Medak: The Changeling (1980)

Although the early 80s witnessed the slasher film go mainstream, one of the first and most beautiful horror films of the decade was emphatically not a slasher film, but a gorgeous throwback to the atmospheric B-movies of the 40s and 50s. Like so many of those films – especially those made under Val Lewton – The Changeling is essentially about the relationship between a character and a space, in this case renowned composer John Russell (George C. Scott), who moves into an old house in Seattle following the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter in New York. Although the house appears to be set on a regular suburban block, its massive Victorian Gothic edifice quickly dislocates it from the surrounding streets and city, as it starts to communicate with Russell through a variety of sonic and musical devices, from the piano in the downstairs parlour room to a music box that he discovers in the attic. As Russell investigates and explores this endless, labyrinthine structure with the assistance of his property agent, Claire Norman (Trish Van DeVere, Scott’s actual wife at the time), director Peter Medak crafts a kind of object lesson in the music of suspense, a tribute to  suspense as a classical art, a symphonic co-ordination of sound and image that’s folded quite subliminally into Russell’s latest symphony, which becomes indistinguishable from the haunted spaces in which he is composing it. In part, that’s due to Medak’s gorgeous camera, whose movements are always a little too fluid or a little too spacious to feel as if they’re tethered to Russell’s perception, but too curvaceous and anamorphic to feel omniscient either, instead poising themselves at the receding threshold between Russell and the house, swivelling around the enormous, endless staircase that acts as echo-chamber and opening up great glissandoes of space with a precision and patience that often makes it feel as if the film is shot in slow motion. Whereas contemporary slasher films tended to alternate between suspense and shock, here shock is entirely subsumed into suspense, with the horror emerging gradually and wholistically, much like Medak’s incredibly detailed, deep-focus compositions, which seem to seek out and isolate the most eccentric and exotic aspects of any space, even when we venture outside the house. Admittedly, venturing outside might initially seem unnecessary and even undesirable, but part of the pleasure and surprise of the film is the way in which this languorous, peripatetic curiosity – a very spatial curiosity – segues effortlessly and brilliantly into neo-noir in the third act, as we sink into something like a cold case - or at least a cool case – that uncovers a deep past to Seattle, a Pacific Northwest answer to Vertigo, in the spirits that flit in and out of Russell’s cupboards and chandeliers. Shrouded in the cool, moody textures of a cityscape that’s cloudy all year round, George C. Scott never felt quite so rarefied as among these wanderings and wonderings, never quite so attuned to the autumn of his years – every look, phrase and gesture is musical in its understatement, vibrating in perfect unison with Medak’s directorial vision.


Peyton: San Andreas (2015)

There’s a special place in the American imaginary for apocalyptic visions of California – and Los Angeles in particular – that’s only become more apparent with the glut of climate change disaster films released over the last decade. None, of them, however, have envisaged such total destruction as San Andreas, which promises nothing less than a quake big enough to destroy San Francisco, Los Angeles and most of California – the destruction of California as a planetary event - setting up an entirely new and unrecognisable landscape in their place. Anchoring it all is The Rock as Raymond “Ray” Gaines, a helicopter-rescue pilot who finds himself cut adrift from his family on the day the quake strikes, although “anchor” is perhaps not quite the right word, since Ray ends up spending most of the day in the air, trawling above San Francisco, and then the Napa Valley, trying to hunt down his wife and daughter. In some ways, that’s a logical place to position us for this kind of film, the best vantage point for a panoramic sprawl of quakes, aftershocks, tidal waves and, of course, the faultline itself, zizagging down the Californian landscape like some giant work of land art. It’s curious, then, that the film makes so little effort to go beyond or even rework the digital destruction of earlier action films, offering us such a wealth of CGI information that it feels as if the spectacle is over before it’s really begun. If anything, the most spectacular scenes actually occur at ground level, or at least in skyscrapers, with director Brad Peyton really capturing the peculiar terror of being trapped in an earthquake-resistant skyscraper during an actual earthquake, as it trembles and rocks to the limits of what it can withstand. That said, comparatively little of the action takes place on the ground, or feels grounded in any permanent way, such that the horror of the quake – established, early on, in a breathtaking scene at the Hoover Dam – hovers somewhere between ground and aerial perspectives, not really contained by either. At times, undoubtedly, that slackens the momentum and disperses any real sense of tension, but it also makes it feel as if airspace itself has absorbed something of the atmosphere and ambience of the quake, despite the fact that like being aloft seems like the only way to really escape it. For all that The Rock seems safest and most mobile in the air, he's also forced to abandon every helicopter he pilots, creating a looming awareness that, in a world without any kind of stable groundspace to touch down or refuel, there’s only one real outcome. And it’s that sense of the sky as an apocalyptic canvas that distinguishes the film – a new precarity and terror to shared airspace that feels as indebted to the recent string of airline disasters as to the more conventional apocalyptic iconography unfolding below, a fear of flying that feels even more subconscious and collective than the fear of climate change, as you gradually, subliminally realise that the film has nowhere left to land.


