and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Free Fire (2017), easily (though you might want to heed the ambivalence in this expression) the best men-with-guns-in-an-abandoned-factory movies since Walter Hill’s Trespass (1992), which I always somehow forget was written by the Bobs Gale and Zemeckis, probably because it is not a steaming pile of shit like the latter Bob’s films usually are, is not the sheer amount of talent (e.g., even Armie Hammer is good) visibly being frittered away on such a fundamentally frivolous project designed for teenage boys younger than the certificate, nor the occasional lines you are pretty sure you can hear Amy Jump insisting had to be in the script in order to preserve some measure of dignity, such as the 90 minute rule or Brie Larson’s exasperated ‘Men!’, nor the fact that guns never need reloading until it becomes essential to the ‘plot’ that they do, nor even its nuanced and sensitive delineation of the Irish Republican struggle in the 1970s, no the very best thing about Free Fire is that everything would have been fine and dandy, and deadly violence would never have erupted, if Sam Riley hadn’t attempted to do an American accent, at least I think that’s what it was, I’m not sure, but whatever it was it made me want to shoot him, too…
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) is not reminding people that when xXx (Rob Cohen 2002) first came out serious people seriously spoke about it seriously killing off the hopelessly moribund Bond franchise, seriously, and being able to prove it by pointing to the film’s complex self-referentiality (well, the succession of innuendo so lame even Roger Moore would have questioned the wisdom of saying such things aloud), no, the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage was seeing it in a cinema full of boys who were not alive when xXx came out and who were in fact so young that, when Ice Cube turns up for his cameo, they not only have no idea about xXx: State of the Union (Lee Tamahori 2005), and thus of who Darius Stone is, but were also not actually all that clear on the identity of Cube himself, no, wait, the very best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage is having an audience of teenage boys turn around in unison and stare at you when Cube/Stone appears and you are the only person in the auditorium to let out a small involuntary cheer…
 But then Vin Diesel walked away from the franchise, and from the Fast and Furious franchise, to make the massively underrated but still a bit crappy Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy 2004) and especially, and lest we forget, The Pacifier (Adam Shankman 2005).
 Aka, for non-US, audiences xXx: The Next Level.
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Girl on the Train (2016) is not the way Tate Taylor translates this gaslight melodrama hokum, mixed with a bit of Rear Window and The 4.50 from Paddington, not merely into a contemporary setting but also into a work of significance through a brilliant central performance by Emily Blunt, made all the more endearing when, in the first scene she shares with Luke Evans, both of them temporarily forget their American accents (although his oddly slips back into English rather than Welsh), through studied pacing, through a narrative and temporal slipperiness that makes the plot holes look like enigmas rather than plot holes, and through serious-looking but trivialising invocations of trauma, addiction and therapy, no, the best thing about The Girl on the Train is the way in which, in an era in which political correctness has not only gone mad but is rampaging like a berserker through American culture, as we can see from the current Presidential election, it has has the balls-to-the-wall guts to base its narrative in the scientific truths of sociobiology: that men are driven by the swashbuckling need to put their dicks in every woman they meet, especially if in doing so they can dominate a) other women that a sick society forces them into providing for financially even when they cannot produce offspring or are not always available for penetration, and b) other men, particularly if they live next door; and that the only goal, drive and desire of women is to reproduce – and possibly to be blonde, since things seem to go better for blondes than brunettes, at least for a while…
That any two guys, no matter how big the differences between them – say, decades ago, back in high school, one of them lied about the other being gay, which resulted in endless bullying and the poor kid nearly being killed by his own father – can learn to get along. Even if the former victim must drug, rape and impregnate the wife of his former tormentor to make him confront the truth about the past and the flaws within himself.
A heart-warming tale of two men learning to forgive each other and move on with their lives.
 But did he actually rape and impregnate her? Whooo-oooo, you’ll never actually know for sure. Which I guess makes it okay. Sort of. As long as, either way, the wife is always merely the mere terrain on which the two guys work out their conflict. Anything more would be political correctness gone mad!
and so anyway it turns out that the best fackin’ thing about Child 44 (2015) is not all the proper fackin’ swearing Tom “fackin'” Hardy does, cos there is no fackin’ swearing in it, nor is it the unbearably cute juxtaposition of Tom “fackin'” Hardy and a puppy, cos there’s no fackin’ puppy in it either, even though Tom “fackin'” Hardy and his MGB goons raid the apartment of a fackin’ vet, nor was it Gary Oldman’s ridiculous fackin’ overacting because for once there is very fackin’ little of that either, which I guess leaves Tom “fackin'” Hardy’s fackin’ accent as the best fackin’ thing in Child 44 cos of the way it wanders right the fackin’ way across the Soviet Union, from the fackin’ Ukraine to fackin’ Vladivostok to South fackin’ Africa, which was, I fackin’ swear, secretly part of the Soviet fackin’ Union…
It is entirely possible your mother has told you that Henry Rollins is no fun.
Do not trust her.
