Pollack: The Electric Horseman (1979)

Robert Redford’s fifth collaboration with Sydney Pollack sees him as Sonny Steele, a former rodeo champion turned breakfast cereal spokesman who’s required to perform a promotional spot at Caesar’s Palace as part of his duties. When he learns that his co-star is to be Rising Star, a former thoroughbred racehorse bought and drugged for the occasion, he saddles up, rides off the stage and heads for the desert, sick and tired of being reduced to a caricature of himself. What’s unusual about the film, however, is that, from the very moment he steers his steed down the Vegas Strip, Sonny becomes more of a media event than he could ever have dreamed or dreaded, even more at risk of being overtaken and eclipsed by his own corporate image. As the media frenzy builds and the airwaves buzz with speculations as to his motivations and exact whereabouts, he comes to feel even more inextricable from Vegas – financially, socially, aesthetically – to the point where it feels as if Pollack’s trying to fix the exact moment at which Vegas’ powers of pastiche and simulation cease, the precise borders of a postmodern fallout zone that seems to become more and more elastic as Redford pokes and prods them through one breathtaking Nevada and Utah landscape after another. Any incredulity at the sheer expanse of desert surrounding Sin City, then, is quite momentary, since it’s only a matter of time before Vegas sends out its tentacles through every fading ranch town and satellite highway exchange, conquers every horizon, even or especially when it operates through Hallie Atkin (Jane Fonda), the humanist reporter who follows Sonny to tell his story and ends up attaching her wagon to her star. And that’s perhaps what it takes to make a Vegas western, or at least the last gasp of a genre before it would become totally revisionist or self-consciously classicist – the story of a cereal cowboy turned serial cowboy, who never quite manages to evade his own image, or stop thinking of himself as a heroic silhouette.


Schumacher: Falling Down (1993)

“A tale of urban reality” for the 1990s, Falling Down follows William Foster (Michael Douglas), a white middle class everyman, as he rampages his way across L.A. over the course of a single day, trying to make it “home” to his estranged ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) while pursued by a policeman who’s working his own last day before retirement (Robert Duvall). In many ways, it feels like a critique of the vigilante films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, although whether it’s criticising their ethics or just admitting that they are no longer pragmatic guides to action is quite unclear. In either case, the most dramatic departure from the vigilante genre is that Foster is already at breaking-point from the first scene, precluding any possibility of further escalation or intensification, and dooming his rage to become more and more anticlimactic as it proceeds. That’s not to say that Foster’s rampage becomes less intense per se, but that it moves further and further towards comedy, decelerating into a kind of picaresque impotence even as it aims for ever greater heights of vigilante immolation. Where vigilantes often felt like proto-action heroes, filling out the militaristic rearguard of white flight with promises of some as yet unimaginable action-spectacle, Falling Down is resolutely post-action, suffused with multicultural and countercultural fears that can’t be escaped or satiated. At some level, that’s because Foster can’t afford to move to the suburbs, but it’s also because L.A. is really nothing but suburbs, collapsing the distinction between urban core and suburbia that defined white flight in the first place. As a result, Foster’s seething rage operates as a kind of perceptual portal to early 90s L.A., a mindful attention to minutiae that transforms every establishing sequence into a kind of miniature documentary, a bit like Los Angeles Plays Itself in filigree. Devoid of a middle distance, most scenes are almost entirely comprised of close-ups and sequence shots that don’t establish so much as simply assume the fact of L.A., setting us adrift amongst connective tissue and immanent infrastructure – pedestrian L.A., the most L.A. might admit to a flaneur – as every racist, sexist and homophobic tirade collapses into a kind of consumer rage, directed both at minorities who are on the verge of becoming more conspicuous consumers, and at a city that seems to demand total consumption while resisting it at the same time. And it’s as a thwarted consumer that Foster offers himself up as a canvas for Schumacher’s delicious sense of camp - he reserves his best rant for when he narrowly misses out on the Whammy Burger breakfast menu - ingratiating us into a paranoid fantasy that may just be the most effective way to envisage this endless sprawl as a panoramic totality, a single film.


Pollack: The Firm (1993)

The Firm was John Grisham’s breakthrough novel and the first to receive a film adaptation, setting the tone and texture for a staggering amount of 90s cinema in the process. It revolves around Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), a prodigious young lawyer who’s poached straight out of Harvard by Bendini, Lambert and Locke, a family values firm from Memphis that prides itself on not counting a single divorcee among its staff, nor a single woman among its partners. However, as McDeere and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) quickly learn from mentor Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman), nobody has left the firm in the last twenty years and lived to tell the tale. At first that seems like mere coincidence, until McDeere gradually gleans that the firm may just be an outgrowth of the occult South, the latest in a long line of shadowy confederacies and confraternities that lurk around the fringes of the film as so many inchoate glissandoes of suspicion, trickles of half-formed apprehension. Taken collectively, they make for an even more Southern Gothic Grisham than Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Gingerbread Man, a critique of the corporation as one of the most old-fashioned, oak-encrusted American institutions. As a result, a great deal of the film’s power comes from the way it moves between these hallowed repositories of hyper-regionalism and their offshore holdings, collapsing downtown Memphis into the Hyatt Grand Cayman in a kind of fever dream of what happens when you displace your assets as far South as economically imaginable. Jumping between country clubs and scuba sites, Pollack produces such surreal, disorienting juxtapositions that all space in the film seems somewhat hyperreal, just as every supposedly venerated or antiquated Southern interior feels like something of a pastiche, while the exquisitely curated establishing shots offer something like a survey of postmodern architecture as it stood in the early 90s, culminating with an utterly mindblowing sequence set on Memphis’ Mud Island Monorail. Like so many of Pollack’s films from this period, then, it’s extraordinarily atmospheric - so atmospheric, in fact, that it’s always on the verge of overlaying everything with a bucolic, pastoral, telemovie South. Yet that just makes the Gothic elements even more elliptical and unsettling, forcing Cruise into some of his most poised and unusual transitions to date. 


