others. Argento’s film simply would not be the same without Goblin; their progressive rock score becomes so entwined with the film that it never leaves one’s mind.

Deep Red has some theoretical underpinnings – like with Brian De Palma, Argento becomes interested in the psychology of the female killer. Having explored similar themes with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Argento examines the notion of femininity through numerous characters, including in how he codes the androgynous drunkard Carlo as queer through feminine conventions.Yet, though the film opens in a lecture theatre, it never aims to be complex – and nor should it.

Network (1976), dir. Sidney Lumet

In my review of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), I wrote about how that film carries a new relevance in 2016 in how it handles transgender issues, in the light of reports of trans women being sent to men’s prisons and Kayden Clarke being shot by police. Since I watched it back in April, Network has been heralded as messianic, predicting the rise of the modern news media, Donald Trump and fake news. I’m always dubious about these sorts of claims, just as I’m dubious about how Marshall McLuhan is heralded as predicting the rise of the internet. All narratives emerge from a particular cultural context.

Network is a film about prophecy masquerading as news; it should not be taken as a prophecy in itself. As with Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971), Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network frames it as a satire. But Howard Beale’s bullshitting deconstructionist news anchor doesn’t come across as Donald Trump to me, but as Russell Brand, using a platform earned over many years and shifting towards manic outbursts accepted as part of his character, a newfound spirituality (Beale delivers his speeches to large audiences in a studio framed by stained glass church windows) and a rambling, politicised assault on the mainstream media. The irony being, the assault on the mainstream media occurs within its very doors, critiquing itself yet changing nothing, repackaged as entertainment.

Network has its strong moments, yet its focus on secondary and tertiary characters, like network president Max Schumacher (William Holden)’s affair which his colleague Diana (Faye Dunaway), detracts from the film’s focus on Beale and his quotable, still relevant speeches.

Black Sunday (1977), dir. John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer is perhaps his most interesting at his most conspiratorial and political. Like the Korean War communist brainwashing of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the paranoid visions of Seconds (1966) and the political dealings of Seven Days in May (1964), Frankenheimer interests himself in the figure of the political assassin, focusing on Palestinian terrorists planning to create as much damage as possible at an NFL game – a game the President is attending. Though the film is inspired by the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics by Black September, it isn’t difficult to trace these very same tactics to the same ones employed by ISIS in tragedies like the Bastille Day attack on Nice last year. But the film also has some tissue with the post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers of the mid-70s, as the film implicates the disillusionment of a Vietnam veteran and we move between many layers.

The film is an epic in proportions, shifting between multiple countries in its 143 minute runtime, as we see explosive statues of Holy Marys shipped overseas. John Williams’ score, in the wake of Jaws (1975) and just prior to Star Wars (1977) will never be his most iconic, nor his strongest, yet it is recognisably his and lends some tension to proceedings – though it’s somewhat odd to hear his music played over terrorist attacks.

The film is at its most iconic as we shift towards the attack on the Superbowl – an event which today seems to have more to do with advertising than sports. The proportions of the attack are immense, and we are given the sense of human culpability within events (the NFL determine they won’t cancel the event even with the possibility of an attack identified), but the scale never really fulfils its potential. Nolan may have realised such an attack better when emulating it in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), juxtaposed by The Star-Spangled Banner (1814) as in this film. In its conclusion, the gravitas (yet sheer joy) of seeing thousands of spectators killed by a rogue blimp is never communicated, resolved too easily by a disappointing conclusion that undermines the terror of the situation.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), dir. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones


After five years spent establishing their style on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Holy Grail represents their first real shift to the big screen (discounting 1971’s And Now for Something Completely Different, which reworked material from the show.) Despite the shift to a feature length narrative, it retains the feeling of a sketch comedy variety show. Whilst the quest for the grail gives the sense of an overarching purpose, we still move between numerous situations and different characters who rarely reappear (if only briefly), that seem to last no more than five minutes each, from gatekeeping knights to evil bunnies.

Holy Grail manages to satirise just about everything, from Ingmar Bergman films, to trade unions and communism, to notions around witchcraft and God, musicals, and far too much to ever cover in one review. Its humour is deliberately anachronistic, transposing the Medieval events of the film against the contemporary 1970s.

