In the Shadow of the Sun (Derek Jarman, 1981)

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(Screened at Cafe OTO with a live score performed by Psychic TV)

In the Shadow of the Sun exists essentially in the dead-centre of a triangle made of Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1974), Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1991), and From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1987). As one might thus expect, it is an oneiric, haunting and paradoxically apocalyptic world-creation, wholly intoxicating in the well-established avant-garde-cinematic mode of queer orientalism and yet, in eschewing a good three-quarters of the campiness we would associate with Anger or Jack Smith, the contrast between skeletal ritual masks and race/class-signifying top hats allows Shadow to approach a slight critique of the colonial “magickal tourism” so often in play. Note I do say “approach,” rather than “reach,” however there is a notable absence of naiveté within the gaze of these blown-up 8mm images.

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The use of repetition and superimposition, as with Jarman’s earlier shorts (from which some of Shadow‘s footage is evidently lifted) invokes a particularly cabbalistic reading of montage – a visual praxis of solve et coagula – that demands numerous rewatching and reinterpretation. I certainly plan to oblige.

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Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

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I don’t even know how many times I have seen this film, and it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me, but this film never fails to enthral and delight me, every single time. I absolutely belong to the not-inconsiderable ranks of those who consider Some Like it Hot to be the greatest comedy of all time.

But what is it about Some Like it Hot that makes it stand out, 57 years after the fact? Leaving aside – at least for now – the universally impeccable performances (even though it is made quite clear in Marilyn Monroe’s eyes and occasional uncertainty in her voice that she was clearly struggling under the influence of pills at this stage – stories of 47 takes just to get her to say “It’s me, Sugar” in the right order attest to this – and yet, through direction and editing, not to mention her own perseverance, her most memorable performance still shines through), much of its greatness comes from its writing.

The narrative flow in this film is as smooth as running water and, as such, everything is exactly in its right place. Consider the opening: we begin with a hearse, driving through a city at night, all of a sudden pursued by a police car, all its inhabitants guns blazing, only for the passengers of the hearse to produce rifles of their own and return fire. As the hearse makes its escape, liquid leaks out of the bullet-holes left in the casket, whose lid is revealed to contain nothing but scotch whiskey. Finally, the words “Chicago, 1929” appear on the screen. In a way, this simple sequence articulates classical film-making at its very best: narrative created through conflict; not just the obvious conflict of cops vs robbers, but the more subtle examples of oxymoron and juxtaposition, allowing the humour and confusion of subverted expectations to carry the scene, with the conflict’s resolution also acting as its first explanation: this is Chicago, 1929: city of bootleggers, in a time of prohibition. Any other film might have had an establishing shot and/or those words, telling us the date/location before the fact, thereby making this some pseudo-documentarian “slice of life” point; instead, by reversing this trope, the setting justifies the action, allowing the action full comedic and dramatic potential, unencumbered by detail (I recently, appreciatively noticed the series Preacher doing just this, too).

We then follow an undercover detective, entering Spats Columbo (George Raft)’s riotously successful speakeasy, ingeniously hidden within a funeral home, sitting next to the dancing girls and the band, tenor sax and bass played respectively by Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) – we are led to our principle characters by following a secondary plot. After the club is raided, Joe and Jerry witness the gangland massacre by Spats of the rivals who ratted out his establishment, inspiring them to dress in drag and join up with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators for a three-week gig in Miami, Florida.

It seems a small point, but it is in fact highly illustrative of the tightness of the narrative: we follow police, following mobsters into the mobster speakeasy, where we meet our protagonists, who are put out of a job by the police raiding the joint, inspiring a bloody reprisal by the mobsters, who chase the protagonists into Florida, where, eventually, the mob will end up, chase them again, before themselves being killed in a bloody reprisal against the first, whilst the events in Florida see the protagonists to safety. Complex, yet purely seamless, every single scene matters, and is beautifully interwoven not only with the ones immediately before and after it, but throughout the entire film. Thus, Some Like It Hot exists in a wide and believable universe, but also in an holistic one – by having each situation matter, each occurrence is justified. By each occurrence being justified, the audience will never feel cheated or insulted by a turn of events. Thus, the narrative thread of “destiny” upon which classical film structure is so dependent has rarely been so deftly executed: we, as an audience, are able to place our trust in Some Like it Hot, in a way unlike so many contemporary films.

