Coming Out (1979), dir. Carol Wiseman

Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.

Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.

Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.

Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.

Girl (1974), dir. Peter Gill

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The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.

Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.

Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.

Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.

Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.

Eraserhead (1977), dir. David Lynch

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The highlight of the Flatpack Film Festival was something I’d anticipated for weeks: a sold out screening of David Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead, presented with a live score by French indie band Cercueil. Cercueil’s score pervades the film with unease, heightening the surreal atmosphere. Sparse dialogue becomes distorted, echoing through as though in a tunnel. Cercueil’s score is no substitute, but a welcome alternative.

#davidlynch's Eraserhead at a sold out screening with live score! The hype is real

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1977 was an important year in cinema history: Star Wars redefined what the blockbuster and science fiction fantasy could be, drawing massive crowds. Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved Spielberg wasn’t going away, inspiring a generation to watch the skies. But 1977 was also the year David Lynch was unleashed upon the world, catapulted through midnight screenings outside the studio system. Eraserhead’s development was long, emerging from a grant during Lynch’s period at the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies.

Lynch had been working on a 45-page script for a film called Gardenback, based upon one of his paintings. Recalling in Eraserhead Stories (2001), Lynch didn’t remember writing a script, but developed a 21-page outline. Lynch was afforded space and time to develop, living and working from stables in Beverley Hills that were mostly his. The crew worked other jobs: assistant director Catherine E Coulson worked a day job at BBQ Heaven; Lynch delivered papers at night for the Wall Street Journal.

Lynch’s name might be best at home with experimental artists that defined underground cinema through the mid-to-late 20th century: Kenneth Anger’s occultism and queerness; Stan Brakhage’s abstract shapes; Derek Jarman’s punk aesthetics applied to cinema. Lynch’s filmography may bend rules of narrative cinema to Lynch’s own aesthetic, but largely holds onto its generic conceits: engaging protagonists, narrative goals, mysteries. Plot is never Eraserhead’s priority, going far deeper into the depths of Lynch’s mind, into the surrealism of experimental cinema. Eraserhead is identifiably Lynch. Lynch explores female sexuality, bathed in pools; the mother making moves on Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), although perhaps not to the extremes of Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) or Fire Walk with Me (1992). The carpet is identical to the carpet in the Red Room in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), cast in stark monochrome. The Lady in the Radiator, emerging from a picture Lynch scribbled in the food room, sings In Heaven in haunting, emotive repetition.

In Heaven
Everything is fine
You got your good thing
And I’ve got mine

Over 6 years of production, Lynch followed a wave of creativity. As he tells Chris Rodley, Lynch developed an idea for an educational series with Coulson entitled I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge, about a young mother who lost her woodsman husband in a forest fire and carries her log everywhere, that eventually manifested as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks.

Lynch’s use of monochrome is superb, showing dedication to the image thanks to cinematographers Herb Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Monochrome might be born of necessity from economic limitations, but has aesthetic potential both in adding dramatic weight and surrealism. When done wrong, monochrome can seem flat, but monochrome can elevate films like La haine (1995) and Nebraska (2013), evoking an entire mood, beyond the evocations of historical contexts in Schindler’s List (1993) and Ed Wood (1993). Lynch wanted to capture a mood, filming at night without external lights or sounds, creating a descent into the subconscious.

Though Eraserhead is surrealist, its power doesn’t lie within abstraction, but grounded within the real. Eraserhead’s concerns are human: tending after an ailing parent, raising a son, resolving family conflict, the relatable circumstances of Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) bringing her boyfriend home to her awkward yet interested family, a ritual all likely go through. Lynch had explored conflicted parental relationships in his experimental short The Grandmother (1970), but Eraserhead goes deeper. The industrial landscapes were drawn from Lynch’s own time in a decaying Philadelphia, forming “a world between a factory and a factory neighborhood” of “little torments” that is “neither here nor there”.