We remain aware that the film is constructed. The narrator calls out scene transitions; Patsy notes how the castle is only a model; the chase with the dragon ends when the animator has a sudden heart attack. The editing is anarchic, as we cut back to characters from earlier scenes who break the fourth wall. . When the film ends, the policeman tells a cameraman to turn the camera off, as the reel reaches its end.

But the film also confronts how we perceive of history. It presents us with a different sense of morality, where death is a mere token: killing an elderly man only to make the job of the man who wheels off corpses easier is acceptable. So is throwing your son out of a castle window, or murdering a party of wedding guests. It isn’t wrong, but only a momentary pause to proceedings.

When the film cuts to a historian describing the events of King Arthur’s time, only to have his head cut off, it is making a statement. The historian’s view of history is not necessarily the right answer. This film becomes the definitive history of its time, whilst also decrying the need to be faithful to established history at all. Why there are coconuts or shrubberies in Medieval England does not need a satisfying answer.

But it also subverts our popular perceptions around history. King Arthur is an allegorical figure, enshrined within mythology yet with real doubts to his authenticity. Rather than accepting him, the characters within the film continually question his authority. But the film also subverts the idea of the knight in the shining armour. When 150 women (a bunch of 16-19 year olds) try to pressure Sir Galahad into fucking them, they become seductresses of temptation, yet he spends the entire time very reluctant. They are not celibate, or sexless, or convents of purity and virginity. Neither is it the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued: it is the prince.

Though Monty Python continued to be an established name at the box office with Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), Holy Grail remains perhaps their greatest achievement.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977), dir. Wes Craven


Back in 2014, I fell in love with movies one degree further. I ended up scouring YouTube for old films, and burned through a ridiculous number of films in the space of a couple of months. I came across numerous films over this period: like this one, and other Arrow titles like Society (1989). But I wasn’t enjoying films; it was a background distraction, and I never gave these films the attention I was supposed to. Masterpieces became mediocre. Mediocrity became masterpieces. Watching The Hills Have Eyes in HD, rather than in some shitty 240p illegal upload, I was interested to see how my opinion of the film would improve.

But somehow, it got worse.

The Hills Have Eyes looks terrible, drenched in grain. It deserves to be seen in some grindhouse cinema that smells like a backalley that closed 40 years ago, displayed on a scratch-ridden 16mm print.

Cannibalism has often been a subject for the horror film: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Delicatessen and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), even The Neon Demon (2016). But The Hills Have Eyes never manages to communicate the horror of it, or the pleasures of the horror film to the audience. We never get to see human flesh reduced to the bone. The man on the poster with the deformed head casts a looming, terrifying figure, yet he is never able to become something terrifying in the film itself.

The film hinges upon its characters as a joke, and a sense of dramatic irony. The girl who jokes about becoming a human french fry. The barking dog, who has more of a sense of something out of the ordinary than the humans themselves. The caricature of the Christian mother who begs for them to pray to God before they go into the desert – in case something happens to them. Perhaps Wes Craven is defined by his stereotypes, a notion he would deconstruct in Scream (1996).

Perhaps the film is at its most interesting in its base concept of strangers in a desert and its primordial, devolved tribal cannibals, stripped from their humanity with carnivorous teeth, yet the film never does anything interesting with them. The essay in the booklet paints the film as the last political horror film, seeped within the nuclear age and post-Watergate paranoia – but these flourishes are scarcely there.

Beyond some cheap exploitation, the film cannot recapture the same sense of the unwatchable, truly sickening sense of fear that The Last House on the Left (1972) was able to capture.

Johnny Got His Gun (1971), dir. Dalton Trumbo


Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival, with a Q&A with Timothy Bottoms

Dalton Trumbo’s name is a notorious one, surviving the Hollywood blacklist through false identities, and acting as screenwriter on classics like Roman Holiday (1953) and Spartacus (1960). Perhaps now, he’s notorious for being played by Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (2015). But Johnny Got His Gun is not a notorious name. It clings onto dear life, a true independent film, reduced down to a handful of copies, surviving through Metallica music videos.

