Soylent Green

Richard Fleischer, 1973

Beginning in 1969 with Planet of the Apes Charlton Heston would go on to form an unofficial trilogy of films dealing with the collapse of human civilisation, the second of these was the adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend as The Omega Man and the final being Soylent Green. The film is set in the year 2022 in a New York with a population of 40,000,000. As a result of this overcrowding, food is in short supply and everyone lives off a ration of food substitutes supplied by the Soylent corporation, the latest and most popular being Soylent Green. After the death of one of the company’s senior executives, a detective named Thorn (Charlton Heston) begins to investigate, uncovering more than he anticipated in the origins of this new super food.

Along with the aforementioned Heston films, Soylent Green stands as one of the first dystopian science fiction films to emerge. Although it could be considered the norm for films set in the future to feature post apocalyptic wastelands and totalitarian governments, these were some of the of earliest appearances in film. Although dystopian science fiction had existed in literature for some time, in novels such as The Death of Grass (which like Soylent Green also focused on society collapsing from starvation) and most famously Orwell’s 1984, film with it’s more populist and optimistic approach had been slower to embrace the idea of a bleak future. In the 1950s focus science fiction film had largely been about space exploration and the possibility of making contact with alien life, seen in films such as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the 1960s French directors Truffaut and Godard would touch on the idea of Dystopia with their respective films Fahrenheit 451 and Alphavillebut it wasn’t until Planet of the Apes that mainstream film would take this shift in tone.
The reason for this change can be seen in the events of the time, the same year as Planet of the Apes was also the year of the moon landings, with mans first steps onto a foreign body space suddenly became less mysterious, and the futuristic setting began to be used as a way in which to approach the issues of the day. It was at this time that there began the emergence of environmentalism, 1970 saw the first Earth Day and 1971 would see the formation of Greenpeace, wanting to reflect the concerns of its audience, Hollywood was keen to cash in. The problem in Soylent Green Centres around overpopulation, the entire planet having been transformed into a giant metropolis as a result. To deal with this problem euthanasia is encouraged, people who feel their life has ran its course can voluntarily attend centres were their life is terminated. Held in secret, they are thanked for choosing death by being allowed to view footage of an earth that exists no more, a montage of forest and animals all now obliterated by man’s recklessness. It’s very literal message is of where things could go if man continues with his current rate of consumption, it is however no more heavy handed than predecssor The Omega Man with it’s polemic against nuclear weapons.

This trend for ecological science fiction would continue throughout the next decade resulting in some of it’s best films, most notably Silent Running. With it’s detective story is also one of the earliest neo-noir films to emerge, predating the most famous addition to the genre, Blade Runner, by a decade. More coherent and better acted than The Omega Man and every bit the equal of Planet of the ApesSoylent Green stands as one of the high points of this age of meditative science fiction, an age that lasted until the release of Star Wars at which point the genre would steadily return to it’s more infantile fantasy roots. Alongside Planet of the Apes Heston also gets to deliver the second most renowned closing line of his career, an ending that achieved an iconic status and like Planet of the Apes, numerous references in The Simpsons.
words by pete bond.

Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch, 1995

After becoming a major advocate of American independent filmmaking during the late 80's/early 90's, and joining the ranks alongside such other directors as Spike Lee, The Coen brothers, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino as non-conformist filmmakers who's movies often evade the mainstream spotlight, Jim Jarmusch followed his succession of minimalist features by experimenting with colour filmmaking for a brief period with his two films Mystery Train and Night On Earth, both linked by their triptych formats (a style later revisited in 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes). 

After a nine year period, Jarmusch revisited black-and-white cinema with his 1995 film Dead Man, an existential Western set in late-19th Century America, starring Johnny Depp as 'William Blake', a greenhorn from the East who's journey to the West via. train represents a transition from one life, into the next. With his destination being the frontier town of 'Machine', his arrival is met sorely, and his shooting of the wealthy town-owner's son causes him to flee injured into the wilderness, where he encounters American-Indian 'Nobody' attempting to dislodge a bullet from his heart, unable to do so, and believed by 'Nobody' to be a reincarnation of the English poet William Blake, Blake is informed that he is the walking dead, starting his journey into unfamiliar territory with the guide of his unconscious mind 'Nobody'. 

