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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: “The Other Side of the Wind” and a Sense of Seventies Timelessness…

There is a tendency to think of the current moment as the most important moment; call it “modernity bias.”

There is a certain egocentricism inherent in this premise, in the idea that this moment when we exist will always be the most important moment. On a purely philosophical level, there may some truth in the idea. After all, this is the one moment when we actually get to make a decision and exercise agency, this is the one moment where a course of action can be changed. Of course, people have made decisions in the past and can plan for the future, but this is the moment that exists right now. It’s understandable to think of the current moment in such terms.

Sometimes this can make it hard to engage with popular culture outside of those terms. Of course, a lot of popular culture is defined by the moment in which it was released. It would be hard to separate All the President’s Men (or even conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation or The Parallax View) from the cultural paranoia of the seventies, just as it would be hard to divorce films like Fight Club (or The Matrix) from the pre-millennial anxieties that informed them. This is not to suggest that these movies lack relevance outside their moments, but instead to acknowledge they are rooted in their times.

In most cases, works are released relatively close to the time at which they were produced, meaning that audiences and critics respond to these films in the context in which they were made. Audiences reacting to films like All The President’s Men or Fight Club were very much in step with the culture that informed it, and so there was a strong communion between what the film was saying and what the audience was hearing. Indeed, any critical reevaluation of these works exists in conversation with the original evaluation, and so the cultural conversation about these works of art tends to move forward from a fixed point.

However, this creates a challenge in assessing works that exist outside of that template. “Lost” works that have been recovered. “Incomplete” works that have been finished. Even older works that have been revisited. It is, for example very hard to separate Doug Liman’s reworked 2018 director’s cut of his 2010 film Fair Game from the context of its later release, specifically President Donald Trump’s pardoning of a key official involved in the events depicted in the film. It becomes an even bigger challenge when dealing with a work that is seeing the light of day for the first time years removed from its original context.

Is The Other Side of the Wind a lost seventies film, or is it a film for the closing of the second decade of the twenty-first century? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it something else entirely?

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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

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“Maybe It’s Time To Let the Old Ways Die…”: “A Star Is Born” and Baby Boomer Rock Nostalgia…

It takes a lot to change, it takes a lot to try,

Baby, it’s time to let the old ways die.

A Star is Born would seem to be a massive success, before it has even been released.

The film has an impressive score on both Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. The film has also been named as the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner by publications as diverse as Forbes, Playlist, Vulture and Vanity Fair. Of course, that may not actually mean much; presumptive Best Picture frontrunner status doesn’t always translate into ownership of that little gold statue. Just ask La La Land, the presumptive Best Picture frontrunner from two awards seasons back, a film that literally had the award snatched out of its hand by the underdog that could, Moonlight.

The comparison to La La Land is interesting. In many ways, A Star is Born is effectively the movie that many critics claimed to see in La La Land. By its nature, La La Land evoked nostalgia for a long-lost version of Hollywood, blending a story of an ascendant star with a cynical hipster, filtered through the lens of old-school musicals. Many read the film as the ill-judged story of a white guy saving jazz, glossing over the fact that it was instead a tragic story about a guy who kept an outdated notion of jazz alive in a basement club while shunning the opportunity to work with an African American artist to bring it to the masses.

What is striking about A Star is Born is how it embraces many of the controversial aspects of La La Land and pursues them with uncritical earnestness. A Star is Born is a film steeped in seventies notions of authenticity, reflected not only in the past-his-glory stylings of rock daddy Jackson Maine, but also in the stylistic influences of Bradley Cooper who aspires towards the glory days of the New Hollywood movement. At the core of A Star is Born is a suggestion that popular culture was never more “real” than it was during the seventies, and that modern artists should look back to that authenticity, not craft their own identities.

A Star is Born is inevitably going to be nostalgic. It is the forth iteration of this particular fairytale to use the title, although the story itself has been reworked and reimagined in countless iterations over the past century. Fans were already identifying callbacks and homages to early versions of the story from the trailer. Much was made of the the passing of the torch, whether it was Kris Kristofferson allowing Bradley Cooper to use his set at Glastonbury to film a key sequence from the movie, or his and Barbra Streisand’s visit to the set. Nostalgia was woven into the fabric of A Star is Born.

However, A Star is Born is in theory about more than nostalgia. It is about evolution. It is about a dying star elevating a new voice from obscurity, providing a young artist with a platform from which they might launch themselves. A Star is Born is a tale of succession, of perpetual reinvention, of the passing of the torch from one generation of celebrity to another. This is why the story inevitably focuses on an over-the-hill rocker who discovers a startling young talent. It is a story about how celebrity changes and evolves. It is about acknowledging the future, and allowing the past to legitimise that future.

There are certainly shades of that in A Star is Born. There are certain songs that recur throughout the film, suggesting both potential hit singles from the soundtrack and important thematic markers. Shallow is one hell of a pop-rock love ballad, full of power and emotion. However, Jackson Maine keeps coming back to his own folksy country ballad Maybe It’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die. It seems like an important statement of purpose for the film, an exploration of what is actually happening when this aging crooner plucks young Ally out of obscurity and pushes her towards celebrity.

Unfortunately, the movie itself seems less concerned about letting the old ways die, and instead is much more anxious about what it sees as the lack of authenticity within popular culture. When A Star is Born positions Jackson Maine as an aging rock god, it is entirely sincere. It might accept the man’s flaws, but it heralds his message. A Star is Born is a story about how “real” celebrity looks like a bearded rocker with a guitar thrown over his shoulder singing about lost love, while more stylised modern pop culture is just vacuous nonsense. A Star is Born is a prestige picture celebration of baby boomer rock nostalgia.