Other independent producers from this period like BBS have had their work remastered by Criterion, but the digital print screened today was far from perfect. Scratches, desaturated colours, the hiss of a projector – perhaps I’m far too used to a film being clean. Standing alongside The Go-Between (1971) at Cannes, it feels as though one has survived in audiences’ minds for longer.

The late 1960s saw the genre of the war epic collapse. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), trying to depict Pearl Harbor in the image of The Longest Day (1962), may not have bombed, but only just made back its budget. Trumbo found his screenplay rejected by every studio, the effects of the blacklist still hurting. The wave of the early 1970s rejection of Hollywood as it was had begun. Trumbo did it himself. As Bottoms explained during the Q&A, the war had touched everyone. His grandad was a veteran; so was his uncle; so was his dad. He avoided the draft for Vietnam, instead preferring to be an actor. One viewer suggested it was Trumbo’s anti-Vietnam film.

Johnny Got His Gun was one of Trumbo’s last films. Somehow, I’m glad I didn’t ask Bottoms why he never directed another film.

“Because he was on the brink of death!”

Paradoxically, it also represents a younger Trumbo, adapted from Trumbo’s own novel he published in 1938, an introspection on a war gone past on the brink of WWII. Trumbo and Bottoms grew to know each other quite well over the film’s production: an elder, industry veteran and a young, 18 year old actor, fresh off theater roles. Other actors auditioned for the role, including Peter Fonda. But Trumbo was immediately taken with Bottoms, reflecting a sense of transition between teenagehood and adulthood, without being either.

As a breakout role, it’s a brave one. His face remains concealed for much of the film’s duration, and he never fulfils traditional character roles that would make a star. Bottoms split his time between this film and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), filming the latter in Texas throughout the week and flying out every Sunday to shoot this film.

To say anything negative about this film feels difficult, because it has been such a good time, and I’ve reunited with old, super-queer friends, took a selfie with Timothy Bottoms and uttered the words “fuck the gender binary” in earshot of him. I’ve drunk glasses of free wine and eaten super-fancy canapés.


But ultimately, this feels like a film of ideas rather than something specifically designed to be a film in its initial inception. Its anarchic, freewheeling stream of conscious is atemporal. Joe clings onto memories, trying to work out what year or month it actually is, or when the last Christmas was. (Soon enough, that he hasn’t died of influenza). Joe doesn’t know what time it is. In a book, neither does the reader – pages pass by without a sense of how much time has passed, entranced within another world. We dip into another memory when we have the time to read another chapter. But in film, the viewer knows how much time will pass, and can check their watch. Books can achieve a much cleaner way of drifting between flashback and present.

We listen to Joe’s stream of consciousness narration, largely improvised during filming, drowning out all other sounds in the room. Yet it often becomes a case of stating the obvious. “There’s someone in the room! What is he doing to me?” Through the long takes, there is no separation between Joe’s world and the people looking after him in the hospital. Trumbo fails to find a visual style which can balance this internal world with the external world. Again, this is easier to pull off within literary convention. Joe’s narration invalidates the need to see the people operating on him from a vantage point where we can see what they’re doing clearly. Seeing the people operating on him invalidates the need to hear his narration.

It is these sequences which are the most gripping, and probably helped establish the film’s cult status. With its monochrome bandages, I can’t help but think of Suture (1993). With its introspection on the workings of the mind, I can’t help but think of Inside Out (2015). It even has a sense of Cronenbergian body horror. The first shot immediately grips the viewer, as we see three surgeons’ faces stare us down, with no discernible individualistic features.

It is truly unsettling to see the state of Joe. The film’s title is a misnomer. Johnny hasn’t got his gun; we never even see Joe use it. He’s an emaciated wreck. Without arms, without legs, blinded, reduced to an unheard voice and a body moving under a sheet. When we see his shirt unbuttoned, this effect is somewhat reduced, as we see there is still life and humanity within him. His life is a true nightmare. Deaf and blind, he lives within a sensory world of touch, smell and sensing vibrations through the floorboards. Besides limited communication, all he can do is turn inside of himself.

