Body Double (1984), dir. Brian De Palma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Withnail & I (1987), dir. Bruce Robinson

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During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.

Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.

Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.

In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.

Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.

Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.

As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884). 

Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.

Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.

Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.

Vivian MacKerrell, the inspiration behind Withnail, died in 1995. As Robinson reflects in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of the screenplay:

[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.

In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.

Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.

Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.

Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”

What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.

Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.

Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.

McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), dir. Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ filmography splits between two themes: a deep connection to a musical artist and their hidden backstory, or a destructive suburban life, presented from a feminist perspective. Superstar, long suppressed, reliant on bootleg copies, brings all these themes into focus in its short 40 minute runtime.

In an interview around the release of I’m Not There. (2007), Haynes spoke of the process of acquiring consent of the artist for his projects – received from Bob Dylan for I’m Not There., rejected by David Bowie for Velvet Goldmine (1998), and sued by Richard Carpenter for Superstar. Though these films are about real historical figures, they were never about the real figures themselves, but something larger: a mythology; a reflection of time and culture, that could be expressed through an analogue, but not the person themselves.

Haynes both speculates and projects: in I’m Not There., Haynes reaches the ultimate level of subversion, embodying different Dylans reflecting different eras, repurposing artistic influences as analogues. Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), poet under interrogation; Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), black kid blues singer travelling across the Midwest in the back of train carriages; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), documentary subject and gospel singer; Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), James Dean-esque rebel without a cause; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), moving across the London art scene a la Dont Look Back (1967); and Billy McCarty (Richard Gere), rural, turn-of-the-century outlaw.

In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes folds multiple 1970s music personalities into one to create an analogous portrait of David Bowie through Brian Slade (John Rhys Meyers), and his relationship with musician Curt (Ewan McGregor), combining the soundtrack with the music of Brian Eno and shifting through musical eras from mods and rockers to glam rock. Beyond the image of the static artist, Haynes’ artist becomes fluid: a performative identity. Haynes never seeks to create the authentic biopic: only the sense of one.

To Haynes, the musician is central to the construction of his identity: in Velvet Goldmine, Arthur (Christian Bale) becomes analogous to Haynes, embracing his sexuality through Slade’s music. Haynes never directed Superstar through sinister intentions: first and foremost, it is grounded in an appreciation of the music itself. Superstar could never exist without the Carpenters’ music, recreated in stage performances. Haynes speaks of his appreciation of Karen Carpenter himself in a documentary segment, credited as DJ Todd Donovan, expressing what was so radical about her work.

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Haynes as ‘Todd Donovan’

As listeners to an artist’s work, we are never aware of their authentic lives: only the sense, represented within lyrics, newspaper headlines, interviews and speculation. In Velvet Goldmine, the private persona reveals Slade’s queer identity; here, Karen’s private persona reveals her struggle with anorexia. Objectively, Superstar is a biopic about Karen Carpenter. Yet where Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. acted as a retrospective celebration of the musical scene of the 1960s and 70s, Superstar is more the story of a woman’s struggle with anorexia, though embodied through the persona of Carpenter.

Karen Carpenter’s name may not carry the same cultural recognition today as it had in 1988, but the narrative of the vulnerable female celebrity recurs throughout culture, from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse, whose struggle with drug addiction became posthumously represented in Amy (2015) through archival footage. Yet we do not understand their personal struggles through a reality, we understand it through a constructed image. As Lindsay Ellis explains in her Loose Canon analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s representation within culture, Monroe became more a symbol than a person: a brand and a piece of intellectual property.

Haynes juxtaposes Karen’s musical performances with her personal struggle. As a cultural icon celebrated by Nixon, Karen feels the weight of representing positive American values. Singing about being “on top of the world” becomes ironic: she is in her depths. In the final scene, Karen’s music coalesces together as collage, removed from comprehension as her bodily self degrades.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Haynes is able to communicate emotion through dolls. Haynes simultaneously saves his budget whilst presenting a heavily cited influence on body image – the slender, impossible body perpetuated by Barbie. As the film progresses, we see Karen’s body become slenderer and slenderer – just as the ideal body size decreases as the years and decades pass.

Haynes accepts the limitation of low-budget filmmaking and uses it to his advantage, never losing anything in the process: he understands composition, uses period-appropriate sets, understands how to use colour (as so beautifully shown in Far from Heaven (2002)), lights every scene perfectly, understands editing. Haynes is no amateur: he isn’t a 15 year old directing an Action Figure Adventure. Haynes recreates Karen’s musical performances, depicting her in the recording studio, or in a black TV studio draped in colourful lights. Haynes doesn’t need to show a studio audience; the performance conveys enough. Yet in bootleg VHS form, Superstar becomes defined by its lo-fi nature.

