Star Trek, eh? While I’ve never been what you might call a devoted fan, I do have some affection for the original TV show. The series staples – William Shatner’s orotund pronouncements on the nature of man, the constantly recycled plots about God-like yet childishly irresponsible beings, the blithe, “we know what’s best” human intervention in alien affairs – it’s all cheerful enough nonsense. The considerably more po-faced Next Generation, with its insipid characters spouting pseudo-scientific gobbledygook while forming “meaningful” relationships with each other, is where I beam myself away to more interesting horizons. As for the films, well they’ve always been pretty much hit and miss, with rather more ticks in the “miss” column than in the “hit” column. The Wrath of Khan is the one film where they struck upon just the right formula. The pretensions to “serious” science fiction in Star Trek: The Motion Picture were ditched in favour of a rollicking space action yarn. And let’s face it – that’s the way it should be. As much as I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek is not really a suitable franchise to try and re-capture the atmosphere of Kubrick’s magnum opus. If you’re going to have ray guns, warp drives and pointy eared aliens spouting catch phrases, then you belong firmly in the space opera camp.
The world is still not ready for The King of Comedy. It bombed at the box office upon its 1983 release, and it remains the most overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated film in the collaborative filmography of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Perhaps the title is too confounding. The King of Comedy is not really a comic film; at least, not in any sense understood by traditional Hollywood conventions. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny. It’s a scathingly funny movie at times. But it’s also disconcerting, painful and ruthlessly honest. More than anything, it’s a condemnation. It’s a spit in the face of modern celebrity culture, of the soulless ghouls who inhabit that world, and the vacuous public multitude that seeks to worship and emulate them. Literally nobody is spared the lash in The King of Comedy. The dead-on characters who inhabit the film’s satirical landscape engage in spectacularly conceited behaviour. It’s a left hook to the jaw of everybody who fell for the cosy lie of the American Dream: that fame and fortune is available upon demand for anybody who wants it badly enough.
An irreverent, knowing look at casual sexual desire and infidelity in turn of the century Vienna, Max Ophul’s La ronde is a witty, frivolous bit of cinematic confection, realised in exquisite style, if ultimately somewhat inconsequential. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous fin de siècle play Reigen, La ronde is surprisingly risque for its 1950 release date, being far more boldly suggestive than the Hollywood pictures typical of the era. Although less openly graphic than most contemporary movies, La ronde’s flippantly acquiescent stance towards promiscuous adultery still feels rather daring.
The screen is black. A voiceover intones: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”A young man wakes from his bed with a start. It’s Harvey Keitel, future icon of screen cool, but in 1973 just a struggling thirty something actor getting dangerously close to being passed by. He gets up and examines his face in the mirror while we hear the sounds of the street coming through his bedroom window. He returns to bed. As he reclines, his head hits the pillow in slow motion. The big, echoing beat of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” – one of pop music’s most magnificent soul symphonies – kicks in as the credits roll, superimposed over a scratchy Super-8 home video reel of the characters we will soon become intimately familiar with. As the song hits its crescendo: Ronnie Spector’s impossibly plaintive chorus of “be my, be my baby” – the film’s title is unveiled in stark, typewritten letters. Mean Streets. That’s one hell of a way to launch a movie. And what a movie. The movie that launched the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro – the most iconic director / actor combination in the history of American cinema – and practically defined the template for gritty realism in film for the decade to come.
Scenario: You’re a director. Your last film received a level of acclaim unprecedented in your career and won an upset Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. Question: What do you follow it up with? Answer: Well if you’re the Coen Brothers, you totally fuck with the expectations of your growing critical respectability by following No Country For Old Men with a burlesque, wanton, scatter shot of a movie like Burn After Reading. There was much rubbing of jaws and scratching of heads after this one. Even those critics who confessed to liking Burn After Reading, did so in a rather quizzical and wary fashion. Just what were those crazy Coen Brothers up to? Ingenuously pursuing their own idiosyncratic career trajectory, or deliberately messing with peoples’ heads? Not much point in asking them, they’d probably deny everything anyway. Maybe the critics just need to lighten up and stop fretting so damn much. Burn After Reading is a deliciously acerbic dose of off the cuff comedy. Even accepting that it’s something of an impromptu, throwaway effort by their usual standards, there’s plenty here for the Coen Brothers aficionado to savour.