It’s this introspection which I find the most difficult part of the film to manage. I sense traces of the surreal touches of Easy RiderMedium Cool and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). When it’s at its most metaphorical and bizarre, it feels at its best. It creates the sense of a jumbled mind, deteriorating as time moves on just as a physical film or a digital file does, shifting between memory and past without a clear linear structure. It shifts from clinical monochrome to historical epic full colour, creating a clear distinction – between fantasy and present day reality. Where we shift into the mind, we see amphitheatres and unicorns and junkyards and our protagonist as a sideshow freak in the middle of the desert, somehow in two places at once, to an invisible paying audience (ourselves) who interacts with the circus. Within the Christmas party, the boss repeats his words over and over, a complete caricature. It’s a world of the dream and the surreal, yet still with a tangible connection to reality.

Jesus (played, somehow, by Donald Sutherland) rides the train of death, as fellow soldiers feel resigned to their inevitable demise within the war. Later, we see him working as a carpenter, as Joe philosophises alongside him, whilst soldiers behind him push along a cross – ready for the graves of soldiers, and his own shooting range. The film’s honest exploration of spirituality feels welcome – something also seen somewhat in Easy Rider – and would probably be absent were the film made today. Ultimately he concludes there is no God who could allow his suffering to happen – but we never see him begin as a committed atheist; instead, we interact with his process of becoming comfortable with death, and reflecting on the religion he was taught as a child.

Yet other sequences, like where we see his young romance on the day before he leaves for war, as his girlfriend begs him to stay, feel unwarranted. The film does a good job at depicting home life, although the scenes with his father where he goes fishing and they talk about the meaning of “democracy” struggle to feel natural either. They’re good flashbacks in a book – but here, comedic romance where two parties are unsure what the other wants and whether to overstep boundaries, feels like it’s out of place. There is no soundtrack to distract us, and these scenes drag on and I sigh in my seat, as though I should not offend Timothy Bottoms, and I begin to question my own existential dread once more.

In the closing scenes, the film’s crucial element is found. Johnny Got His Gun becomes a shockingly timely euthanasia debate within the topic of disability, that more than probably stands far above Me Before You (2016). Should his desire to die be respected, when there is no chance of him regaining any agency outside of his mind, or should he be made to live on?

Another irony: his life is respected without question, with multiple people looking after him, only for one soldier. Soldiers can be killed in war, and their hallowed soul is given an unceremonious burial, with half-arsed hymns because it’s tradition, buried with a bit of soil thrown over as enemy fire still blasts overhead.

The soldier who narrowly avoided death is afforded, in some ways, the worse state.

The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), dir. Albert Maysles & David Maysles


Psycho (1960) presented us with the struggle between a mother and her adult son in a decrepit old house; Grey Gardens (1976) told the struggle between a mother and her adult daughter.

The Maysles’ companion piece to Grey Gardens, edited for its 30th anniversary, isn’t as well structured as the film it originates from. Some of the more clever narrative devices, from its introductory shots of the newspaper articles establishing the house through to looking through old portraits, and the closing letter from Edie, aren’t here.

Whilst the world of Grey Gardens was insular, creating the sense that the Beales never left the house, this film opens it up a little more. We see Edie walking to church, and walking past a car to the beach. But we also expand the world through the presence of more people: a woman visits the house, giving Edie a magazine, and we see a greater presence of Jerry and his quest for work in Canada. Within Grey Gardens, he was given far less of a voice, and ultimately became more of a handy man than anything else.

More than anything else, Beales shows more personality, focusing on the character of the Beales themselves rather than the character of the house. Edie comes across as incredibly likeable and intelligent, discussing issues from her hate of the Republicans and their “crooked president”, the films she likes, her Catholic faith, her experience with dating servicemen during World War II (many of whom died), plus the odd song here and there.

Partly, there’s a sense of ‘behind the scenes’ – we see an expanded sequence of Edie going to the beach; a small house fire which the Maysles intervene in helping stop, and a scene in which the Maysles ask her if she likes the title of the film – which I doubt would ever have made it even into early cuts of the original film. Scenes which before were glimpses are now given another perspective. A montage of Edie’s dresses almost feels a response to the fashion community’s embrace of her eccentric wardrobe by Todd Oldham and John Bartlett.

