Taylor-Johnson: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Now that it’s become possible to witness virtually any sex act at the click of a button, there’s something improbable about the blank narrative time that once preoccupied so much pornography. In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that porn, as an old-fashioned narrative genre, has been more or less relegated to a boutique, arthouse niche – and even then a niche that’s filmed with the full assumption that you can still transition to the money shot at a moment’s notice. In the process, the ingredient that arguably accounted for porn’s eroticism – waiting, endlessly waiting – has been progressively whittled away, leaving scenarios that are ever more explicit, yet ever more mind-numbingly functional at the same time. In some ways,Fifty Shades of Grey speaks to that moment as eloquently as art porn spoke to the rise of digital streaming in the late 90s and early 00s, offering up a series of utterly unimaginative softcore scenarios that play out against an utterly lifeless neoliberal lifeworld, a world in which there is no real taboo left to surmount, least of all the sadomasochistic configurations that have been marketed as its most titillating and transgressive moments. That might sound fairly unpromising, but the peculiar genius of the film is that it makes you feel as if you can only really commune with Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) constrictive, suffocating rapport by watching it in real time. Rediscovering a certain masochism in simply watching pornography as film, the narrative revels in a sustained sense of the preposterous that only emerges when you watch it in its totality, and which seems neither unintentional nor knowing so much as wholeheartedly committed to the combination of the erotic and the idiotic – the erotidiotic – that once characterised porn as a genre, back when its artier and more masturbatory functions weren’t quite as separated and streamlined as they are today. Perhaps that’s why it often recalls Paul Verhoeven, since, like his greatest films, it forces you to be a hardcore voyeur for every minute of its two hour plus running time – a slightly ludicrous project, given that most of it looks like a tie commercial, a car commercial, or an Apple commercial, one of many ways in which Sam Taylor-Johnson’s mock-boutique style syncs perfectly with E.L. James’ corporate chic. Just as Grey brands everything in his life, so every single utterance exudes the mock-gravitas of his sex chamber, in something like an erotic thriller in which there is no actual thriller, which is perhaps what porn was all along. That said, from the film’s perspective porn is so historic that it’s already started to collapse into traditional romantic drama anyway, as Anastasia and Grey only seem to be able to finalise their masochistic contract by drawing upon one literary classic after another for inspiration - in a stroke of genius, Jennifer Ehle plays Anastasia's mother and muse -  which is where the film’s supreme sense of camp really comes into its own, its determination to pleasure as many viewers as humanly possible, even or especially if it risks ending up relegated to cult and covert midnight screenings in the process. 


Nichols: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

The opening credits of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-winning play are so stately and classical that they could easily be attributed to some great lost movie from the 40s, hovering at a polite distance behind a middle-aged couple, Martha and George, played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as they wander home across the bucolic liberal arts campus where George is an Associate Professor of History. The moment they – and the camera – step inside, however, we’re launched into an argument about who's best versed in 30s and 40s cinema, paving the way for a film that, perhaps more than any other big-budget top-billed Hollywood outing of the 1960s, sets out to establish itself as definitively post-classical, in terms of ambit, atmosphere and acting style. In large part, that’s because Albee's iconic vision of a marriage in crisis is so incompatible with even the residual confines of the Hays Code era that it more or less plays as a dismantling of every classical scruple and sentiment, lurching us into a strange new world that starts at the end of a boozy, combative evening and simply escalates from there, as Martha and George invite a couple they’ve met over the course of the night – Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) – back to their house for a tortuous session of “get the guests." Arguments, especially drunken arguments, tend to date pretty quickly – let alone in a film in which the characters are drunk for the entire duration – so it’s extraordinary how harsh, biting and volatile this still feels, as the repartee flows quickly, pre-emptively and cacaphonously as in the most daring screwball comedies, and voices already worn out from drinking and arguing all night are taken to ever greater levels of agony and aggression. If anything, it makes latter-day descendents, such as Roman Polanski’s Carnage, seem somewhat tame by comparison, thanks in part to Haskall Wexler’s incredible camera, which always feels a little too close to the actors – and gets closer as the night wears on – but is too mobile and shifting to ever settle into anything like a regular close-up either. Inhabiting it is like being trapped in a car with a drunk driver, vertiginously claustrophobic without being in the least stagy – a considerable achievement for a theatrical adaptation – as Martha and George's spray of abuse reaches such plosive, rapid-fire intensities that it's pretty much impossible for Wexler to cross-edit each new invective, instead forcing him to duck and weave around them like he’s shooting a boxing film, marriage as a spectator sport. For that reason, his camera works most organically when it’s trained on Taylor, who puts in the performance of a lifetime, perpetually speaking through a mouthful of food, ice or gin, and coughing, spluttering and contorting her delivery as if she's determined to twist further out of her beauty with each passing moment. Cloaked in accumulating, aggressive feedback, her luminous rage strives for the apex that will finally allow it to mutate into despair, even as the dawn only seems to get further and further away, sinking the film into the weird ambience of the wee small hours that both Nichols and Wexler do so well, the ebb and flow of late-night drunkenness, sudden lurches between existential introspection and expansive aggression. After the first ten minutes, you feel that it must be ending, that it can’t possibly intensify for another two hours – and yet it does, somehow it does, taking us into the very bosom of a marriage that, by all sane accounts, should have ended some twenty years before.