With American-Indian 'Nobody's' passion of the poetry of William Blake bearing similarities in it's juxtaposition of culture to Jarmusch's 1999 feature Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, in which a black hit-man expresses a complete devotion to the 18th century philosophical and spiritual warrior code of the Hagakure, the hallmarks of Jarmusch's films are as apparent in Dead Man, as in any of his various other directorial works, with themes of estrangement from a character's native land and alienation becoming recurrent topics throughout his career. Dead Man's black-and-white imagery is a conscious effort by Jarmusch to abandon the dusty aesthetic of the Western genre and an attempt to gain a historical distance from the familiarity of colour, drawing influence from directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Ingmar Bergman, using very strong blacks and whites and placing emphasis on lighting and placement. 

Neil Young's instrumental score lifts the movie to an entirely different level, using a pump organ, a detuned piano, and most notably electric guitar tracks and feedback to create a strong unsettling and deeply emotional soundtrack that fits perfectly with the themes of the film. Jarmusch's output as a director is inconsistent to say the least, and criminally so, producing only ten feature length movies in a career spanning over thirty years, forgivable, considering his almost flawless oeuvre, in which he has managed to maintain his originality, and creative spirit in an industry rife with studio meddling and compromise.
words by danny walker.

The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa, 1960

Kurosawa would adapt the work of Shakespeare to the screen three times over the course of his career resulting in three of his best works. The two that would receive more attention would be the first, Throne of Blood an adaptation of Macbeth, and his take on King Lear, 1985’s Ran. With their historical setting these were obvious choices to make the transposition to the feudal Japan that Kurosawa would bring to the screen through his most famous works. Lesser known, and much more loosely adapted than those previously mentioned, is his take on HamletThe Bad Sleep Well.
It is a loose adaptation firstly as a result of Kurosawa’s choice to set it in contemporary Japan, and for the replacement of kings and queens with their modern equivalent, the rich chairmen of giant corporations. The film follows the story of Nishi (played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) as he marries the daughter of wealthy industrialist Iwabuchi in an attempt to avenge the death of his father, of which he believes Iwabuchi and his corporation are to blame. It’s primarily in the driving motive of the main character that the plot similarities are found, however there are flourishes reminiscent of the play to be found elsewhere, for example the brilliant opening sequence. Whereas in Hamlet
 the protagonist stages a play referencing his fathers murder, watching for the kings reaction to the scene to ascertain whether he did commit the crime, here Nishi has a cake delivered to Iwabuchi at Nishi’s own wedding reception, it is shaped like the company headquarters with a rose marking the window from which his father met his death. Upon it’s arrival the reactions of the senior executives lead anyone watching, including the paparazzi who linger around this scandal ridden company, to the realisation that they are most definitely implicated.

This opening sequence highlights one of Kurosawa’s real strengths as a director, his ability to balance so much of a film around a single locale. As one of the paparazzi at the wedding observes it’s like watching ‘a one act play’ and with Kurosawa’s ability to condense such a large amount of story into one scene, along with his penchant for framing all his characters within the one shot, it does have its grounds in theatre, somewhere from his choice of source material he clearly takes inspiration. This on screen theatre is seen throughout various works of Kurosawa, examples being the apartment sequence that takes up a large part of High and Low or the extensive wake sequence in Ikiru. Large amounts of story and character exposition occur purely through the dialogue, the performances, and the fantastic use of the score managing to build the tension.

Kurosawa had tackled corruption before, most notably in Ikiru although that was on a much smaller scale simply regarding one council office. Here he takes it right to the top with top boss Iwabuchi receiving anonymous instruction over the phone, with it only hinted at in the mildest way that this caller is some political figure and that the whole system is corrupt through to the top (a controversial suggestion Kurosawa was only able to make through financing the film by establishing his own production company). Between every high budget epic like Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa would punctuate with these smaller more personal ‘message’ films such as The Bad Sleep Well or his anti nuclear film I Live in Fear. It’s a great approach and it’s influence is apparent in the careers of directors such as Spielberg and Scorsese with their ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy. Despite being less grandiose these films stand as some of Kurosawa’s best, the performances from his usual collaborators such as Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura never fall short of greatness, and the widescreen cinematography, taking its cues from film noir with its use of light and shadow, give the film as epic a feel as ever.

words by pete bond.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Luis Buñuel, 1972

Having given birth to surrealist film with his debut, the silent short Un Chien Andalou, co directed by his close friend Salvador Dali, Buñuel would continue to make ever more comic and absurd films satirising the middle classes and the church for over another 40 years. Not losing any of his edge toward the end of his career 1972 would see the release of what is arguably his best work, and the film for which he won an Oscar, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The premise of the film is simple, a group of friends representing various middle class establishments attempt to eat dinner together only to be interrupted in ever more bizarre ways. The first night they attempt to have their dinner party the guests simply arrive on the wrong night, however as the film progresses intrusions from everyone including the military and the police continue to make their simple goal impossible. The tone of the film is Kafkaesque, filmed and acted in a realist manner with ever more absurd obstacles holding the characters back without them ever questioning the validity of the challenges they have to face.