It’s all that Deepak fuckin’ Chopra’s fault. Most things are when you think about it. How else to explain the profusion of bullshititis that permeates the entire world these days? It’s a great gig if you can get it. Cherry pick a bunch of half-arsed ideas from the last few thousand years worth of religious belief, mix ’em in with a bit of materialistic endorsement designed to make people feel good about their slavishness to consumer culture, give a cursory nod to modern science by inserting a few quixotic links to quantum physics, sprinkle a bit of faux-esoteric terminology over the top, and there you have it: a big steaming pile of new age “spirituality” – a shopping list summary of the worst philosophical ideas ever conceived of by the human mind. The only genuine talent you need for this kind of thing is one for self-publicity. In other words, you need to be shameless enough to pass such snake oil pig-swill off as “profundity”. That’s Deepak Chopra for you. Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, is not so easy to dislike. At the very least, he does have a modicum of talent. Even if his movie, The Fountain, is not very good and equates portentous mumbo jumbo with depth – a most Choprakian conceit. Now I don’t buy for a minute that Chopra actually believes in half the crapola he spouts. But the thing is, Aronofsky really does appear to believe in his own schtick. This movie is so naively earnest and heartfelt that you almost want to forgive it, even when it’s indulging in the worst kind of new age mystical wankery, which it frequently does. Frankly, however, forgiveness is not counted among the virtues here at The Grand Inquisitor. If something looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit, then bullshit is what it is, however sincerely it was intended.
In a new and occasional series, The Grand Inquisitor will profile individuals who’ve made a worthwhile contribution to any particular field of merit in human history. In Appreciation of… will take an in depth look at anybody who is creative, iconic or just plain interesting, especially those individuals who merit acclaim, but somehow always manage to escape under the radar of public attention.
In this first edition, The Grand Inquisitor will examine the career of actor Brad Dourif, pretty much the best performer in Hollywood nobody has ever heard of. While most avid movie goers will recognise the face from any number of bit part character roles, few people can attach a name to it, or fully appreciate the depth and range of Dourif’s talent. The guy does have one of the most distinctive and eccentric faces seen in the movies, which means that he has a tendency to get typecast as mentally disturbed characters, or creepy, quirky outsiders. Well, he is great in that kind of role, but as his four decade career amply demonstrates, Dourif can pretty much handle anything he’s given to do. What makes him such a brilliant actor is his seemingly perennial ability to bring something a little different to a role. Even when he’s cast in a relatively minor, B-level movie (as he frequently is) Dourif’s performance always seems to stand out as something memorable, transcending the limitations of the material. And as a supporting actor, he has an uncanny habit of totally upstaging the more prominently billed stars he’s playing off. Sadly, as is often the case with individuals of genuine talent, Dourif hasn’t received anything like the kind of widespread acclaim his body of work so richly deserves. But the thing is, you never really get the impression that this bothers him all that much. He does his thing and has fun with his roles, and like the class act that he is, largely shuns the trappings of Hollywood fame.
The opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds is titled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France” – and it’s a title you can read a lot into right from the outset. Just as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America re-imagines America’s Wild West as a storybook fable of mythic grandeur, Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic extravaganza re-imagines World War II as a loving homage to spaghetti westerns, a delirious revenge fantasy, and a celebration of cinema’s power to rewrite history as an epic fever dream. In the fantastical alternate movie-verse of Tarantino’s oeuvre, World War II ends in 1944, with Jews exacting bloody revenge on Adolf Hitler in a hecatomb of terrorist atrocity. It’s probably the boldest, most irreverent and gleefully unrighteous take on World War II that’s ever been committed to film. And thank God for that. If I had to sit through another of the portentous odes to self sacrifice and salutin’ the flag that have cluttered up the war movie genre for the last couple of decades, I think I’d suffer a spontaneous attack of narcolepsy.
Widely cited as one of the most influential movies of all time, Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de soufflé (Breathless) dropped a revolutionary bombshell on the cinematic landscape upon its 1960 release. Informed as much by the kinetic pace and pulp thrills of Hollywood gangster flicks as he was by the improvised non-linearity of the burgeoning French New Wave movement, Goddard tore up the rulebook and invented a new cinematic language characterised by spontaneity, radically unconventional cinematography and a self conscious emphasis on style and attitude over narrative cohesion. Yet À bout de soufflé is also a rebellion against conventional morality, with its iconoclastic young leads exhibiting an adolescent rejection of responsibility. They are interested in nothing outside of their own obsessive self images, careening impulsively from one haphazard circumstance to the next.
A sumptuous fantasy epic, The Thief of Bagdad was considered a special effects marvel in its day; a magical slice of pure story book escapism translated to live action film. Although perhaps a little too naïvely saccharine for some modern viewers to swallow, The Thief of Bagdad remains a technological marvel, a visual delight and an entertaining family adventure told in a charmingly vintage style.