Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.

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.

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), dir. John Maybury

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The BBC built a minor industry from TV movie biopics, illuminating controversial and celebrated great lives, touching upon queer figures in films like Christopher and His Kind (2011). But TV movie don’t necessarily lose ingenuity, even within limitations. Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach honed their craft on TV movies, through anthology series like The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84), confronting social issues through humanised characters. International directors like Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, finding their careers in decline, turned to television for funding. Even when TV movies fall into ethereality, years after broadcast, they can remain important documents of time and place, transcending limitations.

Love is the Devil was developed under relative freedom from producer George Faber, with funding from the Arts Council and Japanese and French financiers. As Maybury relates in a Q&A at the BFI, when the original cast, Malcolm McDowell and Tim Roth, backed out, he took a year to develop the script and find a story. Maybury wasn’t just approaching it as an obligatory biopic, but telling a queer perspective, having worked with queer icons like Sinead O’Connor and Boy George in music videos and studied under Derek Jarman, one of the most notable voices in underground British cinema.

Maybury met Francis Bacon a few times before he died, but never more than briefly. As an art student, Maybury looked up to him, but Love is the Devil never glorifies its subject: it does the exact opposite, making both artist and art seem repulsive and toxic. Anyone hoping to leave the film with an appreciation for his life and work won’t find it. Bacon (Derek Jacobi) is both manipulative and self-righteous. As George Dyer (Daniel Craig) stumbles into his studio through a skylight, Bacon immediately asks Dyer to bed, without much room for an alternative answer. Without ever agreeing their relationship isn’t monogamous, Bacon leaves Dyer in the pouring rain late at night, banging on the door and screaming, as Bacon receives oral from a man he met at the local casino. He isolates himself from Dyer, framing his studio as his own space, not letting him come in with his keys.

Bacon brushes off Dyer’s suicide attempts as childish and immature, never grasping the reality, immature in himself; self-righteous to both his own and all others’ art, openly utilising Dyer as muse to fit his canvas, never appreciating the real person. In the Colony Room in Soho, he dismisses an enamoured fellow artist as a bad artist on instinct, purely from the tie he wears. Watching Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) at a local arthouse cinema with Isabel Rawsthorne (Anne Lambton), bodies and pushchairs trampled on the Odessa steps, he refuses to shut up as he intellectualises our own mortality through the death of the photographed subjects. Isabel wants to relax; he refuses the very thought. He adapts Dyer into a role he was never in, displaying covert homosexuality as he takes him to a tailor’s, trying on a suit, ties and shirts. Through his femininity, in his vain mirror routine, putting on eyelashes, powdering his face and parting his hair, he forces Dyer into feminine terms of address, using “her” pronouns and calling him his “girlfriend”. Bacon conceals an internal loneliness: he stands on the Tube, unable to think; in his studio, he can’t process Dyer’s suicide and loss.

Dyer was but one chapter of Bacon’s life; the film’s source text, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993), contained little about him. As Maybury reflects in the Q&A, Maybury’s friends interviewed for the film (many appearing as extras) had little to say, barely remembering him, leaving Craig little to go on. Instead, Maybury used poetic licence to extrapolate their relationship. Craig’s role as Dyer might seem unusual. As Bond, Craig is a ladies man; he emerges from the ocean in Casino Royale (2006), showing off his chest. Even as Jewish rebel Tuvia Bielski in Nazi-occupied Belarus in Defiance (2008), Craig cannot escape his action-oriented roles. Dyer’s entrance jumping through Bacon’s skylight might as easily be James Bond leaping across Italian rooftops in the opening to Quantum of Solace (2008).

Though lacking Bond’s musculature, Dyer still has a scruff, working class masculinity incompatible with Bacon. There’s no emotional connection; directly before his suicide in Paris, he confesses to Bacon he loves him, but Bacon refuses to reciprocate without a dismissive joke. They wander through art galleries and the British Museum, looking at other people’s paintings, but their bond never goes farther. Bacon forces Dyer into the art world he was never part of, torn from his own circle of friends, unable to transcend class differences, though still living in a grubby bathtub next to the kitchen sink. He travels across the world, attending exhibitions and openings in Paris and New York City, away from the place he calls home.