In part, the film takes on the form an essay film, presenting historical context (the TV plays in the background of the family home, with news reports about the riots and revolutions of the 1960s and the Nixon administration) alongside propositions and arguments, examining the Carpenters’ place in American society and the rise of anorexia, illustrated through scenes. Haynes places information around anorexia in the form of expositional title cards, whilst his documentary-style footage acts as a source to be analysed.

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The film’s title cards lend an essayistic structure

When we were taught about anorexia and bulimia in high school, it never felt like it was going to achieve much. Eating disorders were as badly taught as sex education was in the same classes, unable to communicate how widespread rape is and how consent is misunderstood, exempted from queer narratives in favour of the dominant heterosexual one. Anorexia was taught in a collection of testimonials presented on a page, never presented as a real, tangible thing, treating male anorexia as uncommon and an afterthought. Its sufferers were never living, breathing humans, not acknowledging that many of the people in the room may also come to suffer, or have suffered, from it.

Through the character of Karen, Haynes presents scenes that may feel familiar. Karen feels the pressures of being a public media personality, encouraged to experiment with diets, like the Stillman diet, in order to lose weight, because a columnist described her as “chubby”. These pressures are only amplified today, through constant comment from sexist Daily Mail paparazzi shoots and social media, or the edited instincts of Photoshop. Karen finds restaurant and family meals difficult, refusing to eat from her plate as Richard asks her to just take a bite. Karen’s revulsion to food becomes the enemy; in a disjuncture edit, food is shot in stark monochrome as though it were a 1950s horror film. Haynes’ editing is subversive and experimental, showing the constantly decreasing weight on the scales, lips moving, plates being replaced and taken away, to depict a indescribable relationship with anorexia.

Haynes implicates a number of pressures: the Ex-Lax pills promise an easy fix and obsession, only servicing consumer culture in a culture of overabundance. Similarly, when Karen reaches 108 pounds, her family toasts her progress – only making Karen feel like the process will be easy; recovery becomes just as dangerous as the condition alone. When Karen confides in her dietician over the telephone, she feels unable to progress through a “long, hard battle” that will last several years.

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The Ex-Lax pills become a source of dependency for Karen

Haynes grounds these pressures within the suburban home of the latter half of the 20th century. In the opening sequence, the camera pans through a suburban neighborhood, until focusing upon the Carpenter household. Through the production design, Haynes recreates an authentic image of the 1970s household. The suburban home as a constructed self-destructive prison within society to a female protagonist saw Carol develop chemical sensitivity in Safe (1995), Cathy’s socially taboo relationship with Raymond and her husband Richard’s queer sexuality in Far from Heaven, and Carol’s secret relationship with Therese in Carol (2015). Here, Haynes implicates the overprotective family: Karen’s mother, Agnes, believes she must be protected by living at home, away from a lifestyle of drugs, though Karen is in her 20s. She becomes imprisoned by her own family, only to develop a dependence on an entirely legal drug.

Yet this suburban lifestyle exists because of the era it exists within. Through exposition, Haynes links the post-war end of rationing, bringing about the plentiful availability of food, to the rise of anorexia. Karen experiences the pressures of femininity – as a woman with a career, she feels the pressures to look good that many men do not experience. In exposition, Haynes describes anorexia as a rejection of the “doctrines of femininity”, in line with how Susan Bordo described anorexia as a resistance to cultural norms and a rebellion against femininity in Unbearable Weight (1993).

Karen wants agency over her music career, social circles and her body, yet encounters continual obstacles. She declares she will move away from home to undergo her treatment, yet encounters resistance from her parents. Undergoing the treatment, she feels “more in control than ever”, yet still does not have full agency.

Haynes’ editing adopts the structure of a music documentary, combining montages of remixed archival footage, animated newspaper headlines, news reports on anorexia’s effects, and vox pop interviews with people on the street. In I’m Not There., documentary became a central part of the narrative: we learn of Jack Rollins’ life through documentary extracts, interviewing family and past collaborators, with archival footage of Rollins receiving an award and performing at a church presented with the benefit of hindsight. In the sections focusing on Jude Quinn, we become aware of the unseen observer, D.A. Pennebaker, documenting the events seen in Dont Look Back (though the timeframe of events is rearranged), reinforced through cinéma-vérité-esque monochrome cinematography. Haynes becomes interested in telling multiple narratives, rather than relying upon a single source.

Superstar should not officially exist, buried through lawsuits intended to protect Karen’s legacy. The film never seeks to present the official narrative of Karen’s career or relationship with anorexia. Taken as a precursor to Haynes’ later film work, Superstar is an essential watch, often uneasy and depressing, yet no less powerful.