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The Great Inception, and the Movies that Made Us…

This week, the podcast I host, The 250, will be marking its one hundredth episode with a look at Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I’m very much looking forward to it. It’ll be available on Saturday from 6pm UTC. I also have a book coming out on Christopher Nolan, titled “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films.” This is a much more personal (and much less detailed) discussion of Inception than the one in the book. So, if you like this piece, it might be worth a look.

I’ve always been somewhat wary of Inception.

I mean, Inception is a fantastic movie. There is a reason that it is so beloved and so highly regarded. It is perhaps one of the four core Christopher Nolan films, along with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. It is the rare big budget blockbuster with no longstanding association to established intellectual property, and one of the few to succeed on that sort of level. Indeed, the only other comparable examples on a similar scale are Interstellar and Dunkirk, both directed by Christopher Nolan.

More than that, Inception has permeated the popular consciousness. It is a film that has become part of the broader conversation. It seems that barely a few months can go by without another hot take on that closing scene, with news coverage of commencement speeches or interviews with actors. More than that, the film itself has become something of a critical and popular shorthand. It is a stock comparison for any movie or television show with a vaguely similar concept. Maniac is the most recent example, even inviting the comparison with an elaborate hallway action scene in its penultimate episode.

And yet, in spite of that, Inception is a movie of which I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship. I still adore it, as I adore most of Nolan’s filmography. I think its reputation is well-earned, and I think it excels by every measure that it sets itself. It delivers on just about every front, showcasing Nolan as a director with incredible command of both the form itself and the audiences watching these films. Inception is a big and broad crowdpleaser that is also a surprisingly intimate and personal film, which works as both a story and as a showcase. It is thrilling, it is engaging, it is compelling.

However, there’s something underneath the surface that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. A large part of this is simply down to the fact that it’s a movie that is fundamentally about movies. This is nothing new of itself. All of Nolan’s movies are about stories, whether personal or cultural. In fact, it could be argued that the central trilogy of Nolan’s work is actually The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception, a trilogy of films that seem to be about the challenges of constructing and maintaining spectacle, arriving at a point in the director’s career where Nolan was transitioning from smaller films to high-profile epics.

Inception is the most transparent of these films, exploring most directly the mechanics of how storytelling works within a cinematic framework. There are even scenes of characters discussing in relatively clinical terms the mechanics of catharsis and how best to emotional manipulate their target audience. Inception feels very much like Nolan is stopping and deconstructing his stopwatch storytelling for the benefit of the audience, revealing how the trick is done and how the pieces fit together. As with everything Nolan does, he does this with a great deal of skill and nuance. However, it can’t help but feel a little cynical.

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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

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“The Things You Gotta Remember Are the Details”: Reservoir Dogs and the Fragility of Memory and Meaning in the Nineties…

It’s always interesting to understand how much of being one of the defining artists of a cultural moment is down to understanding the zeitgeist, and how much of it is down to simply being in the right place at the right time.

This is not to denigrate the incredible skill and talent required to be perfectly positioned “in the right place at the right time”, as any amount of sustained success requires both a great deal of determination and an incredible amount of talent. Quentin Tarantino is undeniably determined and impressively talented. Tarantino has a unique knack with dialogue, a keen understanding of genre, and a fine appreciation of the history the medium. It is hard to imagine a world in which Tarantino would ever have been unable to parlay those skills into some form of success in filmmaking.

Still, there are very few directors who were so perfectly in step with the nineties as Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is a writer and director who emerged almost fully formed, to the point that many critics and pundits would argue that his first two films are the best films in his filmography; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. (As an aside, there are a not-insignificant number of pundits who would argue that Tarantino’s best film was his third, the underrated Jackie Brown.) It seems fair to describe Tarantino, however controversial his legacy and however divisive his modern films might be, as a defining nineties filmmaker.

(As an aside, it should be acknowledged that Tarantino arguably had something of a similar moment towards the end of the first decade and into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight are films that have generated a lot of polarised debate, but they also seemed very much on-the-pulse in terms of the tensions and anxieties that bubbled to the surface of American popular consciousness at towards the end of the twenty-tens. However, that is perhaps a debate for another time.)

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction speaks specifically to a collection of nineties anxieties and uncertainties that seem only to have crystalised in retrospect, as if working through an existential crisis that the decade didn’t realise it was having in real time. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fictions are stories about memory and meaning, and how fleeting the human understanding of a chaotic world can be. They are stories about the breakdown of social order, and of trying to find some way to navigate increasingly turbulent and unstable times.

They are films that embody the tensions of nineties as effectively as Forrest Gump or the films of Oliver Stone or Chris Carter’s work on The X-Files and Millennium.

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Birthing Hips Sink Ships: Dark Shadows & Improbable Feminism…

I will concede that I am fonder of Dark Shadows than most. I’ve been disappointed with a lot of Tim Burton’s recent output, but something about his revival of the seventies soap opera worked strangely well. I’ll be the first to concede that it’s pretty esoteric. After all, like Casa de mi Padre, it’s effectively one single joke stretched across a film’s runtime. However, I couldn’t help but warm to it, at least because it seemed like Burton was enjoying himself a lot more than head been with films like Alice in Wonderland. There was something quite cheeky about it, from the way that it portrayed its central character as ridiculously unheroic through to the fact that it was perhaps the year’s most subversive feminist film.

Indeed, watching the film again this weekend, it struck me just how feminist the narrative actually was, despite the somewhat superficial distractions from that.

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