He Never Died (Krawczyk 2015) is a low-budget not-quite horror, not-quite crime thriller, that is never quite brilliant and never quite camp. Jack (Rollins), a grey-haired, middle-aged man, lives alone in a small apartment, oddly disconnected from the world. He does not have a job. He keeps odd hours. He eats at the same diner every day. Most days he goes to the local church to play bingo not with but near the old folks; they do not distract him, he explains.
He keeps himself to himself.
His interactions with people are oddly stilted. He offers nothing. He states the obvious. He doesn’t get them. He is Keaton-level deadpan. (His one loquacious moment is a flatly delivered, seemingly interminable list of the many jobs he has had. That bit is actually quite brilliant.)
Oh, and he’s an immortal cannibal. Just about holding it together by not eating meat and by drinking the blood he buys from a hospital intern. That way he doesn’t kill people. He has a very long history of killing people. In fact, he started it.
But now, in a Toronto that is shot as often as possible to look like an Edward Hopper painting to convince us it is somewhere in the US, someone with a grudge is coming for him.
They don’t know what he truly is.
But they get, rather bloodily, to find out.
All this, however, is beside the point. The film is about something else entirely.
It is about watching the ageing Rollins.
There is something geological about his body. Present. Weathered by time.
It is about his weary face, crumbling like granite.
It is about the slow dawning of mortality. And about carrying on.
And through all of this, Henry Rollins is no fun. (Except, of course, that he is.)
This week’s class was a short one (since we had a lot of admin and related things we also had to cover), so it is even more unconscionable that it has taken me nearly three weeks to write it up.
Before discussing Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002), we began by considering the notion of diaspora and different kinds of migrancy.
The term ‘diaspora’ – now used to mean the dispersal of people from their homelands to communities in new lands – was originally used to describe the scattering of the Jews from Judea and into the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE (the return from Persia in 520 BCE echoed the earlier exodus from Egypt and settlement in Judea). A second diaspora took place in 70 CE, when the Roman occupiers quashed a rebellion and passed laws banning Jews from living in Jerusalem and Judea.
There are other historical precedents, such as the west African slave trade, which began in the late 1400s, with the first African slaves brought to the ‘New World’ in 1502 (just a decade after Columbus ‘discovered’ the West Indies). This slave trade was essential to the wealth of the British Empire (although Britain likes to emphasise its role in Abolition, rather than in the slave trade and the use of slave labour even after Abolition) and to the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. After Abolition, there was a stream of diasporas into American from Europe (Irish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Catholic Poles, Russian and East European Jews, Italians) and Asia (Chinese, Japanese). There were also Indian and Chinese diasporas into the Caribbean and South America, often in the form of indentured labour.
Such movements, which continue in the present, produce various categories of migrants:
- Colonial settlers.
- Transnational corporate expatriates: economic migrants of an elite managerial class, who work in another country while retaining citizenship in their homeland; they move easily across borders. The news never labels them ‘economic migrants’ though, as that is a tag reserved for condemning poor people.
- Student visa holders: advanced education in host countries is potentially of great benefit to host country as well as homeland.
- Postcolonial émigrés: post-independence migrants to former coloniser nation.
- Refugees: targets of persecution, state violence, retaliation, repression, torture or unlawful imprisonment who have been granted asylum within host country (numbers dropping globally, but only because of increasingly draconian asylum processes).
- Asylum seekers: those whose application for asylum has not yet been processed (and thus are denied the rights afforded to refugees under international law), which is probably the key reason for making asylum processes increasingly draconian.
- Detainees: asylum seekers held in detention camps. Iin the 1980s, Cuban ‘boat people’ were welcomed in the US as political refugees from a regime opposed by the US, but Haitians fleeing the bloody, CIA-backed Duvalier dictatorship were detained as merely ‘economic migrants’ (almost 45,000 of them held at Guantánamo by 1994).
- Internally displaced persons: people forced to relocate to another region of their own country due to violence, civil war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, religious oppression, famine, disease.
- Economic migrants: workers responding to push/pull of global economy (depression, recession, poverty, famine at home vs labour shortages in another country).
- Undocumented workers (‘illegal aliens’): people who migrate for various reasons without the required legal documentation.
There are lots of films that explore these different experiences, including The Exiles (Mackenzie 1961), Black Girl (Sembene 1966), El Norte (Nava 1983), White Mischief (Radford 1987), Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Men with Guns (Sayles 1997), Last Resort (Pawlikoski 2000), Demonlover (Assayas 2002), In this World (Winterbottom 2002), Blind Shaft (Li 2003), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), Silver City (Sayles 2004), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), Blind Mountain (Li 2007), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007), Frozen River (Hunt 2008), Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008), She, A Chinese (Guo 2009), Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009), Le Havre (Kaurismäki 2011), Out in the Dark (Mayer 2012).