Though never autobiographical, Lynch drew upon his experiences, both in his deteriorating relationship with his wife Peggy and daughter Jennifer, who spent time on set. As Joel Blackledge writes, Lynch was a “reluctant father”: Jennifer was born with club feet, whilst Spencer’s “dark suit and gravity-defying hair” evokes Lynch’s “trademark look”.

Eraserhead moves into our own consciousness and bodies. Consciousness is an absurdity: minds within an embodied vessel of flesh and bone. Lynch questions our existence and its unreality, manifesting latent fears and anxieties within cinematic form. What makes us us? The head, beyond a vessel for consciousness, is an easy subject for experimental cinema. In A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès’ anthropomorphised moon gazes upon us; in Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), human faces meld into each other. Lynch’s visual effects are incredible, creating a design of an alien baby that stuns to this day. Lynch relies upon shock: a chicken dances; creatures stomped on; an eraser’s head is sharpened.

As he tells in Eraserhead Stories, Lynch found resources for the film from wherever he could, raiding a closed down studio for wire, nails and backdrops. Lynch contacted a veterinarian to acquire a dead cat that Lynch placed within a jar and dissected, watching the colour drain away from its internal organs; the cat never appears in the film in a recognisable form. Spencer’s suit and shoes were acquired from Goodwill; Coulson cut his hair. Eraserhead was completed and found distribution outside the festival circuit thanks to the monetary investments and finishing money from Jack and Mary Fisk and Sissy Spacek; its legacy continues to be felt.

Nighthawks (1978), dir. Ron Peck

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The influence of social realism upon Nighthawks is obvious. In an early scene, Geography teacher Jim (Ken Robertson) bumps into coworker Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), about to screen a print of a Ken Loach film for her class that Jim wants to catch, screening Cathy Come Home (1966), unable to acquire a copy of Kes (1969). Nighthawks relies largely on non-professional actors, advertising for roles in newspaper classifieds; Robertson is the only professional actor. Masters of British cinema Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell looked over drafts of the script, but their influence simply isn’t present. Ron Peck isn’t Ken Loach. Under the right director, non-professional actors’ naturalism can excel beyond the confines of stage and screen. But the cast, bored and under-directed, never provide interesting performances, unable to improvise in a way that isn’t amateurish. Peck attempts a style evoking documentary, but achieves neither documentary nor narrative cinema, struggling with shot composition and pacing, holding for too long through scenes which reveal no narrative information. Nighthawks is empty, revealing a film which could be condensed down by at least half an hour.

Peck never gives reasons to like Jim. Interesting aspects are barely explored: an uncreative day off with his camera, struggling to find a composition that satisfies, looking through the viewfinder at London’s recently erected high rises; at home, he views each slide through his projector. Though open to some of the other teachers, Jim is closeted to family. His character remains just as closeted. We know his sexual history as related to Judy: he pursued unsatisfying sexual relationships with women, gradually seeing more and more men. He meets men at clubs at night, going on dates but never holding anything down, finding it easy for people to walk out on him; turning up at a lover’s house to find him gone, without even a number. But we know little else.

Judy, as a source of connection, is perhaps the more interesting character, drinking a pint and eating a packet of crisps at the pub after work, afforded a lack of pretence of sexual tension that never entirely works out. Judy draws a contrast to Jim: she has a daughter and husband, trying to understand the queer community from a distance without being part of it, never able to entirely understand. She wants him to become more open to the outside world, pressuring him to attend the school dance.

