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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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Irony, Thy Name Is Gump: “Forrest Gump” and the Art of Earnest Irony…

Forrest Gump is a movie that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around.

On one level, it’s an incredibly sacchrine and simplistic exploration of the first fifty years of the so-called “American Century”, the turbulent second half of the twentieth century as navigated by a dim-wit with nothing but good intentions to guide his way. The eponymous character floats on the winds of history like a feather, a metaphor that bookends the film in a manner that is incredibly cloying. There is something undeniably condescending and overly simplistic in the notion of history in Forrest Gump, as a force that sweeps up men and nations without any rhyme or reason.

As such, it’s easy to be wary of Forrest Gump and its approach to history. Forrest Gump presents a very clean and sanitised accounting of the second half of the twentieth century, one in which there is absolutely nothing happening beneath the surface of American life, and in which there is no point even attempting to comprehend the myriad of forces at work on the country and its inhabitants. In this way, Forrest Gump plays as a trite moral fable. There is no point in even trying to understand the chaos that is the modern world. It is enough to be decent and oblivious, and things will work out fine.

At the same time, there has always been something lurking at the edge of the frame in Forrest Gump, beneath all the folksy trappings and the simplistic history lessons. It is too much to suggest that Forrest Gump has an edge, but it certainly has a point. Forrest Gump in many ways presents an avatar of the final fifty years of the twentieth century in its central character. The eponymous character is an embodiment of a certain American ideal, a personification of the American public that has been bewildered and confused by the speed and pace with which history seemed to move in that turbulent half-century.

With that in mind, there is something vaguely self-aware in Forrest Gump, something that perhaps simmers beneath the surface of the film. Gump is a likable and charming protagnonist, brilliantly brought to life by Tom Hanks in a performance that (deservedly) won him his second Best Actor Oscar. However, there has always been something uncanny in the film’s presentation of Gump as the character most ideally suited to the twentieth century, in contrast to supporting characters like Lieutenant Dan or Jennie. Forrest Gump is a movie that argues the only way to survive the twentieth century is as a fool and an idiot.

There’s always seemed something very wry and very cynical in that idea, buried beneath the film’s cotton-candy exterior.

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83. United Passions (-#55) – World Cup 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Chris Lavery and Babu Patel, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, to mark the launch of the World Cup 2018, Frédéric Auburtin’s United Passions.

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Django Unchained and Tarantino Off the Chain….

Django Unchained is one of the most quietly influential movies of the twenty-first century.

It feels strange to acknowledge that fact, to say it out loud. On paper, it sounds absurd. Django Unchained is an R-rated western that deals with slavery in the manner of an exploitation film, released at Christmas. It is a movie that is downright abrasive, in terms of both tone and content. On the one hand, it is cheeky and provocative, playful and flippant; it is hyperstylised, from the Ennio Morricone score to the camera zooms to the bright flourishes of colour. It is also so violent and brutal that it is difficult to watch, even having seen the film before and knowing when the horrors are coming.

However, the film was a box office success. It earned over one hundred and sixty million dollars at the domestic box office, and more than two hundred and sixty million dollars at the foreign box office. More than that, it became a cultural touchstone. Jamie Foxx would reprise the role of Django in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The character would appear in a number of licensed comic book adaptations, including a crossover with Zorro published by Dynamite and Vertigo publishing.

The influence of Django Unchained is subtler than that. It is a film that shifted the conversation on the popular history of the United States. It did not do this alone, and it is hard to argue whether it was part of a broader cultural shift or simply a reaction to it. Nevertheless, Django Unchained coincided with a massive shift in how popular culture engaged with American history. Its impact is felt in the strangest of places, from the blending of horror movie conventions with a western aesthetic in films like The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk to the sounds of Kanye West playing over the opening scenes of Underground.

There had been movies about slavery before; indeed, Django Unchained was released roughly contemporaneously with both Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. However, there had never been a movie about slavery like this. The western genre had been greatly diminished before Django Unchained was released, but it was profoundly changed in its wake. After Django Unchained, it seemed to become impossible to construct a western without reference to the atrocities upon which the west had been won.

Django Unchained argued that these horrors weren’t just one version of the story, but instead an essential part of the overall story of the frontier and the nation. Sofia Coppola’s refusal to confront slavery in The Beguiled became a minor controversy. Even Hostiles confronted the genocide of the Native Americans. There were westerns that avoided these controversies in the intervening years, but they became fewer and further between. Indeed, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is perhaps most notable for the ill-judged scene in which its only major African American character attempts to lynch the white lead.