It is without a doubt this harmonious interconnectvity that carries this film so well: it feels as though each and every line has its own comeback AND at least one call-back. There are at least three or four separate jokes in the film relating to Blood Type O alone, all of them different, all of them funny, all of them contextual. That’s pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. Joe at one point lists all the terrible things that could (and, of course, totally did) happen, early in the film: “suppose the stock market crashes, suppose Mary Pickford leaves Douglas Fairbanks, suppose the Dodgers leave Brooklyn, suppose Lake Michigan overflows…” (a line which, in any lesser comedy, would have the characters stopping for multiple tedious fourth-wall-breaking nod to the audience), to which Jerry replies (having seen the detective) “don’t look now, but the whole town is underwater.” Far, far later into the film, as Joe is schooling Jerry in the old adage that one can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg, Jerry sees Spats and his henchmen turn up in Florida and responds “don’t look now, but the omelette is about to hit the fan!” The skill of the writing allows call-backs to function in the most oblique and purely tonal sense, whilst still remaining completely successful in the process. It is this devotion to the god in the details that ensures Some Like it Hot will carry on gaining new fans in another 57 years and beyond, long after the cynical “<insert joke here>” format films of men like Seth MacFarlane and Todd Phillips are rightfully forgotten.

Of course, Some Like it Hot is also a vital film in its existence as one of the final nails in the coffin of the oppressive Film Production Code, in its glorious celebration of many facets of queerness, not only in having hired the brilliant drag queen and trapeze artist Barbette as an on-set consultant in the art of “gender illusion,” but in the wider context of its presentation of drag’s potentiality. Little if any time at all is spent remarking on preconceived notions of humiliation or emasculation as a necessary element of, or psychological response to, cross-dressing. Instead, both protagonists are liberated from what might otherwise have been an inescapably predictable tropey existence: Joe, who begins the story as a selfish, womanising manipulator, becomes in Josephine a respectable and more than a little prim confidante for Sugar Kane (Monroe), whilst Jerry – Joe’s hapless sidekick, dragged around, constantly pessimistic – becomes the gloriously loud, opinionated and popular Daphne. Of course, perhaps most interesting is Joe’s other other persona: his male drag-king act as Junior, the Cary Grant-caricature millionaire, in many ways the dialectical synthesis of Joe and Josephine, via whom he manipulates Sugar into falling in love with him (in a not un-Shakespearean fashion) through a parodic process of what one can only consider erotic conversion therapy for the type of man one would normally expect to say “when I’m with a girl, it just leaves me cold.” However, through the foundation of gentleness and sensitivity of their communion – a trait Sugar inexplicably believes all short-sighted men share – he finds enough of a conscience to spare himself from unsalvageablity. Jerry as Daphne’s relationship with the fantastically named lecherous “rich millionaire” party-boy Osgood Feelding III (Joe E. Brown) is consistently hilarious whilst also profoundly effecting for any queer audience member – no reading-into required, when that final line in the film comes, it’s a joyous celebration of “whatever”-ness in the face of social convention that will remain with me for all time.

The cinephilic ensemble of Some Like it Hot expands the concept of performativity to be relevant to all characters in the film. The gangster subplot is littered with as many recognisable faces – George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Edward G. Robinson Jr – as the comedic narrative is – Joe E. Brown, Dave Barry and others. The gangsters not only reflect real life (the opening credits may claim similar events are completely unintentional but the fictionalised St Valentine’s Day Massacre says otherwise), but also fictionalised ones. Spats is only just stopped at one point from smashing half a grapefruit into a henchman’s face, in a clear reference to the most infamous scene in gangster film classic, The Public Enemy. It seems reasonable to view Some Like it Hot performing Butler-esque commentary on the performativity of aspects of gender, race and class all round. Of course, the cineliterate nature of the film’s comedy has also paradoxically helped it escape dating: by being a film, made in the tail-end of the 1950s, set in the tail-end of the 1920s, opting to be one of the exceptionally few 1959 films shot in monochrome, Some Like it Hot convinces the audience it is an older film that it is, only amplifying its relevance in the resultant contrast. The fact it manages to do so by addressing themes progressive for the time it was made allows it to exist in a time all its own, as it shall continue to do for years to come.

