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New Escapist Column! On the Tenets of TENET…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With TENET now on streaming, it seemed like a good time to dive into the film’s position within Christopher Nolan’s filmography.

Most discussions of Nolan’s filmography focus on the director’s obsession with time, and TENET makes sense in that context. However, the film also ties into more existential anxieties that simmer through Nolan’s body of work, in particular the question of reality actually is and how best to respond to a world that can fundamentally chaotic, hostile and unknowable. TENET deals this this theme, confronting its audience and its characters with a reality that appears to be unraveling.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

 

228. Interstellar (#29)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Cooper is a former astronaut who has resigned himself to life on a farm, raising his two children Tom and Murph. However, when the fates align to send Cooper back out into space, he finds himself faced with the terrible choice to leave his kids behind with no idea of when – or even if – he might return.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 29th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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222. Fa yeung nin wah (In the Mood for Love) – Chinese New Year/Valentine’s Day 2020 (#239)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Stacy Grouden and Luke Dunne, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, a Valentine’s and Chinese New Year treat. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Sixties Hong Kong is in a state of transition. Lives overlap in the densely populated city, as the Chan and Chow families move into the same building. Over time, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow come to suspect that their spouses are having an illicit affair. This act of betrayal draws the two strangers closer to one another, even if neither seems entirely sure where this intersection will take them.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 239th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“It Will Always Be Broken!” The Strange Melancholy of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, has been running a season of coverage of director Martin Scorsese. Last weekend, we discussed Scorsese’s Hugo. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film’s strange melancholy.

Martin Scorsese is a more complex and nuanced filmmaker than a casual glimpse at his filmography might suggest.

The clichéd depiction of Scorsese is largely shaped and defined by his most popular movies: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, CasinoGangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Irishman. Based on these films, there is a tendency to pigeonhole Scorsese as a director who makes violent films about violent men, usually filtered through the lens of the seedy underbelly of organised crime or urban decay. This does not quite capture the breadth and the scope of Scorsese’s interests.

Indeed, Scorsese is a much more interesting filmmaker than that list of classics might suggest, reflected in films as diverse as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, After Hours, The Colour of Money, Age of InnocenceThe Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and The Aviator. However, even allowing for that range, Hugo stands out as an oddity in Scorsese’s filmography. The film was something of a flop when it was released opposite The Muppets, and is often glossed over in accounts of Scorsese’s career and history.

This is shame. Hugo suffers slightly from arriving in the midst of a late career renaissance for Scorsese that includes some of the best and most successful films that the director ever produced: The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman. In the context of that body of work, Hugo is often overlooked. This is a shame, as it’s a magical and wonderful film. It manages to be a children’s film as only Martin Scorsese could produce, suffused with a melancholy and introspection that is rare in the genre.

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New Escapist Column! On “TENET”, and Christopher Nolan’s Fascination With Time…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This week saw the release of the latest trailer for TENET, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about the work of Christopher Nolan.

Nolan’s filmography is absolutely fascinated by the flow and manipulation of time. It warps, distorts and bends around his protagonists. However, it’s a force that cannot be controlled or governed, but which acts upon the characters nonetheless. The trailer to TENET is interesting because it seems to suggest that the villain of his latest film has learned to manipulate time, which in the context of Nolan’s filmography suggests that he’s messing with the most primal of forces.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Irishman

“Time goes by so fast,” Frank Sheeran reflects to a young nurse late in the movie. He adds, “You’ll understand when you get there.”

Of course, the nurse doesn’t quite understand the passage of time in the way that Frank does. “You’re young,” he explains. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” In contrast, Frank Sheeran’s entire life seems to be left behind him. When The Irishman introduces the audience to its central character, he is already well past his prime. He is resting in a retirement community. He begins to narrate his story through internal monologue, but then decides to directly address the camera. After all, there is nobody left who might be exposed or shamed by his reminiscences. They are all long gone.

The end is DeNiro.