My 2016 in Film: The 1980s

The 1980s are my decade. Which feels odd to say, given I was born in the late 90s. Politically, the period is interesting, juxtaposing commerce and capitalism and giving rise to neoliberalism (see: every Adam Curtis film ever), alongside nuclear paranoia and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Comic books became darker, bringing interesting and meditative new takes to superheroes through V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-7), Batman: Year One (1987) and The Sandman (1989-96). Music became what Donnie Darko (2001) would go on to celebrate. Meanwhile, the decade was populated with directors like Joe Dante, Oliver Stone and Walter Hill.

This list will never be complete: by my count, I watched 40 films from the decade over the course of the year. There’s simply too many to devote enough space to Blow Out (1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) or From Beyond (1986). But hopefully this will give a good overview of a decade whose cinema was populated by a diverse set of worlds.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), dir. Lou Adler

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains feels like how a model for how a Jem and the Holograms (2015) movie should be done. Rather than a surface level message around embracing individual identity and a modernised narrative of the social media popstar, the Fabulous Stains tells a story of teenage musicians from a genuine place, implicating the role of the media in promoting artists (and demonising its young followers) and its effects on the artists themselves. Where the punk aesthetic saw youth disenfranchisement and nuclear obliteration in Repo Man (1984), here we see how a cult emerges around an artist. Through the mantra of “never put out”, it grounds itself within the punk ideology of not selling out – but how tenable is that position? Incorporating faux news footage, Fabulous Stains settles more for ambivalence than anything else.

Lou Adler’s name may seem familiar – Adler has spent his entire career producing musical artists and launching Cheech & Chong as known artists. Adler knows the industry, so is able to use that experience to build an authentic narrative.

This type of empowering, feminist film feels particularly 80s; in The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), the commercialised, media cult of personality is again called into question, as Billie tries to defend herself against her rapist. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Paper Girls (2016-present), the suburban young teenage narratives of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently Stranger Things (2016) is subverted, applying those same coming-of-age struggles to female protagonists.

Starman (1984), dir. John Carpenter

No other decade is as good at science fiction as the 1980s: from the acceptance of mortality in a Floridian retirement home in Cocoon (1985), to the nautical first contact of The Abyss (1989), to the apocalyptic, reality TV visions of The Running Man (1987). I have a soft spot for John Carpenter, and that’s not just because I spent the year blazing through his filmography with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Christine (1983), or saw him perform live in ManchesterStarman is far from one of Carpenter’s best efforts, and frequently transcends credibility, yet Starman is such a heartfelt story of a man from another world that it hardly matters.

The Starman’s appearance on Earth is Christ-like, visiting for a handful of days to bring peace until he must return home. Though he may seem creepy as he stalks Jenny and initiates a relationship with her in the form of her dead husband Scott, his only malice emerges from outside influences: government operatives, or a fight in the bar. In some ways, Starman is a road movie, as the Starman must travel from Wisconsin to Arizona in Jenny’s car before time runs out. Though Starman will never reach the cult appreciation levelled towards Escape from New York (1981) or They Live (1988), it still carries a special place in Carpenter’s filmography. Hopefully, with Indicator releasing ChristineVampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) from Sony’s catalogue on Blu-ray, we’ll be able to see a UK release of this very soon.

Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch

I’m unable to deal with the fact it took me five years to lose my David Lynch virginity. Back in 2011, when my friend Zach was introducing me to the Criterion Collection and other incredible films, I never thought to pick up the David Lynch DVD boxset I was eyeing up. I’ve still not watched Eraserhead (1977) or Mulholland Drive (2001), whilst I’ve still yet to complete my journey through Twin Peaks (1990-91) that I began in June amongst every other film or TV series, like Class (2016) or Black Mirror (2011-present) that is on my radar.

Rarely do I give a film 5 stars, unable to determine whether something is truly perfect, or the difference between 4.5 and 5. Yet Blue Velvet is as unquestionably perfect as a Stanley Kubrick film. Lynch stared into the frame and created a film with a true vision. As with the musical sequences within Twin Peaks, music takes on a performative female identity. Within the noir genre, aided by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch creates a gripping portrait of sexual power, dominance, masculinity and femininity, with shades of some of his later works.

Miracle Mile (1988), dir. Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile opens in a nighttime coffee shop in Los Angeles; it ends in a helicopter. Over the course of the film, Harry tries to outrun the inevitable, moving between the Mutual Life Benefit Building and gymnasiums, rescuing family in the process. Miracle Mile‘s nihilistic approach to the end of the world seems to have shades of how the Death Star’s power is treated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Yet it fits with an entire genre of 1980s cinematic nuclear apocalypses, from The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) to When the Wind Blows (1988).

