Zemeckis: Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars was Robert Zemeckis’ second film, after I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and while it may be edging further towards the kind of big-budget spectacle that made his name in the 80s, this is still very much the work of a special effects director working without special effects. As in the earlier film, though, that turns cinema itself into something of a special effect, not just through Zemeckis’ flamboyant camera work, but through a hyperreal sensibility that makes the film feel as if it is in the process of being remediated and incorporated into some more emergent media complex. As in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, that remediation produces a retro-futurist aesthetic, in this case by way of the two used car lots in downtown Phoenix where most of the action takes place. In essence, the film is a standoff between these two lots, and their respective owners – Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden), who runs the Fuchs lot, and Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), who runs the New Deal lot – as they each struggle to prevent their lot being appropriated and demolished to make way for an up-and-coming freeway ramp. Set on an old-fashioned Main Street that is on the verge of being colonised by the utterly new kind of space dictated by freeway infrastructure, the two lots feel curiously jettisoned from the surrounding neighborhood, floating in the middle of a notional, conceptual space that also makes them feel curiously continguous with more remote locations, or, rather, the kinds of representations of remote locations that abound on the screens and interfaces that seem to flood the film, which often seems to be taking place in one giant disembodied dashboard. Among other things, that prevents the action ever feeling circumscribed, despite only really taking place in one location, with the lots quickly expanding beyond their physical parameters to feel like a perceptual horizon, a panoramic fusion of cinema screen and windscreen whose clean, sharp, wide spaces often feel as if they’re tailor-made for drive-in consumption. If the film doesn’t really go anywhere, physically – with a few key exceptions – then that’s because there’s nowhere else to go, at least not yet, or on roads - you can see the genesis of Back to the Future quite clearly – as the imminent offramp looms over everything with the promise to port us to some quite different spatiotemporal configuration altogether. It makes sense, then, that the standoff between the two lots involves two quite different strategies, with Fuchs aiming for old-fashioned action sequences, and Rudy opting instead for what feels like an early form of culture jamming, rogue advertisements intercepted into live television events – a football game, a presidential address – to bring the New Deal lot into the very epicentre of the nation’s consciousness. As in so many films of this era – especially those with even a vaguely exploitative bent - there’s a continual feedback loop between images and recordings of images that finally makes it feel as if Zemeckis is trying to capture something of the erotics of live broadcast in a cinema format, or to formulate something like live cinema, not unlike the way he tried to recreate that first momentous appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in  I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As a film that aspires to arrive by satellite, then, it’s very much of a piece with his subsequent efforts to stretch and surprise cinema’s capacities as a medium, which is perhaps why  it feels fresher and more immediate than some of his subsequent films some thirty years down the road.


Bridges: Urban Cowboy (1980)

A kind of spiritual sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy stars John Travolta as Bud Davis, a Texas cowboy who travels to Houston to earn enough money to buy his own ranch. While he’s there, he falls in love with Sissy, played by Debra Winger, who he meets at Gilley’s, a bar on the outskirts of the city, and the film follows the ups and downs of their romance, courtship, marriage and separation as they drift in and out of the Houston honkytonk scene. At over two hours, it’s a sprawling, languorous, panoramic film, and especially recalls Saturday Night Fever in the way that night time seems to be the natural state of things, with daylight hours reduced to a weird, half-awake interlude between dancefloor and dancefloor, which is where most of the film takes place. Even more than in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta feels like a nocturnal actor, sheepish, skittish and nerdy by day, but somehow transformed under neon, as he burrows deeper and deeper into the nightsprawl with each passing night, which is perhaps why it feels as of the full expanse of Houston can only properly be glimpsed at night as well. In fact, as far as the film is concerned, Houston only really exists as a nocturnal landscape, even as the city seems to feel glossier and synthetic with each evening that falls, as Bud’s dreams of being an actual cowboy gradually give way to a new kind of urban cowboy subculture, centred on the mechanical bull at Gilley’s. For whatever reason, mechanical bulls have become camp – the stuff of frat films and bromances – but in Urban Cowboy, they’re treated in earnest, as a genuine substitute for the rodeo culture closed off by the big city, which can admittedly feel a bit absurd in retrospect, especially since Bud and Sissy’s romance is largely contoured by the bull, culminating with the final ride-off that resolves their relationship. Still, even the bull segments don’t quite feel dated, partly because they’re often shot in a documentary spirit, as actual competitive footage, but also because they’re anchored in Winger’s performance, a much stronger foil to Travolta than Donna Pescow in Saturday Night Fever. Already a mercurial presence, Winger is positively translucent against the half-light of Gilley’s, while something about her resists the cowboy-cowgirl kitsch that the film often seems to be aiming for as well. If the mechanical bull has become a frat trope, it’s only by cordoning off the bull as male or female, but in Sissy’s hands it becomes both at the same time, emblem for a late countrypolitan style in which traditional country tropes have almost, but not quite, dissolved into their own urbane nostalgia images. 