The audience really feels the passage of time in The Irishman. It is revealing that Frank’s most prized possession appears to be his watch. The watch itself changes as Frank’s situation does, becoming more ostentatious has his stock rises, but there is always a watch on the bedside table and it is always fixed first thing every morning. Even more than the ring that signifies his acceptance into the underground criminal fraternity, Frank holds tight to that watch. It measures the seconds that make up the minutes, the minutes that make up the hours, the hours that make up a life.

It is a critical cliché to praise a long film by saying that it doesn’t feel long, that the time spent watching a story unfold “flies by.” In some cases, that is true. Of this year’s hyper-extended offerings, both Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood move breezily enough that they never feel their length. In contrast, The Irishman does feel every minute of its three-and-a-half hour runtime. That’s part of the movie’s power. By the time that the audience has reached that conversation between Frank and his nurse, they have some small understanding of what he is saying. They have lived that life with him.

Get Hoffa his case.

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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Endgame

It says a lot about the state of contemporary pop culture that the biggest movie of the year is essentially a clip episode.

Pop culture has always been vaguely nostalgic, evoking an idealised past and reminding audiences of times when the future seemed brighter. After all, much of the New Hollywood canon is explicitly nostalgic, sixties and seventies films that pay loving homage to the thirties and the forties, often explicitly; The Sting, The Godfather, Paper Moon, Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde. The past has always had a certain allure for cinema, perhaps because that’s what pictures have always been; individual moments captured on film and frozen in time, removed from their original context. Film is simply those frozen images run together to create the illusion of movement and life. Every film is a time machine, some are just more explicit than others.

Assembly line.

However, there is something fascinating about the modern wave of nostalgia, the speed at which pop culture is consuming itself. Recent waves of seventies, eighties and nineties nostalgia are still cresting. Earlier this summer, Captain Marvel channeled some of this nineties nostalgia into blockbuster (and Blockbuster) form. However, it also feels like nostalgia is getting closer and closer to the present, brushing up against the current moment. In some respects, the success of Lady Bird is indicative here. After all, Lady Bird is a film that is explicitly nostalgic about the post-9/11 era, evoked through footage of the Iraq War and the sounds of Justin Timberlake playing at a teen house party.

Avengers: Endgame is a strangely nostalgic beast. It is not strange that the film is nostalgic; after all, this is something of a coda to a decade of superhero films. However, it is strange how that nostalgia brushes up against the present, the climax of the film feeling very much like a loving homage to Avengers: Infinity War, a film that only premiered one year ago.

Stark raving mad…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Shattered (Review)

Shattered was the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast in the new millennium, premiering in January 2001.

Of course, there is some debate about when the new millennium actually began, even as Star Trek: Voyager mailed its colours to the mast with 11:59. However one might feel on the issue, Shattered seems more deserving of the claim than Fair Haven. This is an episode that captures a real sense of the moment that which the nineties technically gave way to the twenty-first century, a transition defined in very literal terms. It was a moment that was simultaneously about great cultural, social and technological change while also reflecting on how little had actually changed.

Say it, don’t hypospray it.

The nineties were (and remain) a paradox. They are easily defined by any chronological measure, with a neatly delineated start and end date. However, like any other decade, they are fuzzier when defined in a cultural sense. In some ways, the nineties began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ended with the attack on the World Trade Centre. In another way, the nineties are still happening in terms of culture and fashion. They are at once present in the way that we make and consume art, but also something so absent that we long for the comfort of their trappings.

Shattered captures that weird fractured sense of time, the uncanny feeling that time is out of joint, that the past and the future are all overlapping in the same physical space without any sensation of linear progression. Shattered suggests that Voyager‘s past, present and future can all share the same physical space and that they can be navigated with relative ease. Despite the fact that this ship has been on a seven-year journey home, its past and its future are never distant.