Still, even approaching Django Unchained more than half a decade removed from its release, it remains a fascinating and compelling piece of cinema. It is a genuinely provocative piece of cinema, one designed to challenge and upset the audience. However, the true beauty of the film lies as much in its contours and finer details as it does in the broad strokes, in the little touches that enrich and enlighten the finished product. In particular, the sense that Tarantino understands the precarious nature of what he is attempting, despite the somewhat flippant attitude towards violence and bloodshed.

This sense of consideration and reflection is perhaps best explored in the character of King Schultz, who is positioned quite cannily as a deconstruction of the familiar white saviour trope.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Spirit Folk (Review)

The holodeck is horrifying.

This is nothing new. It has been this way since Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodeck has been an unsettling concept from almost the very beginning, not least because of the kinds of stories that the holodeck suggests. From the moment that the Enterprise updated the holodeck in The Big Goodbye, there has been a creeping sense that the holographic creations are capable of comprehending the nature of their existence; in fact, that episode ends with the horrifying notion of McNary wondering what would happen to him when Picard turned off the program.

It’s the poster for the least exciting action movie of the late nineties.

This anxiety simmered in the background of the next few holodeck-centric episode, albeit less directly. Both Minuet in 11001001 and the Comic in The Outrageous Okona seemed to grasp their nature as computer constructs designed to serve specific purposes. They lacked the existential angst that McNary expressed in his final moments, but there was still something lurking just beneath the surface. If these entities were self-aware, could their creation and destruction be ethical? In Elementary, Dear Data, Moriarty brought the question to the fore; a hologram who wished to escape his captivity.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine largely stayed away from the holodeck (or the holosuite) for most of its run, barring small recurring gags about the crew’s recreational use of the facilities. Our Man Bashir cleverly side-stepped the issue of holographic self-awareness by casting the lead actors in the role of holographic supporting players. Nevertheless, the introduction of Vic Fontaine in His Way introduced yet another self-aware holographic character, his self-awareness taken for granted and only really articulated in episodes like It’s Only a Paper Moon.

A public (house) meeting.

In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager has only doubled-down on this idea that holographic characters are self-aware. This is most obvious with the EMH, the holographic doctor who struggled for recognition as a person in early episodes like Eye of the Needle and who made a long and gradual journey towards self-actualisation in episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life. However the show engaged with the idea of holographic self-awareness even outside of the EMH, with characters like Dejaran in Revulsion, Leonardo DaVinci in Concerning Flight, the aliens in Bride of Chaotica! and the town in Fair Haven.

To be fair, some of the arguments made by Voyager have been treated with the weight which they deserve. The EMH consciously asserts his personhood in Author, Author, a clumsy but well-intentioned final-season homage to The Measure of a Man. There is a sense that Voyager is capable of treating holograms with the same dignity that The Next Generation afforded Data on his own journey towards self-actualisation. There is something genuinely moving, for example, in the way that the degradation of his program in The Swarm is treated with the same gravity as the neurological decline of a flesh-and-blood character.

Mass appeal.

However, this also creates a strange dissonance in the episodes that don’t use the holodeck for high drama, and instead treat it as the setting for a romp or an adventure. Voyager seems to argue that every hologram is capable of reaching self-awareness, which means that every use of the holodeck to create new characters should be a momentous occasion. In the world of Voyager, every holodeck program, with the right combination of time and experience, can become a sentient being. This means that use of the holodeck should be something treated with weight and respect.

Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are nowhere near as charming as the production team seem to think that they are, but in the broader context of how Voyager approaches holographic characters, they are downright horrifying.

High spirits.

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79. Mandariinid (Tangerines) – This Just In (#247)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and with special guests Jason Coyle and Ronan Doyle, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Zaza Urushadze’s Mandariinid.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 247th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #17!

A busy Scannain podcast, covering the week in film and other news.

This week, I’m joined by Grace Duffy, Jason Coyle, Ronan Doyle, and Alex Towers to discuss the week in film – both Irish and international. The news includes coverage of Cannes, of Irish success at other international film festivals, and the upcoming release dates of notable Irish films. As usual, we also talk about what we watched, what is being released next week and what is currently in the top ten.

Check it out here, or give it a listen below.