Meyers: The Intern (2015)

It’s no secret that Nancy Meyers has a fairly ugly worldview. As Hollywood’s favourite female chauvinist pig, she traffics in women who can only be autonomous, let alone feminist, once they’re given permission from their husbands, boyfriends and lovers. For the most part, that worldview is crystallised through romantic comedy, begging the question of how a Nancy Meyers film would look without romance, or in which romance played a side role. In some ways, that’s what The Intern offers, a film about friendship that often veers towards romantic comedy tropes but never quite succumbs to them, which perhaps explains why Meyers has described it as one of her most challenging screenplays to date. Set in Brooklyn, it’s about the CEO of an internet clothing retail company, Jules Austin (Anne Hathaway), whose struggle to remain in charge of her own start-up finds an unlikely ally in Ben Whittaker (Robert de Niro), the first recipient of her (supposedly) innovative senior intern program. Leaving aside the revolting fantasy that interns are simply financially secure professionals with too much time on their hands, the Meyers touches are just what you’d expect, and mostly constellate around a general hand-wringing about why and when men turned into boys, rather than good old-fashioned men. At the same time, though, the fact that there’s no romance per se here means that that worldview tends to hover, free-floating, around the characters, occasionally darting in to use them – somewhat arbitrarily – as mouthpieces, but present more as an ambience, a particular vision of both old and new Brooklyn money. In that sense, the characters feel as if they somewhat escape or transcend Meyers’ intentions, which also makes them among the most organic, autonomous and nuanced characters of her entire screenwriting career, although the performances also play a big role as well. Not only does De Niro really reel in the hamminess, but Hathaway is less wide-eyed than she’s ever been, and if the film has any real twist it’s in the way these two actors really bring out the best each other, lending their serendipitous synergy to the film in turn. What could so easily have devolved into the father-daughter romance – the patriarchal romance – that always seems to linger around Meyers’ universe instead becomes – at its best – a closely-observed and quite unique vision of the kind of exquisite friendship that rarely has much cache in big-budget Hollywood cinema, especially in a beautiful extended sequence that occurs about halfway through. At once Meyers’ most offensive film and yet featuring her least offensively drawn characters – or at least characters who manage to somehow get the better of her – it’s a conundrum that manages to offend and genuinely charm at the same time, and in that sense a fitting footnote to the baby-boomer romcoms of the 90s, even if romance is no longer on the table. 


Jarmusch: Permanent Vacation (1980)

It feels right that Jim Jarmusch shot the greatest vision of No Wave New York from the brink of unemployment. Released shortly after he dropped out of film school, Permanent Vacation is perhaps the definitive vision of the city as the nihilistic, negative, necrotic wasteland that the No Wavers set out to proclaim, in what doesn’t retrospectively feel like a subculture so much as an attempt to eviscerate everything about subculture that might be appropriated by the status quo. As befits such a vision, there’s virtually no character, story or even dialogue, just a series of spaces traversed by Allie (Chris Parker), Jarmusch’s surrogate, over what turn out to be his last few days in New York. Closer in spirit to Chantal Akerman’s News From Home than many of Jarmusch’s subsequent works, what unfolds is something of an angular, abrasive, art-damaged city symphony for the punk era, an atone-poem for a metropolis that still feels as if it’s living and breathing in black-and-white, leaching all the colour out of Jarmusch’s mise-en-scene in the process. While there’s something about the size and scope of the dereliction envisaged here that recalls the most chaotic, anarchic and abrasive noise experimentation of the era – virtually every abandoned alleyway, street and stairwell feels like an inchoate No Wave venue – there’s just as much sensitivity to the quietness at the heart of No Wave as well, which in Jarmusch’s hands become nothing less than an affirmation that New York can still tolerate great emptinesses, silences and loneliness of the kind that have formed the basis of his filmography ever since, even or especially when his films aren’t set in New York. In that sense, the film’s version of the present is as a kind of concatenation of the most sombre, silent and solitary moments of the urban past, whether in the neorealist dereliction Jarmusch brings to his mise-en-scene, the nods in the direction of The Naked City, or the perpetual sense of departure and final dockland sequence that makes this a late work of poetic realism as much as anything else. On the rare occasions when we venture outside studio-scaled space, we’re met with a bombed-out wasteland of yawning ruins and crazed veterans, as if memorialising those parts of New York untouched by gentrification as part of a genealogy of urban catastrophe were the closest thing No Wave could admit to a counter-cultural vision. On the one hand, as might be expected, that makes for a singularly bleak experience, but it also manages to open up the city to even the most impoverished gaze, which is perhaps why Jarmusch’s camera feels as if it is imprinting himself on it as much as drawing sustenance from it, converging cinema and graffiti into a series of macabre memento mori that segue post-punk into goth before your very eyes, backed by a brooding score that has more than a touch of the dissonant illbience of the soundscapes of Dead Man, Ghost Dog and even Only Lovers Left Alive. As a lengthy rumination on the Doppler Effect might suggest, it’s a film that often feels as if it’s left sound behind, which is not exactly to say that it’s silent – though it often is – but that it’s haunted by subterranean post-sonic gurgles, bells that always seem to be ringing somewhere on the very distant fringes of what still feels like a city of tenements, giving inchoate, intermittent voice to Allie’s dawning awareness that “the drift is going to take me.”


