Bogdanovich: She's Funny That Way (2015)

As the critic-turned-auteur par excellence, Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t write dialogue so much as assemble quotations, most of them from the Golden Age of Hollywood. That gave his films scope to be quite moody and melancholy when his sources were only a couple of decades old, but now that classical Hollywood is no longer really part of lived memory, it’s a challenge to see how his cinephilic exercises could resonate as poignantly and poetically as they did in the 70s and early 80s. In some ways, his last film, The Cat’s Meow, was the last gasp, since it did what none of his previous films had ever dared to do – it enshrined the classical film industry as a period drama, thereby cementing it in the historical past, rather than celebrating it as an enduring part of the present. It feels right, then, that She’s Funny That Way – originally titled Squirrels to the Nuts, after a soundbite pulled from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1946 comedy Cluny Brown – is set in a version of the present that isn’t so much affectively indebted to classical Hollywood as anachronistically and defiantly shot as if we’re still living in classical Hollywood, in a kind of simulacral 30s that feels like even more of a definitive break from the embodied, corporeal, autobiographical nostalgia of, say, Paper Moon, than The Cat’s Meow. As in virtually any 30s film set in New York, Broadway is here presented as the nerve centre of an island in which everyone is an actor whether they know it or not, and every relationship in the city converges on the theatre. In fact, convergence is what the film does best, since most of the bit players – Owen Wilson as a director, Imogen Poots as a call girl, Rhys Ifans as an actor, Kathryn Hahn as another actor, Jennifer Aniston as a therapst – are all fairly underwhelming in themselves, and only really start to sparkle when they’re given the chance to work off each other’s energy. Combined with a story that's obsessed with artists and their muses - and offers a wonderful outlet for Wilson's musing mentality - that creating a genuinely ensemble experience that perhaps most differentiates it from Woody Allen’s latter-day jarring, dissonant and incongruous assemblages of celebrities. As a result, the film tends to play out across a series of ceremonial, performative, theatrical spaces – hotels, elevators, therapists couches, interviews – and is strongest when characters simply bump into each other – the perfect combination of spontaneity and theatrically – most memorably in an extended scene in which every member of the cast converges on a single restaurant, with delightful results. Certainly, that makes the whole film feels somewhat cloistered – one of the key scenes actually takes place in the Cloisters – but the effect is strangely one of expansiveness more than constriction, transforming Manhattan into the backdrop for a giant country house drama, drenched in a golden glow that that’s as ahistorical and self-containted as an Instagram photo, a tone and texture that makes even SmartPhones seem positively screwy. If anything does start to grate, it’s Poots’ abysmally historicised American accent – all the more unusual in that Ifans doesn’t seem under any pressure to conceal his Englishness – but there’s also something to be said for how enthusiastically the film revels in its sheer plasticity and implausibility, placing it front and centre with a framing device and voiceover that makes it feel as if she’s in every scene, and that every scene is bracketed by quotation marks more emphatic than those of any other film in Bogdanovich’s career, even or especially as nothing tangible or concrete is there to be quoted anymore. 