Some Like it Hot is cinematic viewing at its most fundamentally essential. If you have not seen this film, you have not truly seen film at all.

*****

Ten Great Atmospheric Soundtracks

So, in addition to reviews and the odd academic whatever, I’ve decided to start doing the occasional article, dare I say it, “listicle,” to add a little variation in my blog posts. The first recommendation has come from my good friend Ilhana, who suggested “Top Ten Moody/Atmospheric Soundtracks,” so here we go… I decided to rename it to “Ten Great,” as I’m sure I’m missing off so many stunning soundtracks and scores right now. Numbers are indicative of nothing other than the order in which they sprang to mind:

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014) – Mica Levi

I’ve always said that, were I ever to curate a music festival, I’d need to dedicate three separate slots to the Mica Levi: the first, naturally, for her incredible, danceable left-field post-no-wave band Micachu and the Shapes. The second as a DJ slot for her unbelievable noisy indie grime productions. The third, of course, would be for her to perform solo, with an orchestra, or somewhere in between, her masterpiece of an original score for Under the Skin. The subdued response to the maximalist notion of “space rock” afforded us by Spiritualized, or the overt coolness of Autolux, Mica Levi’s score encapsulates all the simultaneous oxymorons of space itself: it is at once engulfing, and sparse. It is measured, yet elusive. It is ominous, yet beautiful. It is threatening, yet vulnerable. Rarely has a soundtrack reflected the external progression and internal conflicts of a film’s protagonist so astutely and effectively. Winning 11 awards internationally, and being nominated for 7 more, that none of those were for an Academy Award is a disgusting reminder of just how artistically irrelevant the Hollywood meat parade truly is. Micachu, however, seems largely unfazed and just humbly shuffles along, seemingly embarrassed by her own genius. That we could all learn something from her.

 

2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

I mean, I was always going to pick something by Trent Reznor, wasn’t I? In many ways the most tragically overlooked of the Reznor & Ross / Fincher collaborations, both in terms of the soundtrack and, indeed, the film itself, this is certainly my favourite score of the three. Whilst the compositions for The Social Network and Gone Girl may be said to reflect the psychology of their protagonists (or, at least, their narrators), the score for Dragon Tattoo reflects the film’s greater preoccupation with questions of an aggressively Darwinian existence in the modern age: survival, adaptation, subterfuge, camouflage, and any level of violence deemed necessary. Thus, much like the visual motifs of the film, the score performs a balancing act between ice and fire, routinely exchanging the precision of The Social Network‘s modular synths for tremolo guitar reverb and detuned pianos. Adaptation and, indeed, evolution play a strong role in the development of sound – what is staccato routinely becomes sustained, and vice versa – aggressive percussion and the distant sound of bells compete for space and the listener may sometimes be surprised which side wins. The breaks for moments of true sentiment are few and far between but, as Dragon Tattoo at its most hopeful may suggest, are entirely worth the struggle.

 

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000) – Mihály Vig

Undoubtedly a film that should have been compulsory viewing for all British citizens before the farcical referendum, with the disastrous results only beginning to ripple through this stupid, petty little island, Werckmeister Harmonies, aligned for the most part with the engagingly loquacious, if a little unsettling, protagonist János (Lars Rudolf)  bears witness to a civilisation destroying itself in mass brutality, seemingly triggered by the arrival of a “circus” – in reality, the giant, decomposing body of a blue whale, and a deformed, malignant “Prince,” of whom we only see a silhouette, who may or may not be the Devil himself. The complete antithesis of High-RiseWerckmeister Harmonies looks on with a spiritual sadness that finds faith and hope where it can, which is absolutely nowhere. Such a profundity of paradox is reflected wholly in longtime Tarr collaborator Vig’s breathtaking score. I challenge anyone and everyone not to weep with a sense of melancholy beyond their understanding as they, with János, stare into the unblinking eye of the whale and the tinkling piano notes of “Valuska” begin to play. Reassuring in its repetition, yet so sombre in its melody, so frail in its timbre, with occasional rushes of emotion in its percussive rolls, this is the music of those who survey the sins of the world and with tears streaming down their face, in the manner of Beckett’s muddied narrator in Worstword Ho!, somehow move forwards.

