La La Land (2016), dir. Damien Chazelle

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The 2017 Oscars have placed Hollywood in dilemma. Contenders like Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman and I Am Not Your Negro were produced or distributed by Amazon Studios. Suicide Squad won an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Debates shall be eternally waged over Moonlight vs. La La Land.

La La Land still won 6 Oscars.

Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlight and Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.

Was La La Land overhyped? As Dan Golding argues in his essay The Dreamers of La La Land, the film is “likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits”, as “too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too reactionary, too nostalgic”. Yet there is power in positive narratives, beyond identity formation in Moonlight or confronting mortality in Manchester by the Sea. Some might question the Academy Awards’ favourability towards films about the acting industry or show business in general, like The Artist (2011) or Birdman (2014), yet they won Oscars because they’re good films.

Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.

In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.

Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.

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The opening musical sequence, Another Day of Sun, is filled with colour and diversity

La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.

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Mia works as a barista on the WB backlot

The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.

In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.

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Mia’s bedroom is an anachronism

Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.

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Seb is singing, just not in the rain

JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.

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This is definitely California

Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.

Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.

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The Griffith Observatory is one of the most beautiful locations for the City of Stars sequence, evoking Rebel Without a Cause

Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

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Keith is largely sidelined in the film

Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.

Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.

In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.

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Jazzsplaining isn’t romantic

Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.

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Seb decides to play his own music at Christmas

Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:

Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?

Through Mia’s auditions, we see the realities of the acting industry, her opening audition met by the casting director on their cellphone, based on an audition Ryan Gosling had gone through. She spills coffee on her shirt, covering it up with her coat. In Someone in the Crowd, we see Mia’s isolation, rather than being popular and successful. Her Prius gets towed; no one turns up to her one-woman play. Yet if she likes it, what else matters? Forced to return home to Nevada after 6 years of auditions and perseverance, she must live her own dream; in The Fools Who Dream, we see the speed and pressure. Stone “whirl[s] through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado, filled with life.

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Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem

Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.

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Positioning Mia and Seb against a half-finished white painted backdrop, Chazelle questions the unreality of the musical

The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.

Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.

Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch

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Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:

[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.

Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.

Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.

Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead (1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.

But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a creative feeling” of “freedom in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.

Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.

Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.

Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.

The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.

Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet (1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.

Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.

Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.

As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.

Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.

Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.

Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).

Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:

[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.

But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.

Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.

As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.

Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.

With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.

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).

Saving Mr. Banks (2013), dir. John Lee Hancock

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Disney films are Christmas, essential to the festive TV schedule: almost a necessity. Mary Poppins (1964) may not be Disney’s greatest work, but it enshrined itself within popular culture, played through every Christmas and bank holiday, Chim Chim Cher-ee sung in middle school assemblies, abstracted from its origin. John Lee Hancock has made his name directing biopics – most notably The Blind Side (2009) – but also next year’s The Founder (2017), with Michael Keaton leading the Maccies revolution – here, he charts the inception of a classic film.

Far from a modern trend, adaptation sits at the core of Hollywood, from the Biblical epics of the 1950s to Disney, recrafting century old fairy tales for a new audience. Disney’s reworked fairytales have often been criticised, softening the darker aspects in favour of colourful princess narratives. Emma Thompson has already portrayed the non-serious, cartoonish nanny of Nanny McPhee (2005), but as Travers makes abundantly clear to Disney in the film, she doesn’t want her novel sugar coated. As a 2005 New Yorker profile on Travers writes:

Travers had discussed her poetry with William Butler Yeats and shared a masthead with T. S. Eliot. She thought that “Steamboat Willie” was a fine entertainment for youngsters, but she considered most of the Disney oeuvre manipulative and false.

But Disney’s films carry both darkness and lightness – more than mere “silly cartoons”, but moral lessons with real, human pathos. Bambi’s mom died. Ichabod rode through the dark forest into Sleepy Hollow. As Travers tries to exert control over the sanctity of her own work, we see her wanting the film to portray the mundane realities of adult life, beyond the fantastical – cleaning up after one’s self, managing a bank account – being a good adult. Travers holds onto the smallest elements of the book, wanting as little compromise as possible – she doesn’t want Dick Van Dyke, but Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness; refuses to have a frame animated; is rightfully insistent that the family’s house should avoid looking so upper class.

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The processes of adaptation are not static, but involve reinvention from both parties – just as the factuality of events were reworked for the fiction of the film’s narrative. Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers begin to accept some of Travers’ demands, whilst ignoring some other aspects that would be unworkable.