Yet Miracle Mile embeds lightness within its darkness: Night of the Comet (1984) may have dealt with the death of almost everybody in Los Angeles, but it still had Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Here, we open in a diner defined by caricatures, from drunks to clerks to drag queens; later, we meet body builders, or old women going on dates. Unlike the soul-crushing Threads, the strength of Miracle Mile is how it oscillates between these two tones, only amplifying the power of the desperation of the film’s ending.

For All Mankind (1989), dir. Al Reinert

Brian Eno’s music can help make any film moving and incredible, from Rachel’s struggle with cancer in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) to Todd Haynes‘ portrait of 1970s London in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Here, Eno’s music almost becomes a transcendental experience, as beautifully linked to the visuals as Philip Glass’ was in Koyaanisqatsi (1984). Rather than leave archival footage of the moon landings in a vault, ready to be used in extract form in every TV special or documentary, alongside assorted talking heads of variable value, allows this footage to be played in full, in the best quality available. For All Mankind is one of very few films which can truly attest to being largely filmed in outer space.

Space may be just as inspiring within fictional narratives, but For All Mankind is something special. We never doubt the science, or the dubious CGI, or if this is what a spacecraft is actually like. Yet it still feels like science fiction, never our reality. Though many voices have tried to retell their experiences of the Apollo missions, here their voices become a collective – a collective experiences of multiple missions – told within one story. For All Mankind never reaches the narrative suspense of what one expects from a fiction film or a documentary – but it remains a spectacle, that needs to be seen. Not in some 480p YouTube version – but on the Criterion or MOC Blu-ray. Looking out at the universe, this film deserves to be seen in all its glory.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), dir. Steven Soderbergh

Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s meant to. Often, there’s a recent tendency with films examining the emotional impact of sexuality to rely upon explicit sex scenes, whether simulated or real. Think of recent examples like Shortbus (2006), Nymphomaniac (2013) or Love (2015), even outside of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). These films seem split in critical opinion: are they porn, or are they art? I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, something I’ve really had to confront over the past year, embracing my asexuality.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is uncomfortable, yet it is uncomfortable in its characters and scenarios, from Graham’s VHS library to Ann’s actions within the film, instead resorting to confessional style monologues; never does it use sex itself to make the viewer uncomfortable. It is not about the sex act itself – but the impact of it. Videotape carries a universality around its taboo – whether one is poly, ace, mono, straight, queer, everyone has their own relationship to sexuality. Soderbergh deconstructs sexuality – just as he does with masculinity in Magic Mike (2012).

John Carpenter: Release the Bats Tour

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Ten months ago, I learnt some shocking news: John Carpenter, the director of Escape from New York (1981) and They Live (1988), would be performing his music live. In the UK. I flipped, and booked tickets as soon as I possibly could.

Then he announced he would also be performing at the Warwick Arts Centre two days beforehand, essentially a 40 minute journey from my house.

So currently I’m spending a weekend in an actually not terrible and actually rather friendly hostel in Manchester.

Whenever I try to explain the concert to people, I always get a similar reaction. “Who’s John Carpenter?” Carpenter is the very definition of iconic. I can acknowledge directors like Dziga Vertov for how much they altered the medium of filmmaking, providing breathtaking montages and striking visuals, but there’s something incredibly watchable about Carpenter’s films.

It feels odd to admit as a 19 year old born at the tail end of the 90s that I have this weird obsession with 80s films. Each decade of cinema has its own qualities, but the 80s has something special about it. Maybe it has a reputation for awful fashions, cheesy action movie one-liners, and dumb pop music. But the fashion is fucking amazing. Visual effects ruled thanks to ILM, Phil Tippett, Tom Savini, Rick Baker and many others. The Human League, Eurythmics and Kraftwerk became the masters of synth. The X-Men moved to Australia.

But then the 80s also gave us neoliberalism, excess consumerism and Donald Trump.

Tracing the roots of this infatuation is difficult. Maybe it starts as being an apologist for 80s Doctor Who from the age of 10. When I first properly got into film in 2011, I started with the masters: Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick. But around the same time, I also had friends introducing me to Carpenter’s contemporaries, like Walter Hill, and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

By the mid-90s, synth seemed to be disappearing from the music landscape. Big budget blockbusters seemed to rely instead on emotional, heartwrenching orchestras, or pop music soundtracks cobbled together from whichever artists who work for their record label. James Horner went from Commando (1985) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Recently, in an interview with Little White Lies, Carpenter stated of his use of synth:

I started using synthesisers out of necessity, because it was the cheapest thing available to me at the time.

