The 10th Victim (1965), dir. Elio Petri

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A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.

The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.

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Is it the future, or is it 1965?

The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.

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The training sequences feel like something out of a James Bond film

Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.

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Murder becomes justified by a religious cult

The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.

 

The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.

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Hunts are openly committed in the streets of New York City

Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.

My 2016 in Film: The 1970s

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

The Last Detail (1973), dir. Hal Ashby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where’d you get those peepers?

Deep Red (1975), dir. Dario Argento

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

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

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

Network (1976), dir. Sidney Lumet

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

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

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

Black Sunday (1977), dir. John Frankenheimer

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

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

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

Keep the Lights On (2012), dir. Ira Sachs

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Before documenting contemporary NYC life in his films Love is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016), Ira Sachs created a portrait of New York City through the lens of the relationship between Erik and Paul, between the years 1998 to 2006. Where Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) documented the shifting stages of the heterosexual American family through the 2000s in the character of Mason, Sachs presents the shifting nature of gay American life.

By the film’s release in late 2012, the state of New York had legalised same sex marriage. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Love is Strange was able to present this reality through an elderly couple. Keep the Lights On retraces a different era, the pre-Grindr world of phone sex, infidelity, clubbing and casual hookups; an era where queer representation in the media began to enter the mainstream, in everything from Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Cruel Intentions (1999) to episodes of The Simpsons like Three Gays of the Condo (2003); as civil partnerships and same sex marriage began to enter the agenda as public perception shifted.

However, the film does not romanticise its era. There is no sense of the optimism and fears of cyberspace; it does not fetishise the World Trade Center (indeed, the city’s skyline is never shown); nor does it position our protagonist’s lives around the aftermath of 9/11. Bush’s name is never mentioned; American Idol doesn’t appear on any television screens. Sachs positions a timeless narrative; the era is only communicated through the film’s title cards, its cellphones and its iMacs. Shot on 16mm, its visual style removes the late 90s and early 00s from its clean, digital HD aesthetic, in favour of physical film that recalls the imperfect images of the underground gay cinema of the 60s-80s, in parallel to Erik exploring an underground gay artist of the mid-20th century in his documentary.

We shift from the lingering late 90s fears of HIV, only a couple of years after the height of the AIDs epidemic, to the modern face of homosexuality. Perhaps there is a sense of the autobiographical: Sachs explores the uncertainty of establishing a career in filmmaking, beginning in the late 90s (when he begun his career in film), parallel to the uncertainties of a relationship.

The relationship between Erik and Paul is never presented as something for the audience to root for; I spent the duration of the film waiting for them to break up for good. The film often incorporates sex scenes, yet they hold a narrative function. Sexuality becomes a form of procrastinating the issues within their relationship, and as a means of escape. The film’s sex scenes are neither PG-13 nor Helix Studios: the film acknowledges that pensises exist, but it also acknowledges that it is painful, and often not pleasurable. Sexuality highlights isolation: when Paul hooks up with a rent boy, as Erik sits in the other room, he decides to enter the other room and hold Paul’s hand. But Paul still lays on the bed, fucked by and making out with the rent boy. In an earlier scene, Paul decides to sleep in a separate bed, as Erik forces them to share a bed.

This is not an idealised gay romance of monogamy, with a sprinkling of formulaic melodrama; it is a realistic one. It takes Erik and Paul nine years to realise that romantic, physical intimacy can transcend sexual intimacy; yet soon after, he encounters Igor in the streets of New York, and they decide on a dinner date. Erik and Paul’s relationship exists as a fluctuating thing, before eventually deciding they need real time apart.

As Erik struggles to find stability within the eternally early stages of his relationship, his friend Claire faces the instabilities of the heterosexual world. On the surface, she faces stability: a house and a partner, as Erik becomes more and more detached from his own flat, instead often being defined by the flats of other men. But she also faces anxiety around the ticking body clock of maternity, pressuring Erik to take on a role as a surrogate father.

Keep the Lights On is not the height of queer cinema. Looking forward, another film around the issues gay men face feel rote, in the face of bi-erasure, trans narrative relegated to cis narratives, and the near non-existence of asexual or non-binary representation. Yet it takes a strong place within the canon of Ira Sachs’ films as a promising work.

Visitors (2013), dir. Godfrey Reggio

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Lest it be mistaken for “staring at the faces of people for 80 minutes”, Visitors continues a theme begun in Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988): GIF: The Movie. It feels more comfortable to place Godfrey Reggio alongside photographers than filmmakers. More so than the Qatsi trilogy (1982-2002), Visitors feels more at home at an art exhibition than on a stream played through MUBI on a laptop screen. Visitors is not detached from the trilogy either – combining visuals with Philip Glass’ music, we see a sequence of time lapse photography of brutalist skyscrapers, drawing an immediate parallel to Koyaanisqatsi, only now cast in monochrome.

Taking a break from editing my own photography in Photoshop, it’s important to stress that monochrome is its own aesthetic: it’s not just to look edgy, or to create the illusion of age. To remove colour is to remove distraction or identifying features: all we have is our own eyes, and the canvas is ours to distinguish on our own terms.

Koyaanisqatsi could hold onto a vague thread of narrative, yet Visitors must truly be considered non-narrative filmmaking. There are some recurring elements – the surface of the moon (the only part of the film in colour, where we see the blue of the Earth glare out at us), or the face of a gorilla – but that’s about it. I found it easy to draw parallels between Koyaanisqatsi and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), whilst the fourth wall breaking closing scene, as with Movie Camera, reveals the artifice of the image on screen fades away to reveal rows of people in a theater: a Reggio’s dream of packed rows, though I somehow doubt the actual theaters watching this film were this packed.

The film invites us to speculate. Why did the subjects of the film agree to be involved? How much did they get paid to stand in front of the camera and make expressions? Why did Steven Soderbergh decide to jump in and get involved, as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas had done so with Powaqqatsi? What was the board meeting like where they described the concept of the film? Yet there are other questions than the obvious ones. One begins to deconstruct what a person’s life is – or even their age, gender, etc., projecting onto them based on their faces alone, when one’s mental image could be very different from the reality. It frequently becomes uncomfortable; whilst time passes, I never felt I was waiting for it to finish. It’s a world to lose yourself in, where time loses all meaning.

Visitors feels like a digital progression from Koyaanisqatsi. Koyaanisqatsi must have been absolutely stunning when it was released, and whilst it does still hold that power, the predominance of cameras, and drone footage in vlogs by Casey Neistat and many others, capturing similar photography without a major budget or in their own time,- have somewhat nullified it, compared to the many years spent compiling and editing the footage used in Koyaanisqatsi. Visitors could only be done digitally, with the technology to compile time lapses with speed, and slow down footage without  feeling unnatural or jittery.