 

4. Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, 1967) – Zdeněk Liška

Considered by a great many to be the jewel in the crown that was the Czechoslovak New Wave, Marketa Lazarová is a delirious immersion into the theological, tribal and sexual politics of 11th century Czechoslovakia, as bestial Pagans war against Teutonic Christians, each side’s vindictive brutality rivalling the other’s. Zdeněk Liška’s music is the only accompaniment imaginable to such a kaleidoscopic vision of dialectics, as it pits ecstatic choral voices against primitive percussion – the grand majority of the percussion either designed via the input of historians to help Liška achieve the most legitimate sound of the era, or alternatively completely new inventions to achieve sounds not heard neither the 11th century, nor yet in the 20th. It is appropriate for a film whose very overhead narrator may be God himself to have music that may imply we are all seeing the action from the heavens, with all the glory and violence we associate with religions both organised and chaotic.

 

5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) – Jonny Greenwood

Obviously a toss-up between this and Greenwood’s equally brilliant score for the equally brilliant Inherent Vice, I elected on the earlier composition largely for the reason that, unlike Inherent Vice which also has a soundtrack of 60s and 70s pop (my personal favourite being “Les Fleurs” by Anderson’s late, great mother-in-law Minnie Riperton), There Will Be Blood‘s lack of any music other than Greenwood’s score and is thus all the more affected by it. Sergei Eisenstein, master editor for the Soviet Union, viewed not only the filmic narrative but the filmic form as reliant on conflict – certainly, my captions in this article so far have borne that out in the description of juxtaposition after juxtaposition. There Will Be Blood is preoccupied with the ungodly, primal beast lurking within a well-tailored “of the people” oil driller who manipulates, dominates and kills in his lust and quest for a success he can only understand in terms of victory or defeat. Scoring the film as it follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) from a hopeful silver miner down a shaft to a violent, decrepit and alcoholic oil baron in an all-but empty mansion, Greenwood’s composition doesn’t so much explore juxtapositions between instruments as find alternative, often highly aggressive, uses in instruments – oftentimes allowing his ondes martenot to take control of some of the most legato passages, whilst giving his violinists guitar picks to turn their stringed instruments into tolls of unique and alarming percussion. Thus, the theme of ugly revelation carries on beautifully from the narrative to the music.

 

6. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross-Perry, 2015) – Keegan DeWitt

As a film, Queen of Earth still perplexes me. Although on a narratological level, I’m still unsure of its ultimate success, its formal brilliance was absolutely enough to keep me pretty enraptured until the end. The acting is spot on, the editing is as revealing and obscuring as it’s clearly intended to be, the cinematography is fantastic, with the lens focus being played like a violin as it masterfully captures the two protagonists’ destructive selfishness and crippling loneliness all at once. Not to mention, of course: the original score by Keegan DeWitt. Rarely straying too far from its classical influence, Queen of Earth‘s  main theme works contextually in much the same way as the music from Tristan und Isolde interacted with the simultaneously idyllic and apocalyptic visuals of Melancholia – clearly a not unreasonable filmic comparison to make. However, its chattering high notes and echoing, Chinese-water-torture-reminiscent percussion recall both the other-worldliness of Under the Skin and the paranoia of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, expertly reflecting the dissociative truculence of, in particular, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and, according to DeWitt himself, is a tonal reference to Polanski’s criminally underrated psychological horror The Tenant. Add to this busily arpeggiated and scale-running woodwinds à la Philip Glass, and you have a score that reflects perfectly internal projections onto an otherwise beautiful world.

 

7. Made in USA (Ken Friedman, 1987) – Sonic Youth

Okay, I’ll admit it: I haven’t seen the film. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who has. I notice it is on YouTube, so perhaps I shall to cure me of the shame of discussing the soundtrack to a film I have not yet seen, but all reports say that the best thing about the film is the soundtrack, and the film severely underused it at that (Sonic Youth’s music for Made in USA wasn’t even released until 8 years after the film’s release). Recorded in 1986, the soundtrack to Made in USA was made during what I always refer to as Sonic Youth’s “dusty period” – immediately following Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, Sonic Youth’s two albums that turn their attention away from the New York City no wave scene to a more expansive sound, and to more Californian topics such as the Manson murders, not to mention titular nods to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Slowly but surely, their sound transitioned towards one with more pop sensibility – something that would be confirmed by the the more conventionally palatable Sister in 1987 and their double-album magnum opus Daydream Nation in 1988. Made in USA undoubtedly expands upon the Americana implications of Bad Moon Rising and EVOL, not simply employing increased use of detuned pianos and even harmonica. The guitars, whilst remaining entirely Sonic Youth, do employ that countryfied element in their bent notes that feel not unlike pre-eminent noise rock parodies of perhaps, Hans Zimmer’s work in Thelma & Louise and, in an attitude heavy criminal road movie, why would it not?