But recently, synth seems to have undergone a reappraisal. In the wake of Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007), throwback films like The House of the Devil (2009), Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Turbo Kid (2015) have embraced the style of the past.

Synth is a versatile medium: it does not purely represent disco or the worst of 80s cheese. It can represent technology, the unsettling, the unnatural, and the thriller. Often it can be a framework for innovating something different: The Social Network (2010), It Follows (2014) and The Neon Demon (2016) use this aesthetic to explore something new. But it seems to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance within the music industry too, thanks to synthpop artists like M83, CHVRCHES, Years and Years, Troye Sivan. Synth is not dead.

In 2015, five years after his last directorial effort (2010’s The Ward), Carpenter debuted his album Lost Themes, alongside his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies. Now, he’s touring the US and Europe as a badass rockstar, alongside Cody, Davies and John Konesky and John Spiker from Jack Black’s Tenacious D. Yes, Tenacious D. This seems like the best career move for Carpenter; all artists must find a new avenue, as David Lynch has with his artwork.

Getting to the venue was a stressful experience. It had been a stressful day: relying on Google Maps to find a quicker route to the train station was an awful decision on my part, and the Virgin Train was so packed that it felt as if another #Traingate was inevitable. Then there was the stress of accidentally buying a single tram ticket when the return was 20p more.

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The venue was originally to be held at the Manchester Albert Hall, but over the course of the year, the original ticket vendors folded; the venue was moved to a recently converted, modern arts venue, the Victoria Warehouse, a 20 minute tram from the city centre. As I walked down to the venue, legions of other people dressed in football shirts walked in the opposite direction.

Maybe I’m glad I got to the venue early: it felt like a little community of 20-somethings and 40-somethings, girlfriends dragged along, all brought together by the same thing. But there must always be something to occupy the mind in queues. When the ambulance pulled up at the venue, I started to get worried. Has there been a massive accident between a technician and a loose wire? Has Carpenter had a heart attack? Has Carpenter suddenly died, ready to join Roddy Piper in the sky? I stressed out for half an hour, until the paramedics and the ambulance wheeled away to a nearby parking space, probably waiting on hold until the first person ends up with a shard of glass in their eye, or is in desperate need of having their stomach pumped.

Buying overpriced merchandise before the show had even started, I began to wonder whether I had learnt anything at all from They Live. But I tried to be restrained: people walked into the venue carrying signed vinyl albums, t-shirts from The Thing (1982) and Escape from New York, lithographs and more. But it just seems too much – unlike my trip to the Troye Sivan concert last year, I wasn’t that guy spending £70 in one go. So instead I walked into the venue carrying a poster and a plastic (!) bottle of beer.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-15-47-36The venue seems to have received a wide amount of flack on social media, with numerous ticket holders complaining about being unable to see anything, or hear much at all either. A few days later, the Facebook page was completely down.

Personally, I have no real issues to report. That isn’t everybody’s experience, which is fair. Standing next to the Joker and Michael Myers near the stage, I was at a good vantage point. The warehouse was vast, stretching back to crowds far back. Moving two different shows into one was never going to work perfectly. But it feels almost appropriate – sitting in the Albert Hall would feel too formal, too operatic – unlike the sheer rebellious fun of Carpenter’s films, fighting against and within the Hollywood film industry. Instead, it feels like an underground show of decades ago.

Carpenter was having sheer fun, elevated from film director to a 68 year old rockstar. Chewing tobacco through every song; moving his eyes along to the audience (“I see you”, his hands gestured); dancing along like some cute old granddad; putting his sunglasses on through the They Live section.

Maybe instrumentals aren’t the most exciting part of live performance – there’s a framework, but no sense of the deviation and chaos of performing lyrics to a live audience. Visuals were provided in the form of clips from Carpenter’s films, vignetted by a Chinatown border for Big Trouble in Little China (1986); window blinds for Halloween (1978); a mirror image for some of his other films. But Carpenter never fully took on the rockstar persona. There was no sense of talking to the audience, or describing his experience of working on his films. Simple words, simple phrases, talking about being a master of horror; warning everybody to be safe and look out for Christine when they drive home tonight.

There was no sense of looking forward, but looking back. Carpenter performed a handful of songs from Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, but it didn’t feel like enough – instead, it just became a film retrospective. Even my favourite song from the album, Night, felt more gripping in its music video.

