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Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I was at a party a few months ago when somebody asked me what my favourite film was. Deciding on a favourite film can sometimes be emotive at the best of times but it is almost always subjective; your favourite film may be someone’s least favourite.

My friend John thinks that The Big Lebowski is the worst film he has ever seen; he’s wrong, of course, as I happen to think it is one of the best. It’s a film by the Coen Brothers who, aside from their misguided attempt at remaking Alexander MacKendrick’s deliciously dark The Ladykillers, I consider them to be the best writer/producer/director team since the heady days of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, whose films A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus in the 1940s were true master-classes in imaginative production.

I have about five favourite films that alternate with each other for the number one position. These are, in order of release, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).

The reason why I like these films is that each of them went some way to changing the way we look at the cinema.

Often cited as the best film ever made, Citizen Kane is a long hard look at the corrupting influence of wealth and power and of how even the most corrupt of all cling on to items that remind them of a lost but innocent time. Produced, directed, co-written and starring a twenty-six year-old Orson Welles, this tour-de-force of a movie was, at the time, the most sophisticated work of art ever to come out of a major film studio anywhere in the world. Charles Foster Kane’s story is multi-layered, told through different viewpoints, each narrator giving an opposing opinion of Kane and it’s up to you to piece it all together.

What also set this film apart from anything else released that year was Greg Toland’s astonishing black-and-white camerawork and his pioneering use of deep-focus photography. Welles came a cropper when the newspaper magnate, William Randolf Hearst, was handed a copy of the film’s script and, upon reading it, recognised certain similarities that had occurred in his own life – for example the word “Rosebud”, which is the catalyst for all the subsequent events in the film, was thought to have been Hearst’s pet name for his wife’s clitoris. Hearst tried to get the film banned and all copies of the script and the negative burned.

Fortunately for us he didn’t succeed and what we have in Citizen Kane is a unique experience, a film like no other. Like Alfred Hitchcock, who was only just starting his Hollywood career, Orson Welles changed the face of cinema forever.

When I first introduced my teenage kids to Citizen Kane the first question they asked, before it started, was, “Is it in black and white?” Since then I have made them repeat the mantra, “Just because a film’s in black and white doesn’t mean to say it’s rubbish!” Unless, of course, the film happens to be Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger under the production banner of The Archers is considered by many to be the finest British film ever made. It was supposed to be another of the propagandist films that were designed to help the war effort, but Powell & Pressburger had other ideas. What they made instead was the story of Clive Candy, beautifully played by the excellent Roger Livesey, and how from 1902 to 1942, he went from a dynamic young officer to be a single-minded old general, out-of-touch with the art of modern warfare. Not only that, Clive Candy’s best friend was a German!
Winston Churchill hated its message so much that he tried, unsuccessfully, to get it banned. Add to this mix the gorgeous Deborah Kerr playing three women, who at different stages come into Clive Candy’s life, and what you have is a wonderfully satirical film that works on many levels – as comedy, as drama, as social history – but what it does convey is the message that no matter how important a person feels he is, no one is indispensible.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a masterpiece of voyeurism and obsession with a devastating ending that is dripping with ambiguity. Hitchcock is often regarded as having invented modern cinema. He was the first director to remake his own films – The 39 Steps became North by Northwest for example.

He developed new camera techniques and new ways of filming shocking events – Bruno’s brutal murder of Guy’s wife in Strangers on a Train, seen through the lens of a pair of spectacles, the high camera angle at the top of the stairs in Psycho, as we see Noman Bates dressed as his mother flash out of a side room and stab Martin Balsam’s detective in the head, and the camera effect known as a dolly zoom in Vertigo designed to disorientate the audience.

Remember that famous scene in Jaws (Steven Spielberg’s last great film before sentimentality underscored all of his subsequent work) where the boy on the Li-Lo is eaten by the shark and the camera zooms into Roy Scheider’s  face while the background moves away – that’s a dolly zoom, although it’s now more commonly known as the vertigo effect. Watching Hitchcock’s films in the order they were released is like watching the development of the cinema – we should be eternally grateful to him.

What makes Blade Runner a classic is its overall theme of what it is to be human. It was based on visionary philosophical science fiction writer Phillip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and it was one of the first sci-fi films that touched on one of Dick’s favourite themes – identity. A group of replicants, led by Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer’s finest performance ever,  are searching for an extension of their lives (they were designed to last seven years). Blade Runner units are sent to retire them. Rick Dekkard, played by a suitably grizzled Harrison Ford, is one of them. This intelligent film begs the question, “Who is really human here?” The unicorn provides the answer.

I used to go and see Blade Runner every time it was re-released at the cinema, and one year a group of us decided to go to Southampton to see it. We asked our friend Graham if he wanted to come, but he said he’d already seen it. “But, it’s Blade Runner,” I said, “it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before.”

“Nah,” he replied.

He always was a bit of a weirdo.