“I am Commander Chakotay, and I endorse this cider.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Review)

It seems strange that Neelix was not a larger part of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, Neelix never disappeared into the ensemble to the same degree as characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok. However, the series often struggled with how best to approach the character and how to make him work. It is notable that the production team went to the effort of writing Neelix off the show shortly before the seventh season finale, sending him to live with a colony of (very far from home) Talaxians in Homestead and consigning him to a cameo in Endgame. The character was often just there, his role hazy and undefined.

A Briefing With Death!
Errr, I mean, Neelix.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Neelix had been drafted on to the crew as an expert on the Delta Quadrant in Caretaker, and it made sense that this role would become increasingly redundant as time went on. By Fair Trade, Neelix was largely redundant, his knowledge exhausted. More than that, the early seasons of Voyager anchored Neelix’s character development to an abusive relationship with two-year-old. The toxicity of Neelix’s relationship with Kes in episodes like PhageTwisted and Parturition made it hard to invest in Neelix as a character worthy of attention or effort.

However, across the seven seasons of Voyager, there is a strange sense that Neelix is perhaps the single character most perfectly adapted to Voyager. He is the character who has developed in the direction that is perhaps most compatible with what Voyager has become, both in how it tells its stories and what it uses those stories to talk about. More than any other character on Voyager, Neelix is the character with the deepest roots in Delta Quadrant history and the character who is most firmly committed to oral traditions of storytelling, both recurring motifs within Voyager.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blink of an Eye (Review)

Blink of an Eye is perhaps the last truly great episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

There are good episodes that follow Blink of an Eye. There are solid comedy episodes like Renaissance Man. There are effective homage episodes like Author, Author. There are even well-constructed archetypal narratives that fit within the thematic framework of both the series and the franchise like Memorial. However, there isn’t a single episode as elegant as Blink of an Eye, a story which demonstrates the raw potential of Voyager as a narrative engine for telling these big and broad science-fiction narratives.

From the mountains of faith…

Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that Blink of an Eye is the last truly great episode of Berman era Star Trek.

There is a tendency to overlook Star Trek: Enterprise in discussions of the franchise’s history and legacy, no matter how quietly influential the prequel series has become in terms of Star Trek Beyond or Star Trek: Discovery. This does a disservice to the last series of the Berman era, particularly the final two seasons that grappled with the question of what it means to be Star Trek in the aftermath of 9/11. Nevertheless, the trauma of 9/11 exerted such a gravity that even the best episodes of Enterprise seemed to exist in its shadow; Judgment, Cogenitor, The Forgotten, Babel One, United.

… through the valley of fear…

Even outside of hyperbole, Blink of an Eye is a beautifully constructed piece of television that speaks to the appeal and the potential of Star Trek. It is a lyrical allegory, a very simple and straightforward idea that is constructed in such a way as to invite the audience to ask profound and meaningful questions about the nature of human existence. What is it like to watch a civilisation rise up? What ideals drive it? Towards what values and ideals might it strive? More than that, what is it like to sit outside of time and watch those beholden to time? These are fascinating and enlightening ideas.

Blink of an Eye was developed from a story by Voyager writer Michael Taylor, one of the most ambitious writers to ever work on the series. Taylor had contributed the stories that would develop into The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight, demonstrating a willingness to think outside the box. On Voyager, Taylor’s ambitions were frequently tempered and his scripts often compromised. Both Once Upon a Time and The Fight were much more generic and mediocre pieces of television than the original premise. Blink of an Eye is a rare Taylor concept that doesn’t feel watered down.

…. But the river is wide
And it’s too hard to cross…

It helps that the teleplay for Blink of an Eye was written by Star Trek veteran Joe Menosky. Menosky had a long association with the franchise and a deep understanding of how it worked, having cut his teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. More than any other writer, Menosky understood the idea of Star Trek as a mythic framework, an avenue for exploring stories and what they mean. This theme plays through Menosky’s work on the franchise; Darmok, Masks, Dramatis Personae, Muse.

Blink of an Eye feels like an episode perfectly callibrated to the strengths of Taylor and Menosky, a high-concept episode that is fundamentally about the Star Trek mythos.

We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams.

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