For Buñuel the middle class and it’s prejudices and hypocrisies have often been a target of his work and the dinner party, being the archetypal form of bourgeois entertainment is the perfect setting for him to attack. Most prominently there was The Exterminating Angel with its story of guests who attend a dinner party and are totally unable to leave, his best use however remains in the sequence from The Phantom of Liberty where the guest sit around the dining table on toilets, excusing themselves and retiring to a bathroom stall to eat their food. It’s an idea other directors have examined too with films such as Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe
 in which a group of rich men retire to a country manor with the intention of eating themselves to death.

The significance of the dinner party for Buñuel is that it is a time when manners and decorum are at the absolute forefront, the characters in the film are all trying their best to appear socially acceptable meanwhile they are all secretly involved in everything from adultery to drug smuggling. It’s all about exposing the hypocrisy of it all, that these people devoid of morals feel superior simply due to their understanding of social etiquette. For example in one scene whilst the guests chastise their chauffer for not sipping his Martini correctly the hosts have vacated their own party via a window to have sex in the bushes outside their home. The interruptions they face throughout their meal frequently reflect the true nature of the characters, as though despite their best attempts the elements of their personality they are attempting to repress simply cannot be restrained from entering the scene.

Tonally it rests in between Buñuel’s other great films- the significantly more incomprehensible Un Chien Andalou and the more realist Belle de Jour, finding the perfect balance between the two approaches. With surrealist film analysis of the underlying message all too often becomes the focus, in doing this it is easy to neglect discussing the film simply on an enjoyment level. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 
is a very accessible film, and although it is obviously never aiming for belly laughs is still very much a comedy, a brilliant comic satire from one of the all time greats of European cinema.

words by pete bond.

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince

Martin Scorsese, 1978

Within his filmography, which spans just under half a century, a substantial part of Martin Scorsese's work encompasses certain reoccurring themes such as guilt, redemption and identity, and often features sociopathic, 'antihero' protagonists within such films as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Between these two feature-lengths, and following the critical and commercial failure of New York, New York during a period of his life which was strewn with cocaine addiction and depression, he released American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince a 55 minute documentary, the subject of which being the title character Steven Prince, a twenty-something Jewish gay man and close friend and roommate of Scorsese's, as he recounts memories from his time spent as road manager for Niel Diamond, and recites anecdotes of his experience with guns and drugs.

What differs American Boy from any of Scorsese's various other features, is it's notable absence of stylish camera-work or visuals, with Marty opting to act as more of an observer than a director, capturing Prince's stories on a truly basic level, and interweaving his anecdotes with home-movie footage of the Prince family. Whilst the documentary may lack the notable style that has become the hallmark of Scorsese films today, what relation it does have with the director's other feature-lengths is his concern for violent and destructive men during the 1970's and early 80's in such films as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, the latter of which Prince cameoed in as 'Easy Andy', a fast-talking hand-gun salesman and drug dealer, a character not to far removed from his own persona.

Amongst the assortment of stories Prince shares with his on-screen friends and the viewer, what becomes abundantly clear is the influence this hard to obtain movie has had on various film-makers since it's release, most famously of which being Quentin Tarantino's re-enactment of Prince's anecdote  in Pulp Fiction, of when he was forced to inject adrenaline into the heart of an overdosing women, with the help of a medical dictionary and a magic marker. Less notable is Richard Linklater's adaptation of Prince's story, in which he shot dead a man he caught stealing tyres from a gas station he was working at, in his 2001 animated feature Waking Life (which also featured a small cameo from Prince himself). Aside from influencing a generation of self-taught filmmakers, who's education in film was not learned in school, but by watching obscure features such as this one, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince remains as being an influential feature, from the one of the greatest living directors in the world.
words by danny walker.