Mackenzie: Starred Up (2013)

Referencing Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped has become something of a commonplace when it comes to prison films with any aspirations to profundity, but Starred Up is one of the few genre exercises that feels like a true descendent – a minute, painstaking and unbelievably visceral embodiment of the prison experience by way of a protagonist who, like Bresson’s Fontaine, is really more of an avatar than a character. From the moment Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is “starred up” – moved from a juvenile facility to an adult facility, where he’s housed in the same wing as his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) – he seems convinced that the prison establishment isn’t merely looking to contain his body, but actually after his body itself, or at least his ability to control and co-ordinate his body. As a result, there’s not much in the way of introspection (or at least it's strongest when there's not), just the muscle memory and proprioceptive limits that Eric desperately tries to maintain by pre-emptively defending himself against convulsive onslaughts that nearly always have some element of rape or sexual abuse, and nearly always end with him being manhandled and bundled off to solitary confinement. Nor is there much in the way of narrative or dialogue - in some way, it resembles an episode from a gritty Granada or BBC One television series more than a fully-fledged film -  as Eric and his cellmates parry plosive chunks of sound that are so monosyllabic and thick with regional flourishes that they’re muscular rather than expository, bodily vibrations that feel more or less continuous with the punchups they inevitably precede. Too busy with staking claim to his own body to worry about escaping, Eric’s world contracts to anyone and everyone who comes too close to it, which creates a quite unique tone, meditative for long stretches but only ever the tiniest twitch away from ultra-violence as well, a process that his counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend) tries to reverse by teaching him how to move from rage to a steady, calm contemplation of his rage. Still, by the end every encounter has become so traumatically embodied that it’s more like watching horror, or even torture porn – the end-point of an exponentially escalating aggression that’s so relentless that aggression itself starts to feel somewhat relative, forcing you to forget that any other way of interacting is really even possible. And perhaps that’s what finally allows Mackenzie to nail the weird ways aggression and abuse can domesticate intimacy among men in close confinement - in his vision, it’s only at the very threshold of the fight-or-flight response that the most tender and fragile homosocial communion can hide in plain sight, which is where his entire film feels poised as well, unspeakably vulnerable as it is unspeakably volatile.  


Baumbach: Kicking and Screaming (1995)