Looking bad isn’t a bad thing – but Carpenter was clearly following the iconic image of himself. There was no time for Kurt Russell in Elvis (1979), or Ice Cube and Jason Statham in Ghosts of Mars (2001), or even the scary children in Village of the Damned (1995). There was no sense of challenging his less than successful efforts.

It kind of made me question how much of a Carpenter fan I even am. I’ve seen his main ones – Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live. I even watched Starman (1984) earlier this year. But I’ve not seen Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), or Christine (1983), or Prince of Darkness (1987). Maybe I can hope HMV gets copies of Christine in as soon as possible, or that Arrow Video can get the rights to Scream Factory’s release of The Thing, or for Studiocanal to lose control of their mishandling of The Fog (1980). Many of his films, I’ve only seen once. But that’s not what’s important – I still love him as a director.

After the concert and everybody flooded out through the fire escapes, hordes of people lined up outside, dressed in Halloween costumes. Through the crowds lined the Snake Plisskens and the John Nadas. Through the fans, I wandered back to my tram, so packed that I almost found myself jammed against the window. It almost felt like the violent subway of The Warriors (1979). But it had been a good night. Maybe not the greatest Halloween, or even as great as I imagined it – but it was still a lot of fun.

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The Breakfast Club (1985), dir. John Hughes

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Before collaborating with John Candy, John Hughes was quickly becoming the voice of a teenage generation, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Pretty in Pink (1986) . Today, the teen movie can become easily formulaic. The shy, isolated teenager whose life is transformed through a series of events. The riotous group of friends who drink, fuck and party, whilst raising a middle finger to the law. The Breakfast Club combines these things into something unique.

How The Breakfast Club became such an iconic film seems improbable. The film is intentionally minimalist, restricted to one building, set over seven or eight hours and focused around five characters (with additional roles for the teacher, the janitor and the kids’ parents). I found half an hour detention difficult enough – why would anyone want to sit through a ninety minute detention, let alone ninety minutes in the cinema of characters talking to each other? It could just about work as a stageplay.

(Fun fact – my GCSE Drama piece was originally going to be an adaptation of this, but when we found our group had no girls, I ended up playing Gordie in Stand By Me and got a measly C.)

Although the film is known for its soundtrack, even the soundtrack is kept to a minimum – brought in at particular moments, when the rigid boredom of the library is penetrated. Scenes breathe with minimal dialogue but the clicking of pens and feet on the floor. For any studio to have any confidence financing that – and an audience responding to that – seems remarkable. Films like 12 Angry Men (1957), known for their use of limited space, light up fans of 1950s cinema and Criterion, but this is a mainstream, critically acclaimed film that everybody knows.

The Breakfast Club would not have worked without the performances of its characters. On the face of it, its characters are stereotypes. Yet they are grounded in reality, and you can just about see them as real people, if a little exaggerated. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Their individual quirks are communicated as obviously as in their own lunches, from sushi to XXL portions.

But even these terms can be a bit simplistic. A basket case, or an isolated girl with both artistic talent and her own anxieties? A criminal, or a rock music loving, homophobic, sexual harrasser jackass?

Behind these broad character types that litter casting calls and every spec script are real humans with real emotion. We begin to understand these characters as they begin to understand each other, with their own family issues and pressures to be the best people they can be. Brian, on the face of it, is a dork who cares about getting work done and being involved in physics club. But this strips back to a person who emulates Bender’s sassy rapport with Vernon, smokes weed and isn’t just the perfect image of 1950s America. By finding a friendship with Claire, we see that behind Allison’s long hair and sugar and crisp sandwiches is a pretty girl with a newfound confidence and a beautiful dress.

This same technique is applied to the adults as well. Vernon is a hard-line principal, and a mythical figure to the students who don’t know him as anything but a principal. He’s proud of his career and how he is shaping future generations, but this image of himself is removed to reveal his fear for how the next generation will look after him, and deconstructed by the janitor. This has been explored in better ways in other films – Dan in Half Nelson (2006); Henry in Detachment (2011) – but the focus here is squarely on the students rather than the teachers.

The Breakfast Club is a lesson in understanding people complexly. But it can also be read as more than that. Sitting here as a university student, sitting in the library for eight hours on a Saturday doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me, it sounds like a productive weekend. Brian’s parents are even advocating he makes the most of the time. But then we have high school students, forced to sit through classes they don’t want to take, learning very little they will actually use, whilst teachers sit around just as frustrated as the students themselves. Brian makes a good critique of the very act of essay writing in the essay he produces for the group:

“But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are.”

All five characters and transformed over the course of the film – because learning is done through social interaction, not the classroom itself. Teenage identity is a fluid thing rather than a marker of future identity, despite how Vernon sees Bender’s criminal future.