The Rules of Attraction

Roger Avary, 2002

Attempts to bring the world of Bret Easton Ellis to the screen have seen mixed results. Adaptations such as Less than Zero lacked the humour of it’s source as well as feeling the need to heavily imbue it with a ‘message’ (and a contrived and simple message at that- drugs are bad). Most recently The Informers also lacked the teeth of it’s novel, omitting the various surreal sequences that punctuate Ellis text and toning down the violence that plays so heavily in his work. American Psycho was one of the only successes, delivering the more graphic elements of the novel whilst remembering that Ellis writes satire, and that it is all meant to be comic in its own dark way.American Psycho is a lengthy book with no real plot structure however, so the film acts as ‘greatest hits’ of the book, combining and condensing scenes down whilst trying to make narrative sense of it all. The most accurate adaptation of Ellis work, and allegedly his personal favourite, is one of the most underrated films of the past decade The Rules of Attraction.

The film follows three different students at the prestigious Camden College, an arts school for the over privileged, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde and Sean Bateman (as in the younger brother of Patrick Bateman) played by Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder and James Van Der Beek respectively, as they attend various parties and have various confused relationships with one another and a whole array of other students. All three are superb in their individual roles, it can only be due to the film being poorly received on it’s initial release that it failed to propel any of them to greater heights, it surely should have at least marked Van Der Beek’s transition from TV to film star.
The best feature in the film is the experimental approach director Roger Avary takes with his camerawork. There is for example, the opening sequence where the three main characters are introduced. The camera follows one to the conclusion of their introductory scene, before playing the footage in reverse, continuing to do so until it has past the point where the scene began whereupon it will revert back to playing forwards but begin following a different character. Difficult to construct but impressive to watch. This continues throughout the film, with two characters being followed in split screen until they meet, with both halves of the screen converging into one shot. Best known for sharing the writing credit for Pulp Fiction it is a shame that this, only his second film as director, would be the last Avary would choose to helm, opting to revert back to his previous role as screenwriter.
The most impressive combination of Avary’s directing with the acting ability of his cast comes in the introduction of Victor Ward, played by Kip Pardue, a frenetically paced account of a summer he spent travelling around Europe condensed into four minutes. For this Avary and Pardue embarked on a two week trip throughout the continent, with Pardue remaining in character for the duration, sightseeing, taking drugs, and sleeping with numerous women. Enough footage was shot for this brief sequence that Avary constructed an entirely separate movie from it, titled Glitterati. Avary claims however that due to the unethical nature of the film, with all the people and events in it being real, in it will never be released.

During the section of the sequence where Victor is in Italy he mentions the sound of a bomb going off, an allusion to Ellis masterpiece Glamorama in which Victor is the main character, a naïve model who becomes involved in a terrorist plot throughout Europe. Avary holds the rights to this book and has stated he intends to direct it. As the years pass the likelihood of this happening seem more and more remote, hopefully the delay is due to Avary struggling to adapt such abstract material, and to find funding for what we will be such an ambitious feature, as opposed to simply a diminished interest. Based on The Rules of Attraction if he does take on the film, it will be one to look forward too.

words by pete bond.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

Werner Herzog, 1970

One director whose vast spectrum of work has been criminally overlooked by a mainstream audience, but whose reputation as an outlandish filmmaker and wide output of feature-lengths has gained him a devoted cult audience is German director Werner Herzog. With notorious tales of his unconventional methods in filmmaking often matching the actual features themselves, from the famously chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo, to his legendary tumultuous working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, these stories act almost as counterparts to the features. Following his debut film Signs of Life in 1968 and encompassed in commercial and critical acclaim, Herzog's next feature was released in 1970 to a largely disfavorable audience, branding him a 'fascist' due to themes within his film. Even Dwarfs Started Small follows a group of dwarfs, isolated in a desolate institution, as they rebel against their enforcers and cause considerable mayhem and violence.