Kevin Foster, who compares films from the Windrush era – Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961) – with Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things argues that such films, for all their apparent concern with the experience of migrant populations are ultimately more concerned with the ways in which their presence impacts upon and is articulated by the domestic population.
what unites the differing treatments of exile and displacement is their common focus on domestic anxieties regarding British national identity. … these films suggest that the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers … are of less interest to British audiences and filmmakers than what is happening to their own countries and themselves. … The new migrants, like their Commonwealth forebears, are of interest to British filmmakers in so far as they provide a focus for the analysis and treatment of essentially domestic political, social and cultural concerns. (Foster 683, 688)
He also outlines a common set of preoccupations in these films: ‘to explore and map the alien space of the here and now’; ‘what it means to lose one’s place in the world’; ‘what it means to lose the cultural identity that anchors one to [the world]’; ‘what it is to be stateless, lost and adrift’; ‘how, under the manifold pressures of migration, families cope, collapse or coalesce, how their traditional structures and roles shift in the face of unexpected circumstances and unfamiliar needs’; the nature and frequency of ‘improvised’ and ‘quasi-familial arrangements’ for support (688).
While this is all rather uncontroversial, his final point is perhaps more difficult to process: for all the often extreme differences between being a white citizen, a citizen of colour and a newly-arrived migrant (of whatever sort), the appeal of such films to the domestic audience lies in some kind of recognition of a shared experience of precarity and dislocation in a country that is becoming increasingly unhomely to the majority of its own citizens. As Foster writes
Britain may still exercise a magnetic attraction to the descamisados of the modern world but it is an increasingly foreign land to its own people, less a home and more like a hotel where every care or comfort comes at a price. (691)
Our own discussion of Dirty Pretty Things began with its view of London. For a film centred around a reasonably classy central London hotel, it is initially surprising that we see so few tourists and nothing of tourist London: no Big Ben or London Eye or St Paul’s Cathedral or Southbank or Dome. There is also a strong emphasis on spaces of transition – hotel lobbies and bedrooms, taxis, car parks, tunnels, corridors, Heathrow airport; like Boyz N the Hood, this is a film about mobility and entrapment. Moreover, Frears’ colour palette – bright blocks of colour – give it all a slightly unnatural, constructed feel, despite its location shooting and overall naturalism, as if to insist that there is nothing normal or natural about this city. It is manmade, artificial, and so are the economic and social relations that dominate it. (This idea is extended through the image Senay (Audrey Tautou) has of New York, clearly derived from film and television and tourist imagery – a fetishised irreality she both clings to and knows to be false).
The London we see in the film is like the inverse of Notting Hill (Michell 1999), which ethnically cleansed its eponymous location (as subsequent gentrification is also doing). In Dirty Pretty Things, there are (almost) no white people because it focuses on cleaners, night staff, taxi drivers, and so on – the ethnically diverse working class without which the city would grind to a halt but who are typically marginalised.
The other key idea we discussed was concerned with borders. We tend to think of borders as physical locations whereas they are much more complex than that. They are legal constructs which only sometimes coincide with physical locations around the edges of a country. The apparatus of the border also functions within the enbordered territory. The crude, violent aggression of the Immigration Officers who tear apart Senay’s flat looking for evidence that she is working or accepting rent from a subletting tenant, and the laws banning her from earning any income while her case is being processed are just as much the border as the passport control points through which she and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must pass on their way into and out of the UK. Just as the ‘transnational corporate expatriate’ is never labelled an economic migrant, so the ban on asylum seekers earning an income emphasise the relationship between wealth and the border. It is this function of the border that drives Senay and others into underpaid labour, sweatshops, sexual harassment and a state of constant precarity – and into the grips of organ harvesters…
Next week, we will take a step back in time to an earlier Stephen Frears movie, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and think about it in relation to Black British cinema and second- and third-generation Black Britons.
Core critical reading: Foster, Kevin. “New Faces, Old Fears: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and British Identity.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 683–91.
Recommended critical reading
Amago, Samuel. “Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys: Sergi López and the Persistence of the Black Legend in Contemporary European Cinema.” Film Criticism 30.1 (2005): 41–63.
Berghahn, Daniela. Far-Flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Gibson, Sarah. “Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 693–701.
Lai, Larissa. “Neither Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Kidney: Biopower, Body Parts and Human Flows in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things.” CineAction 80 (2010): 68–72.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Monk, Claire. “Projecting a ‘New Britain’.”, Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 34–3, 42.
Pravinchandra, Shital. “Hospitality for Sale, or Dirty Pretty Things.” Cultural Critique 85 (2013): 38–60.
Wayne, Mike. “British Neo-noir and Reification: Croupier and Dirty Pretty Things.” Neo-noir. Ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower, 2009. 136–51.
Whittaker, Tom. “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.2 (2011): 121–132.
Contemporary British fiction about the experience of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe includes Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Fadia Faqir’s My Name is Salma aka The Cry of the Dove (2007), Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), Rose Tremain’s The Road Home (2008) and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).
British films addressing similar material include Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000), In This World (Winterbottom 2002), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007) and She, A Chinese (Guo 2009). Also of interest are Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Lilya 4-Ever (Moodysson 2002), Silver City (Sayles 2004) and The Terminal (Spielberg 2004).