Stone: Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday aspires to be the NFL film par excellence, and it pretty much succeeds. An ensemble drama revolving around the ill-fated Miami Sharks, it’s stadium cinema, a positively gladiatorial experience that aims to give you an even more visceral experience than being there, or watching it on television, as Stone shoots everything with an overembodied, handheld frenzy that’s actually quite prescient of the way most football codes would come to be shot and televised over the next decade. For all the narrative machinations and ensemble charisma, great swathes of it depict the Sharks doing what they do best – at over two and a half hours, there’s almost an entire football game in here – building a propulsive momentum that quickly exceeds the film, and makes you wonder why this wasn’t picked up as a television pilot instead of Friday Night Lights. If it occasionally – or continually – feels like an advertisement for the NFL, then it’s only because, like the NFL itself, it’s continually searching for some kind of camera commensurate to a sport that subsists on such intense, visceral and fleeting moments of contact, a sport that seems to saturate every camera and media platform before it has a chance to capture it. At times, it feels as if the only people who can really, truly watch NFL are the players themselves – and perhaps the coaches, who have to be inside every player – as Stone continually searches for a way to put us right there in the middle of the huddle, which quickly starts to feel like the most mysterious, hallowed sightline on the entire field. To that end, he slams and crunches his shots together, collapses editing into tackling, until the whole film pretty much feels like it’s shot on the field, just as every encounter is on the verge of coalescing into a scrimmage, and every conversation can’t help but feel viscerally, hyperbolically tactical. Light years away from the mobile chess game NFL can sometimes appear to be to an outsider, this is football shot as porn, which can make it quite hard to tell exactly who’s giving and who’s receiving all the insane testosterone flying around. Starting in fourth quarter and never letting up, it’s more like an extended music video or battle sequence than a fully-fledged film, a lowbrow companion to Saving Private Ryan that seems as determined to blur the line between actors and real footballers as Spielberg did actors and real soldiers. Pumped and preened by its relentless, exhausting bombardment of enjoyment, it’s quite a strange experience to be encouraged to celebrate such a Republican style of football by the self-styled Democrat of American cinema. You can only assume that, as in so many of his war dramas, Stone believes the only way out is through, as he quivers with pleasure amongst the herd mentality that so many of his other films seem to critique and condemn.


Scorsese: The Aviator (2004)

Released after the critical and commercial disappointment of Gangs of New York, The Aviator represents the start of a new classicism in Martin Scorsese’s work, a taste for enshrining American cinematic history that would gradually converge with his more curatorial and documentary efforts over the next decade. It’s also the first of his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio in which you really feel the synergetic presence of one of the great auteur-actor rapports. For both those reasons, it feels right that the film itself is a larger-than-life effort, a study of Howard Hughes that’s more interested in the speed and scale of his personality than his personality itself – which also means the speed and scale of his final obsession with privacy, his efforts to shroud his last days in a life of spectacle. As if in deference to those final wishes, the film seems somewhat quarantined from its subject matter, unfolding one scrupulously sterile, germ-free environment after another, capturing the cold, continuous calculations of the obsessive-compulsive more than any conventional character study or period piece could hope to achieve. Not only is the beautiful set design is at its most beautiful when elaborating the endless bathrooms where Hughes performed his OCD rituals - or at least when it makes the spaces he moves through feel like a single, perfectly appointed bathroom – but Hughes himself feels somewhat like a prop, as imperviously inanimate as he clearly longed to be. In his wake, everything is touched with an air of fantasy, almost a childrens’ fantasy, closer to Hugo than any other film in Scorsese’s career, and just as fascinated with that moment in cinematic history at which the camera felt as if it might spontaneously and suddenly evolve into some even more sublime technology – in this case, high-velocity air travel and competitive commercial air transit, along with a paranoid fantasy of total surveillance that was bigger than either. A producer in the most prodigious, American sense, Hughes – or DiCaprio’s Hughes – makes the film feel produced more than directed, or at least allows you to feel Michael Mann as producer more than you otherwise might, chilling Scorsese’s endless sequence shots and phantom rides until they’re well below zero. Ten years later, this mode has become so familiar for Scorsese that it’s quite startling to see it adopted as consciously and concertedly as it is here. And yet, like Hughes himself, it seems made for retrospection, a grandiloquent dream that only starts to resonate once it’s eclipsed the dreamer.