Pulp Fiction – ah Pulp Fiction. This film brings back some memories. I first went to see this film in Southampton with a group of mates and I was so impressed with it I rushed home and, upon seeing my girlfriend, blurted, “You have got to see this film! It’s amazing! It’s the best film I’ve seen this year so far!” She didn’t really listen to the last sentence because I said that about every film I saw – but the thing is I really meant it this time (talk about the boy who cried wolf!).

Anyway, she agreed to come and see it with me when I went to see it a second time with another group of mates (all of whom had seen it before). She hated it; she hated every single second of it. All the way through the first half of the film she huffed and puffed and sighed and moaned so much that she was in danger of draining the enjoyment out of everyone within a fifty yard radius of her. We went to see the film at the Theatre Royal in Winchester and, in a desperate attempt to break even, the management ensured that there was an interval halfway through each performance to ensure that its punters made use of the well-stocked bar.

It was during the interval that she told me that she was offended that I would take her to see such a film, and that she couldn’t, for the life of her, see what me and my friends were all sniggering about. She also demanded that I take her home immediately, to which I responded in the negative and that if she wanted to go home she could take the car and I’d get a lift home with one of my mates.

It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

Now, I don’t think Pulp Fiction is one of the best films of all time because of the reason I’ve just quoted; I think it’s one the best film of all time because of a number of reasons, among which are:

  • The highly original structure,
  • The naturalistic and funny dialogue,
  • The fact that the two hit men are dressed in black, but are not silent, preferring instead to spend the entire length of the film  talking shite to each other,
  • Harvey Kietel as The Wolf
  • The return of John Travolta

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant film maker; I haven’t seen one film of his that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, he’s controversial in his choice of subject matter and the language that he uses, but you only have to watch Inglourious Basterds to see how he gleefully subverts history, or the film that should have won all the Oscars this year, Django Unchained, a hilariously funny (I could have sworn during the Ku Klux Klan scene that I was watching a missing segment from Blazing Saddles) but at the same time deeply serious film about slavery and its legacy.

I’ve always liked things that are little bit different. I’ve never liked run-of-the-mill music, books, television or films. When I listen to something, read something or watch something I want it to challenge me and get me thinking. The person who asked me what my favourite film was did not think like me. I told him that my favourite film was either Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to which he replied, “Oh . . . my favourite’s Top Gun.”

You’ll probably have noticed that there is a theme running through all the five films I mentioned above and that, no matter what genre it is, there is something common to all of them. If you haven’t noticed it – stop reading now!

Right, for those of you that are still with me – the theme running through all five films is humanity. All of those films place character and plot above special effects and production. Most of the major genres are covered in them – comedy, drama, social history, suspense, sci-fi and crime. I think only westerns and horror are missing, but Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and The Haunting directed by Robert Wise are bubbling under at Numbers 6 & 7.

Everything really depended on what I said next. I wasn’t going to lie to him; I thought about breaking my opinion of Top Gun to him gently, but then I thought . . . bugger it. “Top Gun,” I said, “is a film made specifically for girls and homosexuals.”

He went mental. “Whaaaaat!” he roared. “What’s wrong with it?”

“For a start,” I said calmly, “it’s got Tom Cruise in it, secondly it’s full of unintentional homo-erotic scenes but, more importantly, it’s flag-waving American shit.”

I didn’t really mean that first bit about Tom Cruise; it was a cheap shot. I actually think that Tom Cruise is a good actor who is capable of some outstanding work – particularly as the repulsive bald-headed, hairy-armed Les Grossman in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder and as the woman hating, sex guru Frank T J Mackey in P T Anderson’s wonderful Magnolia, a role that should really have earned him an Oscar.

I don’t apologize for the flag waving American shit comment, though, because if Top Gun had been a British film I would have accused it of being flag waving British shit instead.

What really annoys me about Top Gun is that its director, Tony Scott, is capable of so much more. He was, after all, responsible for Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Man on Fire and the Tarantino scripted True Romance.

Before I go on, I should probably mention that the person I was talking to was a pilot and we were both extremely drunk at the time. The argument between us about the comparative merits of Top Gun would have come to blows at that point had my wife, being the level-headed person that she is, not stepped in an attempt to calm the situation down.

“Don’t listen to Steve,” she said. “He has absolutely no opinion about Top Gun whatsoever. He’s doing it just to wind you up. I mean, one of his favourite films is Dumb and Dumber.”

“It is,” I said proudly.

This didn’t help matters.

But wait. Let’s take a closer look at Dumb and Dumber. It’s a totally character driven road movie which features hilarious situations that could easily happen in real life. It’s also a brilliant mixture of puerile and intelligent humour, with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels delivering two of their finest performances – and it makes me laugh like a drain every time I see it.

So, if the makers of Dumb and Dumber can create believable characters living believable lives (and, yes, there are people that stupid in the world today), how did Top Gun end up full of cardboard caricatures with empty pointless lives? And why is it that I can recall virtually every line of dialogue in Dumb and Dumber, but all I can remember from Top Gun are the flying sequences?

Because Top Gun is shit – that’s why!

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