Whilst some may choose to view the use of an all-dwarf cast as somewhat of a novelty, Herzog himself claims that the use of little-people in the film is a satire on society, using the dwarfs to illustrate the overshadowing of people by the worlds of commerce and consumer goods, with the dwarfs riotous behavior against their confinement reflecting Herzog's views on the German student movement of 1968. Something that has become noticeably frequent within the films of Werner Herzog, is his use of animals, often acting as a metaphor, such as the famous image of a dancing chicken in Stroszek, to Nicholas Cage's hallucinatory visions of iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. Although Herzog has expressed his love of nature, often choosing to document it on numerous occasions, in films such as Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, in Even Dwarfs his self-proclaimed fondness for animals becomes somewhat altered, with Herzog choosing to contrast various images of animals in and around the institution, with themes of death or execution throughout the movie, creating an almost haunting quality, most notable of which are scenes in which piglets suckle the teats of their dead mother, a long uninterrupted shot in which a crippled dromedary camel tries to stand, and a strangely surreal sequence, in which a live monkey is crucified and paraded around the courtyard. 

With Herzog's famous claims about his inability to dream, Even Dwarfs acts almost as a substitute for this, creating an ulterior reality, strewn with illogical patterns and surreal and often nightmarish imagery that is somewhat reminiscent of Tod Browning's Freaks, a movie Herzog considers to be one of the greatest films ever made, though what is similar in aesthetic, is entirely different in theme, whilst Freaks portrays the 'monsters' with real delicacy, the complete polar is depicted in the characters of Even Dwarfs. Whether the film was intended to be viewed in a dream-like fashion or as a satirical commentary on 1960's politics is open to interpretation by the audience, but as it remains, Even Dwarfs Started Small is an unregarded classic, and a notable second feature for one of the most important and original filmmakers working today.
words by danny walker.


Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970

The casting of musicians in acting roles has been a varied affair, often capitalizing on the success of the artist, and exploiting the target audience; fans of the musician's work. For the artist the transition from sound to vision could be a method of reinvention (Bjork in Dancer in the Dark) or a platform by which the performer can promote their music (Eminem in 8 Mile). With Performance, the alteration of Mick Jagger's career from lead singer of The Rolling Stones, to his first serious acting role, after appearing in Jean-Luc Godard's documentary Sympathy for the Devil, seems to be a genuine attempt at change, funneling Jagger's on-stage persona and renouncing that image throughout the course of the movie. 

Originally completed in 1968, but released two years later after controversies surrounding the film's content (one executive's wife infamously vomited during a test screening), Performance takes place on the back-end of the 60's, following Chas (James Fox) a 'Performer': a violent member of an East-London gang. After finding himself overpowered and tortured in his own flat by order of his boss, Chas is forced to abandon his life of crime, and go on-the-run, finding refuge in a house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a reclusive hermit and former rock star. Although the pair clearly come from polar worlds, Chas deriving from a male-run heterosexual background, and Turner's indulgences into a hidden world of sex, in the form of a bi-sexual ménage à trois, and recreational drug use, their influence upon each other culminates towards the end of the film, with each character gaining qualities of the other, Turner abandoning his feminine appearance during a David Lynch-style dream sequence, in which he becomes the boss of Chas' gang, and performs an impromptu version of Memo from Turner, and Chas' transformation from virility to androgyny after consuming hallucinogenic substances.

Whilst Performance may run parallels to certain other British crime movies of the day, such as Get Carter or Brighton Rock in terms of theme, what places the film miles apart from it's gangster movie counterparts, aside from it's study of gender identity, is Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg's prominent directorial work, which blends various different styles and techniques together, from jump cuts to crash zooms, often with the camera focusing on inanimate objects and rapidly panning out to reveal the subject. Most notable of all, is Performance's use of the cut-up technique, a style often used in literature, most famously by William S. Burroughs, in which text is literally cut up and rearranged to create an altogether new text. This style works in the films favor, giving the impression that the character of Chas may be losing his mind, or perhaps exposing the audience to his and Turner's perspectives with the character's consumption of mind-altering drugs. 

Whilst Mick Jagger's acting career has been somewhat diverse, appearing in Tony Richardson's poorly received Ned Kelly as the title character, and even being briefly cast alongside Jason Robards in an early production of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo before the film was entirely re-shot (footage of which can be found in either Herzog's own documentary My Best Fiend, or in the Fitzcarraldo documentary Burden Of Dreams) Performance remains as Jagger's greatest feat in the world of acting. Whilst the demographic for Performance is arguably fans of The Rolling Stones (the poster for the movie boasts 'Mick Jagger and Mick Jagger') and released under a year after the huge success of Let It Bleed, the film is far more than a method of reinvention or a promotional platform for Jagger, it remains nonpareil, perfectly capturing the essence of the 'swinging sixties' along with the seedy underbelly of London, whilst the execution of the film is as experimental as the period it captures.
words by danny walker.