Unlike the creative process as depicted in Hitchcock (2012), adaptation is presented as a multi-faceted process, from influence through to reception. In Hitchcock, we see Alfred Hitchcock reading Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) in bed; presenting the screenplay to producers; acting out the famous shower scene; the film’s premiere. Yet Hitchcock spent much of its duration examining Hitchcock’s fragmented relationship with his wife, unable to examine Bloch’s process in writing the novel. Banks is closer to The Hours (2002), where Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) undergoes processes of influence, writing and modern adaptation, whilst also charting the etherealness of memory. We intercut between present and past, as Travers loses herself in the memory of her father’s speech as a bank manager in Queensland at the turn of a century, juxtaposed with the Sherman Brothers composing Fidelity Fiduciary Bank:

If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank
Safe and sound
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank
Will compound

And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest
As your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors
Who invest as propriety demands

Saving Mr. Banks could be criticised for presenting a sanitised version of real events, yet as with Disney’s animated films, there is darkness behind it, presenting us with Travers’ childhood in Queensland. Australia’s seemingly unending vistas, though shot in California, seem to present a sense of newness, charting off into infinity; yet like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), behind the safeness is something sinister. Travers’ father suffers from alcoholism, coughs up blood and collapses in the middle of his speech. In the middle of the night, the young Travers follows her mother Margaret, as she descends into the lake to drown herself. Rather than communicate these feelings through exposition, we become familiar with them.

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Much as Travers seems to loathe the colourful presentation of Poppins’ film form, her characters emerge from the darkness – Mr Banks emerges from her father, insisting that his filmic analogue doesn’t tear up the children’s drawings because of her uneasy feelings around him; whilst Mary Poppins acts as an analogue to her aunt Ellie, a nanny-esque character in her childhood. The Australian nanny becomes Anglicised as the very trope of Edwardian society, before being Americanised for a new cultural context. This is not an afterthought, but an essential part of the creative process.

Paralleled is Walt Disney’s own process of pursuing the book’s rights, enamoured with the book because of its influence on his daughter, wanting to influence another generation. Far from merely a book, it carries power. Tom Hanks’ performance as Walt isn’t remarkable: Tom Hanks always plays Tom Hanks, unable to move beyond when his face and voice are so recognisable. Yet there is little to criticise about it either; it’s just there. The film condenses Walt’s involvement in pursuing the rights, leaving it as background rather than presenting 20 years of angry conversations.

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Initially developed by BBC Films, the film maintains a sense of Disney’s corporate image. Through the Sherman Brothers’ unendingly happy relationship, almost intertwined with each other, and Disney’s tour of Disneyland with Travers, we are given a sense of Disney’s identity, outside of the more cynical view of Escape from Tomorrow (2013), but more in line with Walt Disney as Illuminati saviour in Tomorrowland (2015), whilst still maintaining a sense of authenticity. At points, the film may only feel like a nudge to to rewatch Mary Poppins, thanks to the Sherman Brothers performing the film’s most well-known songs, and playing extracts presented at its premiere – yet it still comes from a place of heart.

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Perhaps the biggest criticism that could be levelled is the emotional manipulation of Travers by Disney. The author’s defence of her own work sometimes takes on a comedic role, as she stuffs a pamper of oversized Disney soft toys in her hotel room into a cupboard, aghast at the pre-recorded message by Disney on her TV set. Walt begins to recognise more and more the emotional core of Travers’ past: he comes to her house in London unannounced, leading her to tears as he talks about her father and her identity. He forces her to sign off on the rights: perhaps the most real part, as a cruel and unforgiving industry. Disney then has the audacity to not invite her to the film’s premiere, pretending that it got lost in the international postal service – screwing her over just like every other writer in Hollywood.

Travers undergoes an arc of transformation: just as she redeems Ralph, her fanboy writer driver in LA, who speaks of how his daughter loves the book and how it speaks to him, getting her to sign a copy, Travers’ life also changes thanks to Disney. She loses her emotional baggage, moving from the dark, isolating colours at the beginning of the film, where all she seems to do is lay on the sofa and complain about royalties, and ends up wearing colourful dresses, motivated to write further novels, crying at the film’s premiere over how wonderful it is.

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Elements like these might make the viewer doubt the film’s reality, yet it remains grounded in such an emotional core that it hardly matters. Taking the viewer through the creative processes of adaptation, and the conflicts arising from it, Banks is perhaps essential viewing to anyone who sees themselves as a creative.