Dyer becomes Francis Bacon: in a drunken stupor, in a bar filled with sailors and Nazi costumes, he offers to spend money on other men, reutilising Bacon’s own philosophy on the image of dead people in photographs to the dismissal of others, adopting Bacon’s lack of monogamy. Dyer’s descent doesn’t feel so far apart from Franz Bieberkopf in Fox and His Friends (1975), trapped within a toxic queer relationship he stumbled into, unable to escape class. Dyer lies asleep in the casino at night, woken by a woman hoovering the floor the following morning; unable to sleep next to Bacon. Bacon pushes him into his final overdose: bottles of pills and swigs of alcohol. Maybury, living through the AIDS epidemic, drew upon his own experience. As he relates in the Q&A, he transposed his experience from the 1980s of his own boyfriend, Trojan, dying of an overdose in his London flat whilst he was away in Los Angeles shooting a music video, onto Bacon’s life, using it as a lynchpin to invest the film with currency. All around him, Maybury’s friends were dying.

Dyer’s tragedy is familiar, falling into a trope of “Bury Your Gays”. Love is the Devil is never life affirming or endearing. Biopics like I, Olga Hepnarova (2016) walk a delicate line between veracity to historical events and sensitively handling issues of mental health and sexuality. But which stories are told is a choice, for as much as authenticity wants to be held.

Love is the Devil carries visceral and intense sexuality. We see Bacon and Dyer engaged in BDSM; the camera clinically holds on the pair stripping down and taking their clothes off. In animalistic close-ups, sexuality becomes repulsive. As Maybury relates, he wanted to show the “non-beautiful side of homosexual activity”. Model Henrietta Moraes (Annabel Brooks) becomes an object for the camera. Laid bare and naked, we sense vulnerability; the photographer becomes a creep, asking her to accentuate her vagina and butt, zooming inside her, seemingly justified because Bacon lacks attraction to women.

The Colony Room becomes a meeting place for a generation of artists and painters; Maybury used local London art students as extras, whilst lacing Colony regulars with alcohol. Maybury creates a sense of the grotesque, staring through glasses and ashtrays as out-of-focuses lenses, with the same experimentalism Vertov afforded to the patrons of a Moscow bar in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). With Vertov, it felt revolutionary and a neat trick; here, it feels cheap and amateurish, attempting to apply the same techniques to narrative cinema. We stare down the faces of men and women eating live lobster, as Dyer struggles to understand the need for different sets of cutlery, though it were the scathing, bourgeois class critique of an earlier generation. Ancillary female characters in the Colony are never given their due; Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton) never has the presence to Swinton’s many other roles, from maternal roles in films like Thumbsucker (2005) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) to the rock and roll vampire lover of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Swinton can fit into basically any role and make bad movies great, yet struggles to even be recognisable. International locations like New York City never feel authentic, showing the limitations of the TV movie. Dyer stands upon the roof of a hotel about to jump, as worried hotel clerk try to intervene. But the constraints of the hotel feel false, a studio set: Dyer stands in front of the American flag as identifying symbol, cars passing underneath. Actors fail to provide American accents with even a hint of realism.

Setting a film within the queer subculture of 1960s London should underline the film with political undertones. By the late 90s, queerness was still taboo: a marketing technique used by advertisers, yet Section 28 was still in effect, without an equal age of consent, a community reeling from the still very real effects of AIDS. Series like Queer as Folk (1999-2000) proved liberating and confrontational to a generation of queer (and straight) youth. Half a decade earlier, directors like Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki opened the floodgates within American cinema through the movement dubbed New Queer Cinema. But Love is the Devil struggles to feel as revolutionary as New Queer Cinema’s strongest moments. Victim (1961), reportedly the first film to ever explicitly use the word “homosexual” on film, created a perfect sense of the isolated and underground community in 1960s London, and dangers of blackmail and law enforcement. Bacon’s flat is raided for drugs by police, Bacon displaying openness and brashness, but we never sense any ulterior motive. In the sauna, we sense an encoded queer space for sexual meeting, yet the film never makes this stated.

Perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect is it’s aesthetic. The Marlborough Gallery, on behalf of Bacon’s estate, issued injunctions against the film, disavowing the screenplay and refusing access to Bacon’s studio or use of his artwork. Maybury found this liberating: production designer Adam MacDonald made the most of limited resources, allowing them to “abandon rules of narrative cinema” in favour of the abstract, using what Maybury describes in the Q&A as “celluloid as paint”. Maybury allowed the film to have theatricality, evoking Bacon’s tableaus and triptychs, relying upon the stationary image; as he comments, “the real director of the film is Francis Bacon”.

Naked bodies bathe in blood, leaping through a swimming pool; Bacon, in his studio, turns the canvas into himself, forming internal duality between orange and blue paint. Dyer drunkenly pisses into a painting of a toilet, dripping down in yellow stains, thinking it to be real. The closest we see of Bacon’s own art is through workbooks and boxes of photographs and newspaper clippings Dyer stumbles into; Dyer’s face on his desk stares into him, a source of inspiration. Although we never learn why Bacon is considered a talented painter, we’re given a sense. Limitations of time and space transcend, moving between the interview in the TV studio and the television playing at home, words still playing over in his head. The camera looks down upon Maybury in his bedroom, trapped.

The film’s cinematography pays close attention to symbolism: Bacon sharpens his knife, looking at Dyer in the reflection behind him, as though about to stab him as a serial killer victim. He sits in the photo booth, solemn, framed by lines around him. Bacon conjures a car crash from his own words, a family laying outwards upon tarmac, blood and shards of glass around them as he admires the beauty, positioning Dyer within. Dyer’s internal struggle becomes surreal: he walks down an infinite staircase; falls into the blackness of the void, an ever-decreasing circle, until becoming nothing. The bathroom is inverted as though a stage, red pillars and black interior.

In editing, the film has the late-90s edginess of films like Trainspotting (1996), yet without the same aesthetic effect, a superfluous and out-dated trope. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers the most transcendent element in its score, embodying the film’s mixed emotions of romance, desire and internal reflections. Although more melodramatic scenes focus too heavily on the piercing screams of the synthesiser, at its best, Sakamoto reaches the beauty of his score to The Revenant (2015).

Love is the Devil has many impressive elements, but Maybury, for all his technical brilliance, struggles to create a compelling portrait of an artist, nor a beautiful queer love story or tragedy. Actors like Jacobi and Swinton are capable of far more with their less repulsive characters. Love is the Devil is of interest, but ultimately disappointing.

My 2016 in Film

It seems almost customary at this point to slate 2016. But I feel like so many people are taking the message of newspaper headlines, memes and viral videos wholesale, without pausing to reflect on how it was for them.

Yes, 2016 seemed to have tragedy after tragedy. The deaths of not only cultural icons like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher, and film directors like Arthur Hiller, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Guy Hamilton, but also people who changed the world: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Vera Rubin. Politically, the world became divided by Brexit and Trumpism, against the backdrop of the assassination of Jo Cox, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and further ISIS attacks in Europe to shake the world, with Aleppo under siege.

But the world will always have to face new dangers. As time moves on, more icons of the 1960s and 70s will pass on. We have seen the rise of right wing populism before, just in different forms. Yet in my personal life, 2016 has been a pretty good year.

I came to terms with my asexuality. I decided to become vegetarian (and, possibly, on the verge of being vegan). I made more friends than I’ve ever had before, whilst finally settling into a degree I actually like. I helped launch a film society, and watched more films than I’ve ever done so before. I travelled more, from Dublin to Barcelona to Béziers, and my new favourite place in the UK, Brighton. For once, I’m actually feeling pretty comfortable with life.

In terms of culture, 2016 has been a brilliant year: in music, Blackstar and You Want it Darker closed out the decades long careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen in a beautiful way. Lemonade and Blond revolutionised not only style, but also how music is distributed. Over in comic books, Paper Girls and Kill or Be Killed told engaging new stories which I love to my very core. As much as one might proclaim the death of cinema, 2016 saw so many strong films, like The Neon DemonI, Daniel Blake and Paterson (although some like Moonlight still await a UK release), that it becomes difficult to keep up. Meanwhile, labels like Criterion and Indicator launched in the UK, bringing more and more films out as the best they’ve ever looked.