 

8. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) – Vangelis

In a manner not dissimilar to the panoply of editions in which Blade Runner as a film has itself been released, there is a long and messy history relating to the soundtrack’s release I shan’t go into here, but it is interesting how many hurdles at times stand between us and works of greatness. Vangelis’ unforgettable composition strikes me as owing a debt to Wendy Carlos’ masterpiece of a score to A Clockwork Orange (my heart breaks that I was unable to add a trans woman genius like Carlos to this list but, sadly my aim for as many original compositions as possible restricted me from adding the soundtrack so defined by her stunning “switched-on” reworks of the classics) but arguably diverts from her tone inasmuch as Vangelis doesn’t allow the dystopian noir to overshadow the impressive, if ecocidal, grandeur of the gargantuan urbanisation of Planet Earth. Electronics, of course, take the lead, though Vangelis does employ oneiric use of some organic instruments, not limited to saxophone, gamelan and tubular bells, in such such a way as to refer to the particular type of lounge jazz emitting from 80s radios (regularly and appropriately associated with the erotic thriller and other such bastard offspring of film noir) as a half-forgotten memory in this future Earth. The urbanity, the despair, and the sleaze are thus all readily accounted for in the soundscape, though all may still play second fiddle to the brimming crescendos that accompanied the first audience’s gasps of such oppressive beauty.

 

9. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) –  Carter Burwell

Fully aware of the cheekiness of this one, I simply couldn’t not add a soundtrack of (save for the end credits) almost complete silence to the list. I initially considered adding the silence of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, though I have unfortunately seen a naturally sub-par screening of that with musical accompaniment, so I feel a mainstream cinematic release such as this works for the best. No Country For Old Men is certainly nothing if not laconic with regard to dialogue and even the most violent and murderous of character interaction. Nearly every single character being a Vietnam vet, the act of not discussing the traumatic burdens one carries Certainly borrowing from the western and the film noir, No Country deals to a certain degree with archetypes on an individualist level, but not to such an extent that anyone’s personality can truly dominate a given situation – with the one possible exception of the nigh-Satanic antagonistic juggernaut Anton Chigurrh (Javier Bardem), whose alien and obscure moral code feels not at all un-reminiscent of “The Bad” Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) from The Good, the Bad and the UglyNo Country is a film that meditates on evil within a world of negative space. Thus, the absence of any sound, save for the extremely occasional distant Tibetan singing bowl, or a piano detuned to the frequency of a refrigerator’s hum, is precisely what is required: un-embellishing, un-relieving, and un-forgiving.

 

10. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) – Various

My favourite feature-length film of all time, Performance  – much like my favourite musician, Keiji Haino – fundamentally represents for rock ‘n’ roll both its apex, and its annihilation. Sublime as it is nasty, femme as it is macho,  Performance‘s soundtrack accesses rock ‘n’ roll’s roots, and its future, and then surpasses it. Thus, Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Buffy Saint-Marie, Merry Clayton, Bernie Krause and, naturally, Mick Jagger himself (with his greatest song of all time) contribute music both diegetic and non-diegetic that nods to gospel and the blues, makes use of one of the first moog synthesizers to create foreboding, Schaefer-esque pulsations, not to mention play the inimitable Black nationalist spoken word artists The Last Poets – rapping astute and powerful politics ten years before the Sugarhill Gang would form. Naturally, the centrepiece of Performance is the proto-music video for “Memo From Turner” (yes, my namesake) by Jagger, which makes the most thinly of veiled Ronnie Kray references throughout, as it delights in sending the casually racist butch world of London thuggery and queer Surrealism in head-on collision with one another inside a washed-up genderqueer rockstar’s daydream: