roland barfs film diary week 33
scorsese, deborah stratman, JOHN FORD, scorsese, wong kar-wai, carpenter
August 9. Monday. In the morning I go to work. While I’m at work I get a contract through from the press that will be publishing my novella about Rousseau next year. I accept the terms. What should be a monumental moment—signing a contract for my first book—feels quite anticlimactic and mundane. Publishing is a long process, anyway, and I’m sure the real pleasure will come later on. Or it’s already been, when I got the acceptance. I don’t know. Either way—keep an eye out for my book next year. I come home mid-afternoon and try to shrug off the tiredness from my shift in order to do some work of a different kind. I have some deadlines this week and have also had to pick up a lot of shifts, so I am steeling myself to be constantly drained. I watch some short experimental non-fiction films which I have been commissioned to write about and which I can’t really discuss here, which of course brings the nature of the film diary into question: if I start omitting things I’ve watched from here because I’ve been getting film writing commissions off the back of the film diary, how does that change what this is? A big question indeed. Anyway, the films are by Ana Vaz, Laida Lertxundi, and Alexandra Cuesta and you’ll be able to read my thoughts on them soon enough—consider this a placeholder to note that I watched these films today. In the evening I watch American Boy (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1978), which someone has uploaded to YouTube. I was made aware of the existence of this last week, when I watched Movies Are My Life, the first documentary about Scorsese, made in the same year as this—American Boy was discussed quite a lot in that and I thought it would be worth watching, particularly because this evening I only feel capable of giving my attention to something fairly entertaining that will last for less than an hour. American Boy is a profile of Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince, who had a minor role in Taxi Driver as well as a pretty varied career trajectory for a thirty year old, including spells as carpenters, film crew, Neil Diamond’s tour manager, a full-time heroin addict, a gas station attendant, and a bunch of other things. It’s a neat little film; the YouTube upload I watch has a little five minute talking head segment from Marty beforehand, in which he says that his model for this was Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason and the vulnerability and exposure of New York stand-up comedy in the 1970s: his question was, can you shoot someone telling stories, from the waist up, and make something that counts as cinema. And I guess the answer is yes, you can. American Boy feels experimental, in the sense of trying something out and not knowing if it will work, and it’s deliberately a little rough around the edges in a quite compelling way. Steven Prince is a pretty entertaining blow-hard, very good at telling stories about himself with a large amount of braggadocio, but then the camera will linger on him after he’s finished a particularly harrowing anecdote and you can see a lot of unresolved pain in his eyes. He tells a story about a friend overdosing on heroin and him using a magic marker, a medical dictionary and an adrenaline shot to bring them back to life—a story which Quentin Tarantino lifted wholesale and deployed in Pulp Fiction. He tells a story about shooting a guy in the middle of the night at a gas station. He’s had a pretty wild life for his age, but it is not one that seems particularly enviable. At the end there’s a particularly interesting formal decision from Scorsese, where Prince is talking about his relationship with his parents, and Scorsese makes him tell the same story three times, showing each retelling and Prince’s response to being asked to tell it again—Scorsese trying to break through the glib ease with which Prince is self-mythologising to get down to the actual sincere honest pain about his trouble relating to his father. Obviously this is exactly the kind of thing I am interested in. The film has been dragging a little by this point—you can only hear so many heroin war stories before they get a little tired—but this repetition and forceful direction undoes a lot of the film that’s gone before in a very effective way, revealing Prince as a vulnerable and wounded person who has developed a very particular character armour as a way of dealing with the world, and suddenly American Boy is more than just a guy blowing smoke up his own ass for an hour; suddenly it’s a film about defence mechanisms, and a pretty good one at that.
August 11. Wednesday. I have a day off work but I still have a lot of work to do. I do not manage to do it. It’s a weird day, one in which it seems impossible to sit down to anything with focus. Very bitty, a little frustrating. Eventually I accept that I’m most likely not going to get the things done that I need to, and I send some expectations-managing emails to various people, all of whom, unsurprisingly, don’t really mind that I’ll be late with delivering my promises. In the evening I watch The Illinois Parables (dir. Deborah Stratman, 2016). After a day of inattention I feel like I should watch a film so I have something to write about here but I know that if I try to watch a feature I will just spend most of the runtime looking at Twitter on my phone, so I go for an hour-long non-fiction film. I don’t know where I heard about The Illinois Parables, but it’s been on my Letterboxd watchlist for a while. I rent it from DocAlliance for a little under €3. The Illinois Parables, like many of the non-fiction films I like to watch, is a critical-historical landscape film about the centuries of violence, dispossession, catastrophe, ideology, expulsion, resistance that make up the subsoil of American culture. It’s pretty similar to the landscape films I watch a couple of weeks ago, Lee Ann Schmitt’s California Company Town and John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, both of which I liked a lot. There’s a style, isn’t there, that these films tend to have. Still cameras, sometimes archival footage, sometimes a bit of text on the screen, maybe a voice-over, maybe not. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. That’s unfair—these films inhabit a genre, and like all genres they use a set of conventions to examine something unruly that exceeds the techniques available to the filmmaker. I realise that I don’t sound very enthused about these films right now, but I really do love watching them. The Illinois Parables is a little bit more free with its stylistic flourishes than the other films I’ve mentioned here; a series of eleven chronological historical moments in Illinois, ranging from the displacement and massacre of Native Americans through the displacement and massacre of utopian religious communities, through a couple of hurricanes and fires, up to the tragedy of Fred Hampton’s murder in Chicago. It deftly covers a lot of ground and doesn’t rely on a narrative voiceover to link these moments together—their similarities speak for themselves. As much as I think of other experimental landscape documentaries, while I’m watching The Illinois Parables I find myself thinking of Sebald. And, perhaps embarrassingly and perhaps inevitably, I think of that other attempt at using Illinois as a microcosm of American history: Sufjan Stevens’ Come On Feel the Illinoise! It’s good. I like it a lot; probably it’s one of the most effective and interesting films of this type I’ve seen recently. It’s hard to say anything interesting about it because this stuff feels a little like cinematic bread and butter to me; I always want to watch these films, I pretty much always like them. Maybe I’m getting lazy in my approach to them, and perhaps I should hold off until I can actually engage properly, but who cares? Once again, as I always say, you’ll like The Illinois Parables, if this is the kind of thing that you like.
August 12. Thursday. Work in the morning. A new, fresh insight into how unsatisfactory community mental health provision is, revealed to me in an irritating meeting. Otherwise a totally fine shift which involves mopping a lot of floors. I come home with the intention of really getting on with my writing—those deadlines aren’t going to meet themselves—and then I spend the afternoon trying to keep myself awake. I read Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which is alright, and I read some Robert Creeley poems, which are great. I walk into the living room, where L is watching a remote conference on Romanticism, and I hear, emerging from her laptop speakers, a voice from my past—a moment of the digital uncanny, enabled by coincidence. We eat some pasta and go for a walk around Endcliffe Park at dusk. I drink some wine and watch My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford, 1946). This is an incredible film. I don’t know where to start in writing about it. I’ve watched a few of the big Ford films—The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley—and I have often thought, yeah, cool, pretty good, I guess I get John Ford now? But I’ve never really been blown away by his films, or particularly moved by them. My Darling Clementine has changed that and now I think I understand why people talk about John Ford in the way that they do. This is a masterpiece. In Lindsay Anderson’s book, About John Ford, he writes that it was My Darling Clementine that made him interested in the notion of style: since it’s such a simple story—not particularly interesting or complicated or profound—and it’s not a film which really has any bravura performances from any of the actors, it’s a surprise to Anderson to find himself completely awed by My Darling Clementine, and he realises that this is really where the decisions of the director elevate the film from being just another Western to being a major work of art. Now, obviously, if you’ve read this diary for a while, or if you knew me when I was still an academic, you’ll know that this is exactly the kind of argument I like: I was for a long time very fixated on the problem of style. And My Darling Clementine is among the purest expressions of a cinematic style that I’ve ever seen: Monument Valley, the big impossible backdrops, the camera’s constant reluctance to move unless absolutely necessary, the characters reacting to each other within the same image—very infrequent shot/countershot—the unbelievably beautiful cinematography, almost noirish at points, incredibly artful composition. This film is a work of real beauty—the work of an artist completely in control of his medium. Of course John Ford’s masculinist common sense bravado means that he always spurned descriptions of himself as an artist, and was just a jobbing director who made pictures like people tell stories. But that’s disingenuous, because I think there are surely very few films which compare to My Darling Clementine. I find it very easy to get carried away by excessive ardour when I’ve just enjoyed a film, but while I was watching this I just kept muttering to myself: “holy shit, holy shit, oh my god.” Not because of the plot—which is not really very important—or because of the imagery, as incredible as it is, but because of how seamless and perfect every moment feels. This is a film in which you can see American myth-making in action—a film about the difficult necessity of optimism and the pain of yearning—about quiet heroism and fate and respect. Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp is more compelling to me than any of John Wayne’s performances in Ford’s film; Fonda is a man to whom things happen, a man who is trying to find a way to navigate the vicissitudes of fate. The scene where he goes with Clementine to the church consecration is surely among the greatest moments very committed to film. I’m gushing now. Whatever. Before I watched this I thought I kind of knew what My Darling Clementine would be like—some minor Western—but I was wrong. It is staggeringly good. I would kill to see it in a cinema.