Rosenberg: Brubaker (1980)

A kind of companion piece to Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker is based upon the notorious investigations into prison farms that took place in Arkansas in the late 1960s. In this version, Robert Redford plays Henry Brubaker – a loose version of penologist Tom Murton – who is appointed warden of Wakefield State Prison – based on Tucker State Prison – only to find that the prison is rife with exploitation, rape and decay, while the prisoners have been integrated into the local economy to a quite unprecedented extent – Tucker was the only American prison to turn a profit at this time – to the point where the prison itself has become the main employer in the surrounding county, even if its inmates aren’t paid or remunerated for their labour. In that sense, Wakefield quickly feels like the first fully privatised prison, a neoliberal trailblazer, while the film itself has the sober, sombre tone of a workplace drama, or a union drama, more than a prison drama per se. In fact, the prison is so collapsed into the surrounding county, so economically inextrixable from the state of Arkansas itself, that it doesn’t really  feel like a prison for most of the film – at least not exclusively – so much as the worst aspect of every national institution, from army barracks to reformatory school. Many of the inmates are in for their third or fourth round – they feel institutionalised before they even arrive – producing a casual, makeshift, domestic atmosphere in which the very idea of escape is purely notional – there is very little attention to the security thresholds that usually preoccupy most prison dramas – since it’s clear that this economy is largely self-regulating, with the prisoners themselves placed in key positions of trust and control in exchange for their labour, their silence and, in some instances, their blood. Yet this is also a prison escape drama in some sense, if only because Brubaker chooses to arrive at the prison as an inmate – the biggest single deviation from Murton’ story - in order to experience the deprivations first-hand before he accepts his new role as warden. From that moment on, every innovation, revision or reform feels like an escape effort, but it’s not exactly about escaping a discrete physical space in the manner of a more traditional or optimistic prison film – Wakefield is too amorphous for that – so much as escaping the prison as an institution, as well as escaping institutionalisation altogether. As might be expected, that pits Brubaker against both inmates and politicians, most of whom play as institutional types and only really “develop” by being gradually deinstitutionalised, resulting in an extremely wide cast that seems deliberately disorienting at moments. Such is the power of this particular institution, however, that nobody other than Brubaker is ever quite freed or exempt from it, with the the result that he is, in some sense, the only real character in the film. It makes sense, then, that Redford plays him as a presence as much as a character – from his calm, scrutinising gaze that presides over the opening scenes, his performance is all about body language, poses and gaits that command both respect and approachability, idealism and pragmatism. Viewed from afar – and the film tends to view him from afar, even in close-up – he’s a kind of liberal ideal, capable of translating idealism into direct action while never losing his noble ability to extricate himself from the institutions that seek to confine him in the name of pragmatism either. While it doesn’t quite make sense, then, to call it a fantasy – Murton did, after all, effect enormous changes – there is something slightly fantastic about Redford’s performance, a reckoning with his cult status as countercultural liberal on the verge of a new decade, that makes it feel like a coda to the first, great period in his career, and a fitting point of departure for what would be his longest gap between films to date. 


Coppola: The Outsiders (1983)