The sections in school provide the film’s most interesting parts. As a Geography teacher teaching a class of mixed race kids, Jim is pretty bad at his job, struggling to control his pupils or teach them well. Jim struggles to keep boundaries between his two lives separate, turning up late after oversleeping, waking up in bed with a guy he met the previous night. Jim is never reprimanded; a substitute doesn’t take his place. Before Section 28 closed off any discussion of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” in school, Nighthawks is at its most interesting as Jim speaks honestly and openly about his sexuality. The camera pans over his pupils, genuinely curious and interested, throwing questions, defences and insults, with a variety of viewpoints: is he a transvestite, does he carry a handbag, does he wear women’s clothes? What does he do in bed besides sleep; does he go clubbing? Some kids are defensive, asking what’s the big deal; others profess to be gay bashers, yet are never seen acting upon their words. Maybe some of them are queer themselves: a girl wears a rainbow scarf; one of the homophobic boys wears a handkerchief.

Jim’s coming out is a manifestation of internal desire, making the process somewhat easy. Jim responds matter of fact: asking about their own relationships with women; denying he feels any attraction to the boys in the room. But this scene never feels entirely realistic, suffering no consequences. Though the principal offers a warning, he doesn’t expel him. But his concerns reveal an internalised culture of homophobia: Jim defends filling a gap in the curriculum, but the principal feels it should be contained to sex ed – a subject that still struggles to cover anything beyond cisgender, heterosexual bodies in any meaningful way.

At night, Jim has access to a world beyond. He drunkenly drives through London, Judy in the other seat, refusing her affections after the school disco as he refuses her affections, suggesting she get a taxi. At a café, Nighthawks draws its closest parallel to Edward Hopper’s painting: sitting, torn up, voicing his deepest, darkest feelings and insecurities as the world goes by. In the car, we sense Jim’s exhaustion as he and Judy debate the freedom and insecurity of non-monogamy. In his eyes, we sense he wants deeper connection: he doesn’t want this life, lacking opportunities to meet a long term, monogamous partner, struggling to reconcile his feelings.

The scenes in the discotheque provide community: in the opening, Jim is launched into another world, taking tokens from the usher. The repetitive synth beat is a relic, lacking licensing rights nor the transcendent disco lyrics of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Derek Jarman scouted locations, appearing in a cameo, but the club remains limited to an unconvincing set. The discotheque may be the film’s most queer element, but also it’s most uninteresting in a plot never allowing conflict that isn’t about being queer. Only a few years earlier, Fassbinder achieved far stronger along similar lines in Fox and His Friends (1975), exploring conflict along lines of capitalism, class and addiction. The discotheque is unrelentingly male and sexual, without space for other genders or trans people: men stand in lines in phallic desire, waiting for the next to approach without anything to talk about. In overlong close-ups, we see Jim’s male gaze: hit by red and blue lights, his desire stares out at other patrons.

Jim goes through a long series of men, lacking personalities, romantic or sexual attachment, as empty as Jim. Jim lists off names of men to Judy, unable to keep track of the most recent: Jim, Mike, Neal, Peter, John. Queer relationships intersect, lives as unstable as his own. Jim agrees on dates, covertly dropping men off the next morning, an everyday, morning routine – let’s do Thursday, let’s go to the pictures, let’s have a meal – but never displays any care for their lives or interests. Depicting queer life might be radical for 1978: Peck depicts sexuality that is never pornographic, but elicits the viewer’s gaze, something never seen on screen before, lingering on men making out, naked butts and flaccid dicks as men get dressed, but without any purpose nor erotic potential. Jim’s partners are merely people to politely take to bed.

Jim’s partners have some interesting elements: Neal seeks a job, reading over classifieds for something better than what he has. One man sought London as a place of queer opportunity as a metropolitan city, but never wants to become a prostitute. He meets men who came from Bolton and Leeds, from their own walks of life; an American banker and an Australian, only in the country for 18 months. One man he meets folds his bed away after sleeping together, hidden behind a mantelpiece with a curtain, chairs and a table carefully placed in front.

Nighthawks is an interesting remnant of post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS, especially within LGBTQIA+ cinema: the haircuts are awful; the bellbottoms and tattered blue jeans are gross; a man even wears a Logan’s Run (1976) t-shirt. Though it stands as a time capsule, it struggles to hold interest nor offer much value.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.