August 14. Saturday. Will is visiting. We stay up late the night before. This morning we catch the bus to Burbage Bridge and walk to Hathersage via Stanage Edge. It drizzles occasionally. Last time I did this walk, with Laurin a few years ago, I was so hungover that I thought I might die. This time it is much more manageable. The heather is in full bloom; it’s windy on Stanage Edge; the Peaks are misty and autumnal. It’s a nice walk. We drink a pint at the Little John Hotel in Hathersage and catch the bus back to Sheffield, where we spend the afternoon drinking in a pub down the road from the flat. Then we get China Red and watch Casino (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1995). We start this at about quarter past nine at night, despite the fact that it is almost exactly three hours long. L and Will both fall asleep at various points. I manage to stay awake but kind of wish I’d gone to sleep too: not because there’s anything particularly wrong with Casino, but because I have to get up for work at half-past six the next morning, and watching a three-hour historical mafia epic which rejects the three-act structure and which is mostly focused on exploring the futility of a life committed to criminality is not a sensible way to spend an evening before work, especially after drinking about six pints in the afternoon. So I watch Casino in kind of a haze, but I do like it a good deal. It’s the stepping stone between Goodfellas and The Irishman—obvious to say that, probably—but what you see here Scorsese in a kind of transition. He knows exactly what he’s doing, stylistically, but is still interested in taking apart or rejecting a lot of narrative cinematic conventions. So a lot of Casino—a good three quarters at least—involves a voiceover from either Robert de Niro or Joe Pesci, just involved in straight-up direct exposition, in a way that makes you think, well, this can’t go on for all three hours, maybe this is a preamble to the actual narrative development of the film. But that is not the case: they simply deliver a voiceover for the vast majority of the film, and now that the progression of the plot is dealt with, the real work of high production value sets, extravagant costume design and lavish cinematography can get going. Casino is a film which looks incredible and which feels so stylish and elaborate that it becomes fairly easy to just sink into the world of the film—which is that of a very garish 1970s Las Vegas. It’s a good, assured piece of filmmaking; by no means Scorsese’s best, if you ask me, but very interesting, very compelling at points, with good performances from everyone—underusing a very sleazy James Woods, Joe Pesci giving it everything (as he always does), De Niro just about managing to pull himself away from his urge to caricature himself and mug at the camera for hours. The influence on Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is palpable, dripping off some of the interior shots. At points it’s like a tasteful Showgirls—and through being tasteful loses what makes Showgirls a work of genius. It’s less explicit in its message of absolute futility and emptiness than The Irishman, but that sentiment is there just beneath the surface, and you don’t need to scratch very deep to find it. I like it. I imagine it would repay rewatching, but I’m not sure when I’m next going to be in the mood to spend three hours on it.