Garrone: I Racconto Dei Racconti (Tale of Tales) (2015)

More so than at perhaps any time in film history, we are bereft of fairy tales. Once upon a time, they were what drove children’s cinema, but as studios like Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks have set out to craft a new kind of children’s cinema for adults, fairy tales have tended to fall by the wayside in the name of high-concept experimentation. Without taking away from those experiments, it’d be hard to deny that they tend to proceed precisely by removing the adult component that make the greatest fairy tales so resonant, infantilising adults rather than giving children the genuine glimpse of the adult kingdom that makes the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault so fascinating. With Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone provides a kind of corrective to that, fashioning a sequence of fairy tales that – apart from a few sexually explicit moments – seem designed to speak to children in the same way that Roald Dahl did at his darkest, as envoys from a grown-up world that requires the utmost preparation in advance to survive. The key to Garrone’s vision is that the three tales he chooses to adapt are not taken from the Brothers Grimm but Giambattista’s Pentamerone, a Neapolitan answer to the Decameron regularly cited by the Grimms and other romantic nationalists as the foundational fairy tale text, even if its stories have been distorted, adapted and in some ways sanitised into the characters and incidents we know today. By returning to that source, Garrone presents a world that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, from the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) who woos a beautiful young woman on the basis of her voice alone, to the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) who will go to any lengths to bear a child, to the King of Highhills (Toby Jones), who’s distracted from finding a husband for his daughter by the most curious of pets. Watching these stories play out is truly like witnessing a classic fairy tale for the first time, with Garrone drawing on the post-industrial voids that characterised the much more contemporary Neapolitan vision of Gomorra to return, time and again, to the quietest, stillest and most surreal moments in each story, typically characters traversing or negotiating some fantastic space carved out by the Southern Italian backdrops and Baroque architecture against which it all unfolds. If the best fairy stories have the ability to distill themselves into a single space, scene or vista capable of haunting a child’s mind for years to come, then Tale of Tales subsists on those spaces, setting them adrift on Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score, and only occasionally puncturing them with the bloodthirsty action of Garrone’s other films. In that sense, the film plays as a bit of an object lesson in restraint as a fantasy tactic, recalling Game of Thrones only to remind you how brutality can quickly tire if you pile it on too thick. Faced with the obligation of a fairy tale ending, Garrone strikes a beautiful balance between happiness and horror, always twisting and turning things so that you’re not quite sure when the happy ending is going to take over, and thickening supense into that sense of deep time and duration that fairy tales seem to exude, especially when they’re suffused with the plastic realism on display here, a palpable and tangible delight in prostheses, animatronics and the sheer physical texture of Garrone’s fantasy world. With each story fixated on class reversals so improbable that they send a magical ripple through the entire universe – collapsing people, animals and objects into a single melancholic, metamorphic texture in the process – it’s not hard to see in it an allegory of post-Berlusconi Italy, the third part of the trilogy that started with Gomorra and Reality. But the sheer plastic presence of the film also seems to defy allegory as well, bringing it closer to the igneous coastlines of Rossellini's trilogy more than anything else, as Garrone's characters freeze convulsions underfoot into great galactic geological amphitheatres of space that feel like the very precipice of Italy even or especially when they're landlocked, just as it's only through the purest fantasy that he manages to recapture the spirit of neorealism for an era in which realism itself has become the tool of the powerful, the corrupt and the wealthy, all of whom are so wonderfully skewered here.