McQuarrie: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Although Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was praised for its extravagant set pieces, the Mission Impossible franchise has always had a particular affinity for set pieces, like the series before it, just as the formal challenge posed to the films has always really turned on how to translate that set piece structure into a feature-length narrative without making it feel like three TV episodes stitched together back to back. The situation is made considerably more difficult by the fact that the original and secondary series treated the set piece as a tool for taking us to the very threshold of the analog, physical world, as well as the threshold of the nation-state – a threshold that has greatly receded in the intervening decades, such that the murky, interstitial, post-national zones that were only ever horizons in the series are now simply taken for granted in the world that Ethan Hunt inhabits, a world in which stealth is no longer a specialisation but a general state of mind. In Ghost Protocol, Bird responded with a series of dizzying, vertiginous, incomprehensible post-spaces, all prevented from lapsing over into digital exhaustion by the analog, physical presence of Cruise’s body, the body of the last great actor prepared to perform his own stunts. Rogue Nation, by contrast, stays along that threshold instead of leaping over it, embracing the murkiness between analog and digital space that seems to define so much contemporary experience, which is perhaps why it also feels more interested in suspense than spectacle of the kind so sublimely expounded by Bird. In that sense, the film feels like a bit of a pretext for its central set-piece, which occupies most of the second act, and revolves around Hunt’s efforts to foil an assassination attempt that has been deliberately timed to occur during the climactic note of a performance of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera. Moving between virtually every component, inhabitant and network within the theatre, McQuarrie crafts a kind of tribute to The Man Who Knew Too Much that effortlessly glides between post-human sightlines and the palpably plastic, artificial spatiality of sets and costumes, with a deftness and dexterity for co-ordinating real-time, real-space imperatives with a digital space of flows that is, in the end what Hunt does best, not least because this picaresque, porous membrane is also a fairly absurd space, and a great backdrop for Cruise’s exquisite sense of comic timing. And that’s only exacerbated by the presence of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust – another undercover agent and one of the best foils in the series – as well as by Christopher McQuarrie as writer and director, whose vision of Cruise in Jack Reacher as the only great action hero who hasn’t succumbed to self-ironisation – even or especially at his most comic and camp – is continued here with aplomb. Of course, there’s a story to undercut it all – as in Ghost Protocol, the twist is that something like a nation-state or at least a nation-syndicate does still exist – but the main emotional thrust of the film is a kind of paean to Cruise’s ability to age with dignity onscreen, in a kind of counter-narrative to that promulgated by the tabloid media. Earnestness tinged with just enough comic charisma to prevent it sinking over into saccharine sanctimony is a fairly rare commodity for an action hero these days, but Cruise has stuck to his guns with a conviction in the power and passion of acting even as his offscreen reputations – and misrepresentations - have forced him to fall back upon serial and genre roles as never before, which is perhaps why the Mission Impossible franchise has gradually morphed into one of the best contemporary tributes to cinema as an actorly medium, especially in this sort-of sequel to Jack Reacher. Certainly, all of the action scenes feel like workouts at some point, while Cruise - and Hunt - are just starting to glimpse the twilight of their acting careers, but that just makes their dedicated professionalism all the more endearing, all the more of a spectacle in itself, especially when coaxed, cushioned and curated as perfectly as McQuarrie has over the course of these two collaborations.


Bancroft: Fatso (1980)

Fatso is not only the first and only film written and directed by Anne Bancroft, but one of the most powerful films to come to terms with that quintessentially American condition – overeating. Or, for Bancroft, that Italian-American condition, since this is first and foremost a wonderfully delirious vision of Italian-American culture as one giant oral fixation, and every Italian-American institution, from communion to cannoli, as one great ample-breasted mother, doling out culinary consolement at every turn, especially in an immigrant culture severed from the mother country and forced to define its territory, legitimacy and identity through food as never before. Personifying but by no means exhausting that backdrop is Dominic DiNapoli (Dom DeLuise), a second-generation Italian immigrant living in New York’s Little Italy, as well as a chronic overeater who vows to diet when his younger cousin dies of a heart attack, but is unable to really discipline himself until he falls in love with Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzarra), a local antiques dealer, and even then struggles to choose between his mouth and his heart, to the chagrin of his volatile sister Antoinette, played by Bancroft herself. In a very real sense, the film is this one man’s efforts to diet – and how it contours his relationship with family and friends – which would probably becoming boring or exploitative were it not for the exquisite way in which Bancroft eludes and embraces comedy and tragedy at the same time, precluding and confounding any sadistic voyeurism on the part of the audience as well as tapping into the tragicomic register that DeLuise did best. Sometimes he’s eating to stop crying, sometimes he’s eating to continue laughing – in both cases, chowing down on something delicious while sobbing, stressing or soliloquising in some quintessentially DeLuisean fashion, performing or expunging some trauma - but neither tragedy or comedy really sticks, as Bancroft instead embraces overeating as a peculiar if sometimes painful sensitivity to urban space, crafting one culinary tableaux after another with a beautiful taste for all the nooks, crannies and interstices where the binge eater can find, imagine or project food, from greeting stands to the Metropolitan Museum Art gift shop, in a kind of cognitive mapping of Italian-American New York as it stood in the early 1980s. Not only is there food in every scene, but it quickly feels indistinguishable from the spicy, piquant, histrionic Italianisms of Bancroft’s script, whose crazy conversational mouthfeels might start to feel somewhat stagy were they not set against this beautiful culinary flanerie – Baudelaire’s “gastronomy of the eye” taken to its logical and literal conclusion – whose wanderings don’t merely take us from one food counter and late-night television commercial to the next, but collapse us into a roving, hungry eye, a dispersed ambient appetite that’s not so different from that of the script itself, especially as Dominic is distended and expanded through a whole host of digestive surrogates, augmented and post-human gastrointestinal tracts that twirl around him as absurdly and improbably as his trademark tuba. And the great twist of the film is that Dominic’s romance doesn’t redeem him from food but redeems him through food, as binge-eating gives way to binge-kissing and he cements his eventual engagement to Lydia with a wedding ring made out of apatite. In some ways, that’s a bold conclusion – once an overeater, always an overeater, even when dieting – to a film that’s equally bold, not merely in its simple gesture of showing people eating as often and as indiscriminately as they do in real life, but in the kind of story it tells about the Italian-American community, a story that perhaps only Bancroft – born, after all, to first-generation immigrant parents as  Anna Maria Louisa Italiano – could overegg to this extent without caricaturing her subject matter or removing one shred of his dignity. 