No other 90s director excelled at precocity quite like Noah Baumbach, who remains more or less unmatched in his ability to evoke that period of supreme graduate confidence – post-undergraduate but not yet postgraduate – when the entire future seems poised at the end of each perfectly polished sentence, even or especially if it’s a depressive or downbeat future. Admittedly, Whit Stillman came close, and in many ways Kicking and Screaming is a study in rarefied New England privilege along the lines of Metropolitan, revolving around a group of liberal arts graduates who decide to bunker themselves against the adult world by staying put in their small college town – it appears to be Poughkeepsie – and continuing to participate in the life of the college like they always did. That said, it’s far less austere, remote and otherworldly than Metropolitan, as Baumbach treads a wonderful line between preocity and plain sleaziness in what often feels like an ancestor of Old School as much as Girls, a frathouse comedy as much as an indie milestone. In part, that’s due to Baumbach’s way of writing and filming conversation, which is strangely frenetic and detached at the same time, built upon ruminative duos and cryptic asides that initially seem like studies in fusing written and spoken language, but quickly come to feel like a way of dissociating and compartmentalising conversations within a single scene – and one of the great strengths of the film is the way Baumbach manages to suggest the buzz and energy of lots of discrete conversations happening in a single space, if only to chart and occupy all the interstital spaces connecting and cushioning them. In the process, the film beautifully captures campus life as a vast panorama of conversational chambers, super-intimate and awkwardly formal at the same time, and mediated by Baumbach’s camera, a communicative platform as much as a recording device, an interface between a heterogeneous clutter of utterances, asides, monologues, conversations and theatrical renditions that often makes this feel like the last great frat film before colleges were remade by social media. At times, it’s not merely the characters but the actual cast – which includes Chris Eigeman, Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott and the obligatory Eric Stoltz – who appear to be leaving messages for each other through Baumbach’s camera, which becomes a witness to an obsessive communicative inventory, a world in which people are continually replying to ripostes before they’ve even been delivered, oversharing only to try and take or give the information back, and anxious to record everything for posterity before it’s even occurred. Weirdly displaced from any one relationship, yet somehow attached to even the most incidental encounters, it’s the perfect register for a film about people who are trying to tap into that elusive undergraduate sense of possibility without actually taking classes – the sense of infinite conversations and connections taking place around you if you can only manage to tap into them. Of course, these characters never really do, settling into a low-key saloon groove that ends up making them feel more like the next generation of academics than anything else, which just makes this study in downbeat, downward mobility all the more bittersweet some twenty years later.   


James: Life Itself (2014)

A tribute to the life and lore of Roger Ebert, Life Itself was based on his 2011 memoir of the same name, and was filmed during the last stages of his battle with throat cancer, shortly before he passed away in 2013. Divided into roughly three sections, it opens with an overview of Ebert’s life and career before winning the Pulitzer for film criticism and, at this point at least, proceeds largely as photomontage, interspersed with interviews and archival footage thrown in for dynamism, and accompanied by excerpts from Ebert’s memoir. Not only does that capture something of the clutter and chaos of the news desk, as well as the vast sprawl of a life that was already overwhelmingly convivial and expansive, but it also gives this first part of the film the flavour of a talking book, with all the intimacy that entails. Among other things, that allows James to introduce us to an Ebert we’re perhaps less familiar with – the Ebert of poolrooms and hired ladies, the Ebert who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Ebert who breathed alcohol and was a self-confessed breast man and, above all, the Ebert who, for a number of years, lived the rugged, urban life of one of the melancholy 70s antiheroes whose roles he so often championed. As the interviews and archival footage gathers momentum, James moves on to the second part of the film, which is in some ways the most fascinating – the story of how Ebert paired with Gene Siskel to form Siskel and Ebert, pioneering television film criticism in the process. Almost despite itself, this part of the film makes a case for Ebert as a television critic even more than a print critic, if not a digital social media critic in filigree – a conversationalist and populist above all else whose overwhelming desire to “connect” with other people through movies would lead to him transitioning seamlessly into blogging and tweeting later in his life. Painting an incredibly evocative portrait of Chicago as a film criticism backwater sandwiched between Los Angeles and New York, James’ curation of archival footage totally nails the antagonism and dynamism between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune – and, by extension, between Siskel and Ebert, stars of  a“sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theatre” that returns, time and again, to the “clear, plain, Midwestern” timbre of Ebert’s voice, and his decision to remain in Chicago for his entire career. Of course that makes the final section, which deals with Ebert’s medical travails – he lost his voice in 2006 – all the more harrowing, but in the spirit of Ebert’s own Midwestern fortitude and optimism James doesn’t play it for tragedy but instead focuses on the way Ebert’s situation allowed him to fulfil his mission as a social media critic, bringing him into an ever closer proximity to his many devotees, as well as taking his relationship with his wife Chaz - in some ways the main character here - to ever greater levels. In fact, such is Ebert’s extraordinarily convivial and conversational presence that it only takes a few of his friends and colleagues for you to feel his words in the air around you, as James weaves a beautiful tapestry of witnesses to his life while always remaining in the moment with him and taking his charisma on its own terms. In that sense, the great achievement of the film is that a tragic scenario never devolves into full-blown tragedy – surely the way Ebert would have wanted it – as James sketches out a melancholy, effervescent and surprisingly opaque man of letters, as much an embodiment of the second half of the American century as Gatsby was of the first, and as indebted, in his own way, to his heartland upbringing, in what must be one of the greatest gifts a film-maker has ever bestowed upon a critic.