High school is a joke, and this film helps bring back some difficult memories. Rather than add to the “teenagers go wild and fuck each other” film genre, it deconstructs the whole toxic culture of holding sexuality up as a trophy and virginity as a sacred thing. Allison and Claire discuss this double standard when applied to girls, but it’s a universal thing that I can look back at as an asexual kid and thank God that this whole culture doesn’t completely carry over to adulthood.

Perhaps the reason for its success is because it’s so relatable. I see shades of myself in Brian, but I also see shades of my teenage self in Allison’s insular yet creative self. I knew girls who were like Claire; I knew sporty kids who were like Andy; I knew homophobic sexist dickwad bullies like Bender. Each viewer can project themselves onto a different character. There is no singular protagonist, and there is no indiscriminate, identical group of friends.

But looking back a couple of years after high school ended, even the people I knew in high school (that I still have some contact with) are completely different. By the end of it, everyone understands they may never see each other again, and head off on their own separate ways. This melding of different cliques together into one whole is possible – it was always temporary.

Yet I still feel like this is a film that needs to be watched around high school. In high school – as a meta, immersive experimental art piece, with clocks still ticking in the background, and rows of chairs ahead.

It still holds up in adulthood – but it just isn’t the same.

The Firm (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

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Alan Clarke’s TV dramas remain a staple of 1980s television for bringing us thought provoking drama; an era which fought Thatcherism and showcased minorities and council estates in Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who, and presented viewers at home with the dystopian visions of Threads (1984).

As the BBC focuses its home video releases towards BBC Store, we rely on the BFI for HD restorations. The Firm brings out a lot of colour, especially compared to Elephant (1989), where the dull, misty grey skies and dark corridors of Belfast are unable to bring as much of an image to life as we get here. It’s remarkable the image the BFI has managed to get out of a 16mm print, and it’s a very welcome upgrade; it feels like it was shot in the 1980s, but it doesn’t feel like a videotape. Unfortunately, although the extended cut has some worthy additions (including some more sinister scenes with Bex, and a lot more blood), its faded, red-tinted image is inconsistent with the fully restored image of the rest of the film, still feeling very much a part of the workprint.

Gary Oldman’s performance as Bex, decades before his role as Commissioner Gordon, draws a lot of attention towards the film, but perhaps more notable is Steve McFadden’s portrayal of Billy, better known as Phil Mitchell in EastEnders (1985-present). It’s a joy seeing him here; every second, I expect him to yell out some cockney slang. Bex is entirely despicable, his character created through despicable acts. In one scene, he rapes his wife; yet their relationship is complex. She regains the power, laughing as a control mechanism, forcing herself on top of him. In an earlier scene in the extended version, she touches his erection, entirely of her own volition. In the most chilling scene, we see their baby use Bex’s Stanley knife as a toothbrush, bleeding out everywhere.

The Firm is a lot more fun than Elephant, and has its scenes of humour, yet still doesn’t shy away from the real issues. The final scene acts as a justification for the love of football, breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience, whilst panning out to reveal Clarke’s camera crew, in a scene similar to the end of Monty Python and Holy Grail (1975). Bex’s death reveals the unreality of the film; the firm is but a shallow construct.

Elephant (1989), dir. Alan Clarke

Elephant is deliberately minimalist, stripping away dialogue and context to provide a brutal depiction of the Troubles in Belfast during the late 1980s.

It remains chilling viewing, yet I somewhat prefer Gus Van Sant’s approach. Clarke asks the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the stimulus on the screen, to spark a conversation about the “elephant in the room”. He kind of did: the film received heavy backlash upon its broadcast, especially from viewers in Belfast. (The extract from Open Air on the Blu-ray, interviewing Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle after the broadcast, is essential viewing for this background.) Whereas Van Sant’s approach was to speculate multiple reasons as to why the school shooting was carried out, leaving the audience to determine which factor they deem the most important or influential; both are thought pieces that leave ambiguity. The main difference is that Van Sant gave every character a background: both the killer and the victim. Here, everyone is a blank slate. The shooters pass for everyday people in casual dress.

But it’s clear the use of Steadicam influenced Van Sant, although here it reinforces the POV of the killers, building up to the suspense of who they may kill next. In Van Sant’s film, it built up suspense from the POV of the victim, leading up to what they may discover in the next classroom. Van Sant limited himself to a school and teenagers killing fellow students and teachers. The IRA don’t discriminate. Anyone, in any corner of Belfast, is not safe.

What is perhaps most impressive is the use of sound: despite the sparse dialogue, there’s an uneasy atmosphere from dogs barking to cars revving. Yet despite a sea of cars, there are no human voices to break the silence and raise the issue. The issue is as it appears on screen.