Zimmerman: Fade To Black (1980)

Although Vernon Zimmerman had co-written and directed Unholy Rollers in 1972 and filmed Terrence Malick’s screenplay of Deadhead Miles in 1973 – an adaptation that never saw the light of exhibition – he only ever had total artistic control over one film before he retired from the directing spotlight altogether to teach graduate screenwriting at UCLA. That in itself would be enough to suggest that there’s something singular about 1980’s Fade to Black, a dark satire about a lonely Los Angeles cinephile who goes on a murder spree against everyone who’s ever taunted or mocked him, while dressed up as a succession of his most beloved movie characters. But there’s also something singular about the moment in cinephilic history that Fade to Black occupies and dramatises – the moment just before VHS ushered in a new wave and type of film fandom. In Zimmerman's vision, that’s presented as a moment at which celluloid is gradually occupying rental space more than public exhibition space, with Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) working in a massive lending warehouse where he helps courier films to cinemas by day and takes them home to the personal cinematheque he has established in his bedroom by night. As he moves from reel to reel, he sketches out a space in which cinephilia is peculiarly visible as a paraphilia, just because it's in the process of shifting from the big screen to the small screen and from celluloid to tape, shrugging off the culturally acceptable – and by this stage more or less invisible – fixations engendered by the traditional movie palace only to rediscover their perverse, neurotic and voyeuristic co-ordinates in the private space of a new kind of home theatre. Cinematic cinephilia is denatured, but VHS cinephilia is too emergent to feel naturalised either, with the result that all Binford’s cinephilic quirks and tics feel prosthetic, fetishistic and sexually deviant in some way, shrouding us in a wealth of memorabilia, paraphernalia and marginalia – all so many forms of autoerotica – that recover cinephilia as a fringe act, and criminal activity as the height of cinephilic consummation, perhaps explaining why every cinephilic moment converges on horror fandom. That’s not to say that Eric’s cinephilia necessarily gravitates towards horror films – the slasher cult was still pretty emergent at this stage, as a freshly minted poster of Halloween attests – but that the film intercuts classic cinematic excerpts with Eric’s real and imagined criminal life in ways that viscerally skew their black-and-white nostalgia to recover their inner brutality, everything about them that might have spoken to the darker kind of cinephile in the early 80s. At his most visionary, Eric’s crimes therefore feel like a form of auteurism as he remakes some of the most iconic and iconographic Hollywood poses, silhouettes and stances as horror archetypes, most memorably in a scene in which he glimpses both Freddy and Chucky in his own haunted version of Hopalong Cassidy. And Zimmerman is also too enmeshed in this transitional moment to affect any kind of critical distance from it, eschewing ironic detachment in favour of an absurd, extravagant realism that floods the film itself with the very cinephilic touches Eric fetishises – bizarre, oddball, superfluous details and nuances that make no narrative or emotional sense, but flesh out this emergent vision of VHS-soaked LA in the most beautiful and breathtaking ways, as if anticipating the pausing, perusing and selective viewing of the first generation of videophiles that was just around the corner.