More than anything else, it’s a lesson in how essential the editing process is – and how much it can diverge depending upon what material is included. Whilst not essential viewing, The Beales of Grey Gardens is a must watch for fans of Grey Gardens who want a more sophisticated rendition of its outtakes.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), dir. Sidney Lumet


Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece. As my first Lumet film, is it too early to coin it his magnum opus?

The story of the bank heist has been told a billion times; the premise could be told as a five minute montage. In Snatch (2000), bumbling fools enter a bank, find creative ways out of their situation, and end up in jail anyway. But instead of playing the scenario for comedy, this film creates serious drama and an exploration of psychology and sexuality, with the calculating moves of a police procedural. Sequences run for as long as they need to, teeming with moments of silence, yet simultaneously not running for too long. During the editing process, Lumet told his editors to put material back in the film in order to improve the pacing. There’s a sense of breathing room. Because in reality, these events cannot be tied up in five minutes.

The situation is in flux, with no clear outcome. Is a character going to shoot? Will Sonny’s demands be met? Are the civilians going to be alright? Neither the bank clerk nor the cop nor the driver know if they are going to survive that day.

Is there an authenticity to the film? Whilst based on real life events, much of it was fictionalised (including character names). Wojtowicz refused to meet with the screenwriter, and Sonny was instead constructed from other people’s recollections. Yet the narrative is formed around Sonny as the focal character, where the entire film exists because of the situation he is in. The film presents real life events in close to real time, with a documentary-esque camera. It doesn’t need to purport to be a mockumentary, or use the one-shot real time narrative used recently by films such as Victoria (2015); that would feel too constructed and gimmicky, rather than true to life. Manipulation of space is limited: where we leave one location in physical form, we move to a few blocks away, yet it still has a presence within the TV set in Sonny’s family’s home.

There’s a real sense of chaos. The police, the mob, the hostages and the gunmen interact, yet without a notion of black and white. Al Pacino previously played the other side of the law as a cop in Lumet’s Serpico (1973); here, he embodies the criminal as Sonny. Sonny is not a monster. Misguided and mentally ill, perhaps. Through his negotiations and concessions with the bank manager and the police chief, they are able to find common ground: a wife and two kids. He isn’t overtly villainous, he’s complex; a good, Catholic person, venerated Vietnam vet and a pacifist (he raises a white flag and consistently checks for guns), placed within a bad situation. He can have fun with a blank teller, teaching her how to stand with his gun. In every other situation, Sonny could be the hero. He’s kind – and only reacts with fury when provoked by the mob and by the police acting upon their instincts.

A person in the mob raises his middle finger, and the police immediately jump on him. A couple of scenes later, the police arrest a man who fights with Sonny, alongside a handful of other people in the crowd too – the mob mentality. There’s an irony that the unarmed are seen as more dangerous as the armed. Sonny is treated with sympathy; the crowd are treated with suspicion. But the same is true of the ‘gang’ of Sonny and Sal. Grossly unequal: one with the gun and mentally sound, the other the complete opposite. Yet as soon as Sal shoots, they are seen as equals, despite Sonny only ever firing one bullet and hurting no-one.

Sgt. Moretti remains so composed throughout the film I’m impressed, keeping with Sonny’s increasingly ludicrous demands. Why spend the money on hiring the backup, co-ordinating airplanes and taxis when they could just as easily shoot him and save the state millions of dollars? That’s not to justify it, only to frame it. He and Sonny rely on a balancing act, and both characters remain sympathetic.

Were this story told today, Sonny would have been arrested within a minute, caught by automated locks and CCTV, shot dead on the sidewalk whilst every person in the crowd watches the tragic shooting through their phones, sharing the footage on YouTube, ready to be packaged into CNN and NBC’s news programming.

Since the film’s production, a system of glaringly obvious inequalities within the police that have come to light: Ferguson in 2014, and cases like the Hillsborough disaster and the battle of Orgreave, where police anxiety provokes unwanted arrests of comparatively peaceful crowds, or killing far too many, especially amongst racially profiled and class lines. These interactions between the police and the gathering crowd are becoming increasingly relevant. Similarly, these themes of mass media is something Lumet explores in more depth in Network (1976).