August 15. Sunday. Work first thing; a fairly straight-forward and painless shift, which is good because I’m very tired. I manage to slip away a little earlier than usual and go to meet L and Will at the Millennium Galleries, where we see an artwork involving the pelt of a dead horse: a child is looking aghast at this artwork while its mother reassures it, over and over, that the horse is only sleeping. We go for lunch at Kollective, where we eat some big salads outside in the drizzle and run into Kate and Catherine, who are just leaving Showroom with Catherine’s parents. They arrive just as I am getting teary-eyed recounting the plot of School of Rock, so I have to hastily pull myself together. Then L and Will and I go to Showroom ourselves to see the mid-afternoon screening of Days of Being Wild (dir. Wong Kar-wai, 1990). I’m pretty tired by this point and I drink a beer during the film, so inevitably I fall asleep a couple of times, just for a few minutes, but I feel like out of all the filmmakers you can fall asleep to, Wong Kar-wai is one whose work will not suffer in the least from it, especially a film like Days of Being Wild, where plot or story seems to be the most marginal element of the work—this is a film of pure style. Like Chungking Express—well, like all of Wong’s work, but Chungking Express comes particularly to mind because I watched it at Showroom so recently—this is a film about vibes. And it is a nice vibe; it looks and feels great—languid, moody, melancholy, tender, airy, brooding. Et cetera. I like it a lot, but it also leaves me feeling weirdly cold—like, what is this style in aid of? I hate the expression ‘style over substance’ because I believe that style is substance, but here I feel like there is a kind of shallowness which leaves me slightly unconvinced by the experience. I guess I’m comparing it, unfairly, to the experience of watching My Darling Clementine, where the style is so important and so clearly in aid of delivering Ford’s personal and ideological opinions. But what is Wong Kar-wai’s position on anything? What are his films doing? I suppose they’re about the way that romance can tear apart the lives of ordinary people. There’s something in Days of Being Wild that’s reminiscent of Ophüls’s La Ronde, and, along with the almost too-perfect stylisation of the 1960s on display, this makes it feel like behind the surface of the film is a series of nods to a particular kind of visual culture, but one where the inspirations are so wide-ranging and idiosyncratic that it feels hard to unpick exactly what’s being referred to, or played off, or pastiched. There’s an odd martial arts fight scene that comes out of nowhere. There are a lot of false endings. It’s nice, and there’s a lot to like and admirer here, but I feel like it presents me with a weird kind of problem—the same problem that has been lurking with other Wong films I’ve seen. What is the deal? Style is the man himself, as Buffon famously said, but what kind of a man is Wong Kar-wai? Why can’t I just let myself enjoy the aesthetic? I dunno. Guess I’ll keep trying to watch the rest of the films in the series and see if I get any closer to an answer.
After the film we go to the Rutland Arms and sit in the beer garden. Then we walk home, where L sets about constructing a lasagne. I write a bunch of this film diary and feel very tired. We eat fairly late, and then watch Prince of Darkness (dir. John Carpenter, 1987), which I am quite surprised that none of us have seen before. Prince of Darkness is the second film in Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, sitting between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, and, as you’d expect, is a kitsch gore-fest with ideas above its station—trying to form an unholy marriage of ancient religious cult rites and quantum physics. It has Donald Pleasance in, as a priest who temporarily loses his faith after assembling a ragtag bunch of grad students to analyse the contents of a weird glowing green swirling vase that’s been locked in the basement of a Los Angeles church for years. There’s a lot of, like, bullshit theorising about what’s going on from the scientists, and it’s kind of hard to follow what is supposed to be happening in this fim—something about Satan as an extraterrestrial god, who is the son of the Anti-God, who lives behind mirrors—in the abyssal darkness, rather than the light—and the plot hinges around Satan possessing a mortal form, and, um, summoning A Great Evil into the human world? I don’t know. There’s a lot about opposition and negation and darkness. There’s some stuff about the lie of Satan being developed to trick humanity into feeling at the centre of things—if we think evil lies in the heart of men, rather than existing as a kind of subatomic quantum force in the universe, then our anthropocentric understanding of everything can go unchallenged. It’s hard to keep up; pretty convoluted. But it’s soundtracked with some nice throbbing synths, and there are points where people all share dreams which they receive from the future in the form of VHS tapes projected into their unconsciouses, so that’s pretty cool. It also has Alice Cooper as the leader of a group of “schizophrenic” homeless people who are—I’m not sure on the details—summoned to do the bidding of Satan? Dunno. I guess Prince of Darkness—like The Thing, like In the Mouth of Madness—is a film about the failure of humanity to accept that there are forces it cannot contain or overcome; it’s an almost affectless film about watching a destructive and chaotic energy being unleashed in the world. I read on Wikipedia that an argument has been made that it’s a parable about the AIDS crisis—an argument which relies heavily on the moments in the film when people are trapped in or burst out of closets. And, I mean, sure. That works too. It’s a fun film, a trashy film that’s pretty dumb and pretty enjoyable.