Condon: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Whether in the form of Guy Ritchie’s cyberpunk palette, Benedict Cumberbatch’s digital consciousness, or the sprawling seasons of Elementary, Sherlock Holmes has been revised in recent years into something of a harbinger of the post-human, a serial self that has placed ever more creative and ingenious burdens of mediation upon Watson as well. In fact, Watson has been so steadily eclipsing his master that it almost feels as if the next logical step would be a film or series that focused exclusively on Watson, or at least made his presence front and centre in a new way. In some ways, Mr. Holmes is that film, but only because it is quite emphatically a vision of Holmes without Watson, focusing on the great detective, played by Ian McKellen, in the last few years of his life, as he revisits and reconsiders one final case. From the very beginning, it’s clear that director Bill Condon is setting out to revise everything we know about Holmes, as we're cast adrift in the middle of the twentieth-century and removed to a farmhouse that feels light years away from Victorian England, where McKellen puts in a performance that’s so dramatically – and confrontingly – geriatric, infirm and senile that it’s hard to believe that what we’re witnessing is the great detective as recounted by Watson. It’s no surprise, then, that we gradually find out that Holmes’ greatest bugbear is how consistently he was misrepresented by Watson, who, in this version, passed away very shortly after the last of his stories were published, leaving Holmes to deal with the legacy he had created for him. And the great mystery of the film is not a new case, nor an unsolved case, but Holmes’ efforts to distinguish himself from Watson’s version of him, as he finds himself increasingly unable to remember why his last case ended up being his last, but also unwilling to consult Watson’s account of it either, let alone the film serials that are also old news by the time he’s reached this late point in his life. In a quite sobering and sombre take on the post-human Holmes, Condon paints a picture of a man whose faculties are rapidly vanishing, but who for that very reason is even more anxious not to let the last story written by Watson turn into the final word on his professional life, searching his memory, study and personal objects for some clue that he can use to deduce his own past and proclivities as coolly and calmly as he used to deduce those of his clients and suspects. Among other things, that means that not much actually happens in the present – Laura Linney is there as his recalcitrant housekeeper, Mrs Munro, but doesn’t really have much to do, while Holmes himself spends most of time working on his beloved beekeeping, with the help of Mrs. Munro’s son, Roger, played by Milo Parker. At the same time, it’s not exactly a film that takes place in flashback either, since Holmes’ mind is so muddled that he’s unable to dwell on the past for any great length of time. Instead, the film occupies a kind of dissociative space in which Holmes is forced to absorb Watson, to become a kind of Watson to his own life, while also trying to elude Watson’s omniscient influence and voice – an impossible task that doesn’t exactly imbue the film with dynamism so much as a pervasive sense of frustrated impotence that turns it into an extraordinarily moving evocation of getting old, not least thanks to McKellen’s incredible, plastic performance. Buried in there somewhere, of course, is a regular Holmes mystery, but it’s as overmediated and overdetermined, in its way, as those helmed by Cumberbatch, although here that tends towards infirmity rather than hyperactivity, a suffocating sense of quiet rather than endless white noise, as Holmes tries to prevent himself splintering into and falling back upon his serial selves before he loses control of his mental faculties forever. The result is a film that is in some ways more pregnant in memory than in experience, but of course that’s the quintessential experience of watching or reading about Holmes for Holmes himself – at least in this version – in what amounts to one of the first versions of Holmes that feels as if it’s actually told from Holmes’ own point of view, even if it took him a lifetime, and this sombre late work, to properly articulate it.