I went into this film knowing that it explores trans issues in some way, but without knowing the details – I assumed Pacino’s character might be female. But what the film actually presents us is actually more perfect.

Sonny’s actions to fund his girlfriend’s gender reassignment surgery are honourable. From trans friends, I know that two of the major issues when it comes to transitioning is a) waiting lists and b) money. Even with the NHS, transitioning isn’t free. Under the commercial, corporatised American system, it’s probably worse. Rather than an act of malice, it is an act of compassion and romance for the woman he loves. Most people probably wouldn’t be willing to rob a bank to fund their loved one’s transition; today, we have Indiegogo and other sites to deal with that. But it’s the same notion of do you allow a person in poverty to steal bread where they are starving?

The films is still problematic, reinforcing the consistent stereotype of ‘LGBT person with a mental illness’. But Sonny is so well realised, and Leon is presented as outside of it, not wanting Sonny to steal the money. She is empowered as a victim and a person in herself.

Leon is consistently misgendered, but never as part of her own identification. Sonny’s mom even uses the right pronouns for her. The cops laugh at her when she tells her story. When talking about her to other characters, they refer to her wrongly. Where the press catch wind of her compelling backstory, the headlines shift from “BANK ROBBERY” to “TWO HOMOSEXUALS IN BANK ROBBERY”. Sal asks Sonny if he can ask the press to change their headline; but he is powerless to do so in the face of a powerful media built upon stereotypes and simplified stories reduced to headlines, iconic images and pull quotes.

Sal doesn’t want to be seen as a homosexual, because he isn’t. Sonny isn’t gay, he’s married to a woman and dating a woman. It’s depressingly still relevant today, if not more relevant. Recently, there have been several instances of trans women in the UK sent to men’s prisons, misgendered by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. In the US, Kayden Clarke was shot by police, yet major news networks, including reputable sources such as The Independent, misgendered him and focused on narratives outside the trans narrative. When Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual last year, the Daily Mail and The Mirror labelled her as bisexual, silencing her power to self-identify.

As the film progressed, I was pleasantly surprised at the strength and sensitivity of this narrative. 40 years on, The Danish Girl (2015) fails to approach the subject manner in an accurate way, but here is a film that succeeds, yet not acknowledged enough, although not without its own issues. In face of its strengths, there is Sonny’s last will and testament. He says the only woman he will ever love is his wife, and speaks of the love a man will have for another man. This raises some major questions: in the face of his support for Leon, does he view her as male? If he was introduced to her as male, does he still view it as a gay relationship?

The credits reinforce a binary distinction between ‘life as a man’ and ‘life as a woman’, talking about how Leon is now “living as a woman”. It’s a misconception that is incredibly common, and only helps to perpetuate this misconception.

Unfortunately, the film’s producers don’t help at all. The making of was a difficult watch; I cringed in pain than every time I heard the words “sex change” in lieu of “gender reassignment surgery”. Martin Bregman talks of it as a gay love story within the first minute; Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino talk about how playing a gay character could destroy Pacino’s career (Cruising (1980) didn’t do that later on either); Chris Sarandon talks about trying to not make Leon look too gay, and the relationship between a “drag queen and a gay man.” When even the film’s own creative team doesn’t understand what trans means, what hope does the audience have of understanding an issue they may not have previously been exposed to?

I’m not going to attack Lumet as a transphobe. It was brave of him to explore these issues. It was 1975, the same year that the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Today, most countries class being trans as a mental disorder. Whilst ignorance should not be honoured, “sex change” was the common language; it’s only in the past couple of years myself that I’ve come to understand the correct terminology through actually knowing trans people. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to have gender identity and sexual identity once again conflated.

Arguably, the situation has improved, with Caitlyn Jenner making the trans identity more acceptable and mainstreamed, although far from the best spokesperson; yet people like Germaine Greer remain on podiums able to reject another person’s identity. Films like About Ray (2015) continue to present the issue in the wrong light, with a cisgender creative team. Things still need to change.