In some ways, The Outsiders occupies an unusual position in Francis Ford Coppola’s body of work. On the one hand, it feels a bit like his first effort at a moderate or small-scale film following the string of mission statements that stretched from The Godfather to One From The Heart. In keeping with that movement away from auteurist ambition, it’s also the first film in nearly a decade that wasn’t at least co-written by Coppola, with screenwriter Kathleen Rowell adapting S.E. Hinton’s iconic novel about coming-of-age in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the mid-1950s. However, despite the fact that Rowell goes to some length to retain the sparse, skeletal, incidental quality of Hinton’s prose – it really feels more like an adaptation of a short story – this doesn’t exactly feel like Coppola fully renouncing his grander, widescreen ambitions either. Instead, it’s an odd combination of small-scale and large-scale ambition that clocks in at under ninety minutes but also has grandiose and heroic aspirations that tends to make most of the characters feel as if they’re posing or performing in noble silhouette, with key events separated by stylised 50s-esque soundstage sequences. What was incidental in Hinton’s novel becomes somewhat elemental here, as we’re introduced to the two main subcultures in 50s Tulsa – the upper-class “Socs” and the lower-class “Greasers” – through a classical three-act structure in which a fatal rumble is followed by a retreat to the country, and then by another rumble. Along the way, there’s an extraordinary number of up-and-coming actors to behold – Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio – but the film isn’t driven by any one character so much as Coppola’s taste for the way nightlife started to emerge as a distinctively adolescent experience in the 1950s, with the film often feeling as if it is set over a single twenty-four-hour period, opening with a nightscape that the characters only have a certain amount of time to outrun or outwit before it falls again. In some ways, that nightscape is what makes the film so liberating and breathtaking, as we watch these teenagers slips and slide across an adult world with no regard for the functions or distinctions that hold during daylit hours, drifting and overlapping in what is also effectively a black-and-white world, perhaps explaining the presence of Gone With The Wind as a kind of symbol of hope, a Technicolor fantasy, throughout the story. But, at the same time, those looming, expanded distances also makes us aware how far this adolescent prison stretches as well, like the ghostly train whistle that’s always there somewhere in the background, until all the characters feel as if they are all trying to make it to the edge of night, the end of the world, somewhere beyond all the drive-ins, diners and vacant parks that Coppola lovingly subsumes into Hinton’s vast Oklahoman emptinesses. In retrospect, then, it’s not hard to see why this became such a foundational film for the 80s Brat Pack – there’s the same fixation on subculture, “walking in the park, when it gets late at night,” that haunted the Hughes generation – but it also makes you realise just how much subsequent teenage films held back from nightlife, as if the night itself were a 50s phenomenon that was all but erased by the MTV-lit 80s, and only really available in a darkened cinema, or the exquisitely elegiac treatment Coppola gives it here. 


Spray & Velez: Manakamana (2013)

For all its kinetic escalations, one of the biggest casualties of the digital era has been the capacity to evoke or suggest a camera being propelled through actual physical space. On the one hand, tracking-shots have become so crisp and streamlined that they’ve dispelled the notion of space altogether, while portable digital cinematography has overcompensated with a space that’s so jerky, fragmented and chaotic that the camera itself no longer feels extricable from it. In both cases, what’s been lost is the sense of fragility, or fallibility, that once accompanied the camera on its forays through the world – the slight shudder, jump or bump around the edge of the glide that reminded us that we were still working within the realm of human and mechanical error. Of course, those errors would have been seen as limitations from an analog mindset, but they’re now, in some ways, what makes analog fascinating – a magnetic and charismatic ability to be “messy in just the right ways” that propelled Stephanie Spray and Pacho Verez to choose analog for Manakamana, their first work under the aegis of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. In fact, Spray and Verez don’t merely employ an analog camera, but what is in some sense the analog camera, at least of ethnographic film – the camera used by ethnographic pioneer Robert Forster – planting it within one of the cable cars used to transport Nepalese pilgrims across the jungles and mountains to the remote shrine of Manakamana, and impassively filming a variety of non-professional actors as they make the journey there and back. In that sense, the film is very much an act of media ethnography, an ethnography of analog film, as much as a study of the Nepalese pilgrims themselves, driven, above all, by the stately motion of the cable car, which is in some sense the main character of Spray and Verez’s vision as well. As it glides from vista to vista, a series of beautiful, expansive landscapes unfold before our eyes, but they’re a little too disrupted and dishevelled whenever we jerk through a pylon to ever quite settle into a digital glide, as smooth and seamless as the interim might seem. In fact, the more attuned you become to the meditative lilt of the car, the visual mantras of vista after vista, the more sensitive you become to all the little imperfections as well, not least because Spray and Verez introduce a little more visual or aural stimuli with each new occupant of the car. However, because the entire film is set within the car, the film never loses that substrate of meditative movement either, as much as the occupants might talk over, distract us from or remediate it themselves, such that the glide is never quite diluted but never quite perfected either, existing more in a hypothetical state, a state of pure possibility that is also peculiarly and poetically present as a sensual and sensory experience. Not only does that beautifully match the passage of the pilgrims themselves to Manakamana – a shrine renowned for wish-fulfilment – but it captures, in some sense, the ethnographic enterprise itself, which sets out to hypothesise some state between objective detachment and subjective immersion and keep it open, alive, provocative as an aesthetic experience. The genius and beauty of Manakamana is to fold both those pilgrimages into the experience of analog cinema, the piligrimage of the analog cinephile, which is here reimagined in terms of a digital potentiality that accrues its power precisely from never actually become digital. And if the result can’t quite be described as digital cinema, then perhaps it doesn’t quite make sense to call it analog cinema either, since it’s more like an effort to capture the digital horizon of the analog experience as a horizon. To watch it is to witness analog dream of digital, as we permeate ever deeper into a membrane that we never quite cross, in an act of devotion, a kind of threshold-magic, that confounds viewer and subject in the most remarkable and resonant ways.