Whilst other end of year summaries seek to examine 2016 as a whole, I can’t do so in good conscience. I can strongly advise that you stop everything you’re doing right now and watch Weiner, Baden Baden and Your Name. But I’ve simply not watched enough, still waiting to see releases like Silence and Manchester by the Sea in the coming weeks and days, that my list will never tell the whole story.

Because my film consumption isn’t linear, not based on what new releases are out in the cinema or on Netflix, but shifting between decades, directors and genres. Some I write reviews of – but for some, it might take days for my thoughts to settle in my mind, or I don’t have enough of something unique to say about it to sustain a whole review. So, over the next week or so, I’ll be highlighting some of the best films I watched in 2016 that I might have overlooked before.

The 1920s

The Epic of Everest (1924), dir. J.B.L. Noel

Everest has captured our imaginations more recently with Everest (2015), about the tragic 1996 expedition, but The Epic of Everest should go down as the definitive film about the mountain. Beautifully restored by the BFI in 2013, it charts the 1924 expedition by Mallory and Irvine, who died during the expedition. Although the film conforms to the ethnographic impulses of other films of the period like Nanook of the North (1922), creating a portrait of another culture through the perspective of the other, the film’s illustration of the customs of the Tibetan people are not its main draw.

Instead, the film becomes its most haunting in its presentation of the mountain itself. As Mallory and Irvine go missing, we painfully wait until, if ever, their bodies are found. We become aware of the etherealness of life against an unchanging landscape, in a beautiful red-tinted time-lapse of the mountain. As the best of silent cinema does, the image transcends itself, becoming almost otherworldly. The Epic of Everest has been overlooked for a long time, but it is a fascinating cultural document, preserving a period in history which deserves to be seen.

The 1940s

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

It seems easy to dismiss WWII era cinema as pure propaganda. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) seems almost alternative universe fantasy, as we see three Nazi officers crossing over the ocean to Newfoundland, hiding amongst the Canadian people and attempting to cross over the American border. It seems equally easy to dismiss WWII cinema as the purview of daytime TV, playing to older audiences who just about have a memory of the war. But Powell and Pressburger were masters of their day, and A Matter of Life and Death is no different.

The end of the Second World War acts as only a backdrop to wider events, as we see a pilot (played by David Niven) split between the afterlife and his miraculous survival, washing up on the English coast. Invoking spiritual and supernatural themes might seem less in vogue nowadays, outside of explicitly Christian cinema by the Kendrick brothers or PureFlix, but stories of afterlives and angels pop up everywhere from Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) to lauded classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But A Matter of Life and Death is more than these things: it’s a love story.

But A Matter of Life and Death deserves technical praise too. Shot largely in three-strip Technicolor, its use of colour is beautiful (and deserves the best quality version available, with an abundance of public domain copies out there), in spite of it clearly being an early and not fully developed use of it. Depicting the afterlife in monochrome might seem like a money saving process (If…. (1968) did similar), yet it lends it an ethereal quality, outside of the more grandiose depictions of Heaven, framed within the scientific universe as another planet far away. The film’s final act might feel like a courtroom drama, but it remains intensely watchable, and in light of Brexit, the discussions around national identity feel highly relevant.

The 1960s

Easy Rider (1969), dir. Dennis Hopper

Contemporary critical responses to Easy Rider seem split between regarding it as a cultural landmark, launching the New American Cinema and turning Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda into iconic names, and by dismissing it as an overextended bore where nothing happens. Born to Be Wild has dug itself into popular culture, used in every single kid’s film trying to be edgy.

Easy Rider is an acid trip of a film where nothing much happens, but that is the beauty of it. We join these three characters on the open road, where their lives are destined to be unpredictable. Like with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral (1969), the American landscape takes on an almost spiritual quality as our protagonists move through it. In the film’s most mesmerising scene, we join our protagonists in their acid trip, edited in what today would probably just be a music video. Alongside its soundtrack, combining music by Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf, the film becomes an easy film to just slip through.

 

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.