And so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Walk (2015) – Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to turn thirty-five million dollars, the full cutting-edge apparatus of digital and 3D filmmaking, a talented cast and a thrilling story of a daring Gallic tightrope-walker who is also something of a dick, into a tin-eared, lumbering hodgepodge of edge-of-the-seat thrills and ballyhoo-dressed-up-as-self-reflexivity – is not the conjuration of a lost Paris that aims for the joyfulness of early Godard, would settle for the psychotic whimsy of Amélie (2001), falls short of Bertolucci’s genuinely godawful The Dreamers (2003) but just about achieves Team America: World Police (2004), nor is it the fabulously ridiculous haircut the as-always adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to sport, nor is it the ominous appearance of The Dread Red-Eyed Seagull of Doom, here manifesting as a badly drawn cartoon, no, the best thing about The Walk is the way it distracts from the otherwise and as-always excellent JGL’s woeful French accent by the cunning – nay, bravura – casting of Ben Kingsley, who can do neither a Czech nor a French accent, as a Czech with a French accent…
In 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.
Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.
But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.
The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.
But snow is rare in film noir.
There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.
Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.
Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.
Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.
All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.
But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.
In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.
Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.
So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.
François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. The gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.
Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.
Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.
In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.
The Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.
However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.
Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?
‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.
[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Uncertainty (2009) is, as you would expect from the writers/directors of Suture (1993) and The Deep End (2002), its bold experimentalism – not so much with the narrative structure that attempts to construct the perfect date movie by intertwining two different versions of the same day depending on whether the protagonists decide to go to Brooklyn or Manhahattan and, respectively, into a family melodrama or a conspiracy thriller, while also confirming to each gendered-genre viewer that the other gendered-genre viewer’s preference is lame, but with the valiant – and entirely successful attempt – to outdo Stephen Sommers’ similar effort in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) to make a film so meh that not even the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (doubled!) can save it…
From Bailiwick: Bristol’s Independent Listings Magazine
Jason Wyngarde talks to playwright Peter King about filming, feminism – and working with Ray Harryhausen
Local playwright and university lecturer Peter King is just back from Hollywood, where stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is putting the finishing touches to an adaptation of his play, Consciousness Rising.
‘Being home is disorientating,’ King explains, ‘because Los Angeles is so weird.’ His plane only landed this morning and he is feeling rather dishevelled. ‘Half the time you’re astonished the people talking to you can look you in the eye; the rest of the time you’re surrounded by talented, hard-working folks whose names appear so far down the credits not even their mums stick around to see them. And LA’s so familiar from films and TV that you constantly have these moments of epiphany. I was in a bookstore on Venice Beach and I suddenly realised, “My god, this is exactly where the Rock stood in Southland Tales!”’ He laughs. ‘I’m not going to convince anyone that that was an epiphany, am I? I won’t tell the story about traipsing around the Westin Bonaventure, trying to find the spot where Gil Gerard stood in Buck Rogers…’
The question everyone’s asking, though, is not about LA but about how he got to work with Harryhausen. ‘Ray’s amazing. He’s been doing this for seventy years and he still loves it. His stuff is an indelible part of my childhood. The sword-fighting skeletons, of course, like everyone else. And I really loved the octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea – the effects budget was so tight on
that movie it only has six tentacles. Ray was doing a talk about his work at the Watershed, and we just kind of started chatting. He was visiting Aardman animation while he was in town because he was thinking about coming out of retirement one last time and he really, really wanted to do a film in claymation. Something different, something focused on human interactions, and when I mentioned Consciousness Rising – which he’d actually heard of, from a granddaughter, I think – he asked to see a copy of the script. Serendipity. Nothing in life is ever that easy.’
‘Well, we also had amazing luck with the voice cast. I had this list in my head of actresses who could play each of the characters, and we got all my first choices: Isabel Adjani, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sarah Polley. There were two minor male characters we added for the film, only a few lines each, but Holly got us John Goodman, and Sarah and Jennifer picked on Don McKellar until he joined in. They all turned down scale, which was all we could afford, for a cut of the box-office, so really they worked for free because they believed in the movie, thought it was important. And once we had those names – along with Harryhausen and Aardman – the financing came together almost overnight.’
The film represents quite a departure for Harryhausen, and not just in the style of animation. ‘Well, it does have a fantasy premise of sorts, but yes, it is basically four women sitting, talking and drinking coffee. No mythological beasts, giant apes, Venusian lizards. No dinosaurs.’
So what is it about?
‘I spent years working with students who thought feminism was just this kind of dreary, dungareed monolith, this thing that happened in the past and was over and done with now. I wanted to find other ways to open up its liveliness and diversity, and its relevance. I spent a year working on a novel about Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Nelson Algren, but that was really about learning to imaginatively invest in the material, to make it come alive. And then I saw this Russian film, Chetyre, at the Arnolfini. It has this fabulous opening section with four strangers meeting in a bar and idly talking to each other – and that’s when the whole play came to me in a flash. It takes some counterfactual juggling of biographies, but basically, sheltering from the rain one day, de Beauvoir (Adjani) runs into Mary McCarthy (Hunter), Betty Friedan (Leigh) and Helen Gurley Brown (Polley) in a New York hotel. You have these four amazing women: a French existentialist philosopher; an anti-Stalinist socialist writer and critic; the author of The Feminine Mystique and first president of the National Organization of Women; and the author of Sex and the Single Girl and editor of Cosmopolitan. Four women who don’t know each other, the younger two yet to make their marks, all of them feminists but in profoundly different ways. And in their conversation over coffee, their differences of opinion and their common ground emerges. Second-wave feminism coalesces. It’s like the first consciousness-raising session, hence the title.’
Consciousness Rising premiered at the Tobacco Factory to impressive reviews, and the production toured all around the world. ‘I had a great group of women to work with there, as well. I borrowed a trick from Peter Watkins and gave each of them a huge pile of stuff to read about the women they were playing, about the society and culture in which they grew up. And then we just kept on workshopping until we had transformed my rough script into a play. It’s why they get co-writing credits; there is so much in the play that would not have been there without them. For the film, there was a different kind of workshopping – basically me learning from smart and experienced people how to make this into a movie. We opened it up, added some blokes and a couple of musical daydream/fantasy sequences. It’s the same story, but also a whole other can of fish, kettle of worms, now. I saw an almost finished cut two days ago – no, wait, that was yesterday – and Ray had organised a real surprise for me. He only went and put Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Natural Woman” over the end credits!’
Kaffeeklatsch of the Titans opens in the spring.
It is not in 3D and does not star Sam Worthington.
This is the last of the old ‘by Jason Wyngarde’ pieces I will post here. It is all rather Mary Sue and doesn’t really work, but I have a fondness for it because when China Miéville posted a version on his old blog back in 2010 a whole bunch of people thought it was real. Go figure. (Actually one bit of it is sort of real only it happened differently. I saw Southland Tales weeks after being in the Venice Beach bookstore, but me and The Rock were both once in the same physical space, just sadly not at the same time, and I did get all excited about it. Same thing happened once with Cory McAbee, more or less, and a hotel in Perth.)