The Neon Demon (2016), dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

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I was never especially taken with Drive (2011). Though Drive is a good film, behind the stylistic Refn flourishes was a fairly conventional masculine revenge narrative. Yet The Neon Demon has a distinctive voice. Of course, there’s still neon and synth, and in some ways, it’s a story that has been told a million times.

There are elements of the coming of age story – feeling comfortable with one’s self, sexuality turned into competition, rejecting people who were once everything (like her friend Dean, or the fact Jesse’s motel life cuts her off from her parents’ memory.) The story is basically Mean Girls (2004) – a young, teenage girl is pressured to be something she isn’t, resulting in jealousy and catfights.

But the film is far more than this – more metaphorical, magical, stylistic – that it starts to resemble a music video. A cougar can walk through a motel room, but we don’t question the logistics of its zoo escape. Ruby can look after a massive, extravagant house that could easily be a stage for a music video, yet we don’t question who she knows, or who could ever afford it. Rooms shift from red to blue lighting – this is the reality the film lives in. Triangular symbols appear, flashing on screen like the recurring symbol of an artist’s new album; the stage is an unreality of strobe lights. Even the film’s closing credits resemble a music video: mixing overhead shots of beaches,  as we see the back of a woman walking in the desert, the song plays on whilst liquid colour envelopes each naked model. It never breaks this ‘reality’ into scrolling credits or funny outtakes.

Refn tries to find space in the divide between high and low culture, whether these distinctions matter at all. Many of the film’s concepts are ostensibly ludicrous, straight out of the worst of the ‘video nasties’, banned by the BBFC until the next century – cannibalism, blood showers, necrophilia, rampant lesbianism, Brian De Palma-esque phallic knifes – yet Refn ties these lowbrow concepts with a complex study of the human condition and a woman’s place in the modelling industry.

But the film is also Refn’s love letter to his wife, Liv; during the closing credits, he dedicates the film to her. In interviews, Ref  has said the film’s concept came from when he realised he “wasn’t born beautiful and my wife was.” The film is speculation – alongside his female cowriters, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn is trying to understand the pressures young women face, and in particular, the pressure his wife faces. This is what the best of both filmmaking and film viewing should try to do – challenge viewpoints.

In another way, the modelling industry becomes a stand-in for every other industry. Refn knows the struggles of the filmmaking industry firsthand, and the difficulty financing Pusher (1996) and its sequels; as has his wife, who acted in some of his films. Keanu Reeves’ role as Hank, asking his underage actresses to strip naked (one of the few male characters in the film, along with Dean and the motel owner), could easily be a stand-in for Refn’s power as a director. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, the industry eats you alive. Women become identical bodies, chosen on the slightest of differences – like the process of auditioning actresses. Note that Jesse’s success comes from her trying to go against the presupposed assumption of finding artificial beauty in plastic surgery to meet the industry’s standard. Yet her desire to fit in becomes her downfall, an auteur consumed by the mainstream.

Even the most trustworthy characters can’t be trusted. Hank doesn’t seem trustworthy, but Ruby positions herself as a friend to Jesse, until she destroys that trust by almost raping her. Trust has dissipated into allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse.

The film breathes in its silences and stillness. Drive also used silence a lot, but it feels even more appropriate here. Filmmaking is about silence – waiting around on set until called; seeing a performance repeated for the 20th time without falling asleep. Women stand still as if they are only one angle, aiming to be beautiful and photogenic – yet beauty in the camera is different to beauty in reality, as is beauty on Photoshop. In the establishing shot of the studio, it is not only the women who are still – it is also the photographer and the editor, touching up an image of a woman in tandem to it being taken, living within the monotony of moving the mouse around the screen.

The farcical idea that women are held to this same pressure to beauty in death is just as real. When Ruby applies make-up to corpses, this is exactly how we treat the dead – making them look pretty so a family can see their loved one how they remember them. We continue to hold up women who tragically died young as sex symbols, like Marilyn Monroe: picturing them in their beauty – not when they were at their lowest.

But these are also universal themes. I never felt pressures as bad as women, or particularly models, feel it – but my high school years were filled with anxiety over how I dressed, my hair, my attractiveness; unrealistic aims of the perfect boyfriend and lots of sex. I don’t feel it quite as badly now – but these anxieties haven’t gone away completely.