Elephant is worth watching, but it is a conversation starter, rather than the final word on the Troubles.

Night of the Comet (1984), dir. Thom Eberhardt

Night of the Comet seems closer to Escape from New York than Dawn of the Dead. It’s a fun, humoured, if somewhat throwaway 80s flick that still tackles serious themes and subjects.

It barely constitutes a horror film; most of the time, the zombies are human in form, or appear briefly in a dream sequence, or in one or two other scenes. The film isn’t a fight against zombies, it’s a factionalised fight within a humanless world – fights amongst each other. Honestly, a 15 rating seems too much. The focus is squarely on our protagonists. It’s refreshingly familial, and fairly feminist with its two female leads. It’s a very 80s film, but that’s no bad thing. It’s a coming of age story within a world where there is no-one else, with all the responsibility, individuality and freedom that entails.

An apocalyptic event isn’t presented through CGI, but as the entirety of society turned to dust – a much more terrifying thought than a plague of zombies. It becomes a little more ambiguous. Through the conceit of how our leads have survived, there’s a dichotomy between the interior and exterior world. It is the teenagers and the mallrats, existing within the interior world of television and radio, that have survived to build our new world – not the adults, who stand outside with overpriced boppers waiting for a comet show.

Arthur Albert provides some fantastic cinematography, creating a portrait of a humanless, orange tinted Los Angeles, that lives on through routines and mechanisation – sprinklers spraying the glass for no human to observe; televisions playing to no viewers, that reminds me somewhat of Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

I edited a remix of these sequences on my Vimeo:

Fatal Attraction (1987), dir. Adrian Lyne

fatal

Of all places, I first heard about this film in late 1980s issues of The Amazing Spider-Man (the Michelinie/McFarlane run.) In light of their other roles, it’s odd to see Hank Pym and Cruella de Vil having sex.

The film raised considerable press and discussion around release, partly because of the men who could relate to Dan’s position. I couldn’t imagine myself doing what Dan does early on in this film. A caring, pretty wife and an androgynous daughter (it took me a long time to stop misgendering her) seems the far more desirable option. But then I’ve not been married for 9 years, so what do I know?

Defining Alex and Dan’s relationship becomes difficult. Dan precipitates it by leading Alex on, out of the rain. But Alex becomes almost a ‘femme fatale’, an object of desire that she embraces, yet despises being treated as a “whore”. They find romantic instincts, drink fine wine and have a love of Madame Butterfly, in a scene which I swear to inspired the screenwriters of the Doctor Who TV movie 9 years later, used as an object of romantic bonding.

Who is the victim of the film? Dan seems to be a hardworking, caring guy who doesn’t want infidelity, but is pressured into it by Alex. She becomes a ‘psycho ex’, stalking and ruining Dan’s life. Alex could easily fill the role of the female horror villain. Think of Jason’s mom in Friday the 13th (1980) – she’s an everyday mother driven to do the unthinkable; she stabs people because of loss, and because of mental illness. But Dan subjects her to a fair amount of physical abuse, leading questions to whether the abuse is justified. Ultimately, in the end, she becomes a victim of both the empowered Dan and the empowered Beth, in a final scene of violent confrontation that reminds me in part of the conclusion to Taxi Driver (1976) – a bloody, and perhaps somewhat justified, end to a reign of terror.

But Alex is still a strong character – she’s an independent, career woman, where all she wants is a family like Dan’s. She makes her own maternal decisions on carrying forward the pregnancy. She could easily be a compelling representation of a person suffering from depression. Unfortunately, the film reaches a point of melodrama past where it rings completely false to real life.

I appreciate the film’s circularity. We hear an anecdote from Dan about how he pushed away his own mother because he doesn’t practice family law, but over the course of the film, he reaches a point where family law can’t save him now. It’s apt that Dan is cast as a lawyer, tempted towards sin and eventually into crime.

In the original ending, the film is more cyclical – it draws a firmer conclusion: Beth listens to the cassette tape that Alex recorded; Dan finds consequences for his actions, as the police he was speaking to before reappear; and it draws a beautiful conclusion, mirroring Madame Butterfly with Alex’s suicide – something almost inevitable following the scene where she slashed her wrists, and presented a false version of herself as better, but clearly wasn’t.

I like both endings, but the original fits the film a little better. So thanks, test screenings.

On a final note, there is something I love about seeing New York in the 1980s. Though the film tells a relatively timeless story, part of the reason I love older films is because it can become a sort of time capsule to decades beforehand: to escape into a world that isn’t the everyday, whilst still pulling from everyday experiences I can relate to.