Them! (1954), dir. Gordon Douglas

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This film is a perfect defence to anyone who misgenders a non-binary person. It’s not “he”. It’s not “she”. It’s “THEM!”

But Them! is very much the typical B movie. Indeed, the world the films constructs is a world accustomed to the inexplicable: a government agency’s top threats include suicide and flying saucers, whilst a rambling man in the hospital also believes the threat is flying saucers, rather than giant ants. It marries extraterrestrial science fiction with the radioactive giant monster movie. It relies upon every single trope of the genre: mutants from atomic bomb tests; an adventurous woman defending herself in the face of sexism; the intervention of Washington DC; Los Angeles as a city under siege, placed under martial law; two generic policemen, indistinguishable from each other, investigating sinister goings on and ending up dead; the endlessly recurrent Wilhelm scream. I could go on.

There’s some fun comedy in here, from the professor fumbling around with military headsets (decades later, he could easily have been played by Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park), to a deranged man singing World War II songs as every other character breaks the fourth wall by glaring to the audience: “what is he on about?”

Yet besides a historical interest, placed within the context of Cold War paranoia and the after-effects of the Manhattan Project and the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the giant ants aren’t all that great, and neither is the plot. The ants are positioned as a perfect metaphor to humanity, and by extension the American military identity. Both are warlike – but who are the other “them!” to incite fear into ordinary Americans? That’s right, the spectre of communism. The other.

But it holds other haunting reminders to the horror of war, in ways not intended by the filmmakers. The US sets fire to ant colonies, striking first attack in the game of war. I can’t help but be reminded of the Vietnam War, where soldiers went on slash and burn missions, destroying a society in both its people, its landscape and agriculture with a mere zippo lighter. America suffers the consequences of their atomic bomb tests, confronting the issue at hand in the worst way, murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, and leaving many more with mutations and birth defects that persist to this day. But within this exploitative, B-movie reality, the victims are only ants who will destroy humanity as we know it.

Yet for the viewer who wants to learn about the science of ants, the film inexplicably becomes incredibly educational, combining close-up film footage of ant colonies combined with the exposition of the professor’s narration.

The Hours (2002), dir. Stephen Daldry

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After having fallen in love with Philip Glass‘ music with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) (and, perhaps in part, with 2015’s Fantastic Four), I came across the film’s soundtrack on Spotify. I’m sure I’ve come across the DVD before and found reasons to dismiss it. “Meryl Streep is overrated.” Or: “I don’t like book adaptations.” Or: “Is this really my type of film?”

What I discovered was a masterpiece that deserves a Criterion release, provided licensing the rights can be sorted out. Could I go as far as to call this Stephen Daldry’s neglected magnum opus?

Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf here, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw her name emblazoned on the DVD cover and Wiki article; with an English accent rather than an Australian or American accent, it doesn’t scream her. In the DVD special features, it’s mentioned that they even went as far to give her a prosthetic nose.

But Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore do a marvellous job. A large theme here is the idea of imprisonment, between Virginia Woolf’s ‘imprisonment’ by her husband, placing her in the country in order to ‘cure’ her suicidal tendencies; the imprisonment of Laura as a housewife in 1950s LA, feeling torn between her son, her husband her and largely uneventful life, imprisoned within a suburban America that suppresses sexuality; the imprisonment of Richard within a darkened room and within a diseased body; the body, where one is never able to leave to explore from another person’s perspective, and is imprisoned within through no intention to be born and to remain within until death.

The meta aspect of the film, stemming from the literary tradition (with its focus on Virginia Woolf as a writer), probably works better in the book than the film itself. Yet it handles translation to film rather perfectly, intercutting each character’s lives with recurring themes and events gloriously alongside Philip Glass’ music, but still taking the time so we get engaged in each life; sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes within a particular time period.

There is a wonderful sense of visual artistry and symbolism. We are given a sense of the idea of art and writing as a process in motion. There is the writing process, inspired by real life; the process of reading and being influenced to make decisions based on it (which is true – my life has certainly been influenced by what I’ve read, whether in terms of outlooks or finding a point of connection with friends and boyfriends), and then there is the process of adaptation (the last segment with Clarissa Vaughn becomes almost a modern day version of Mrs Dalloway, which was the starting point for Cunningham’s novel before he decided to shift the focus) and creating comparisons with people you know (Vaughn is nicknamed ‘Dalloway’).

The film presents an engaging portrait on life and the art we make.