The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (36-40) - whynow

This week’s films are: Down By Law (1986); Jules et Jim (1962); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Some Like It Hot (1959); and Collateral (2003).


Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – but only in order to keep sane.

Monday

Down By Law​, dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1986

Jim Jarmusch trusts his camera, his directing, his writing, and most of all his performers. This is a gem of a film, without pretense. It is the story of three men, two wrongly accused of their crimes and one who shrugs off his murderous crime so easily it is of no importance to us and we still love the character, who end up in the same Louisiana prison cell and escape.

It stars three very famous artists at the time (to an extent, still now), Jazz musicians Tom Waits and John Lurie, and Italian actor Roberto Benigni (​Life is Beautiful​). The fascinating chemistry of three means that the main pleasure of the film is watching them interact.

The story and film just move, sluggishly chugging forward to an ending that is really more of a dissolve, a part of their lives that ultimately they may forget. It feels so different from normal cinema with these enigmatic characters at the center. This is a film that does not develop its characters, and disposes of the usual plot devices with a lack of the obvious scenes (like the ‘how’ of the escape). It has an ease with itself and doesn’t take itself seriously (for a deliberately black and white movie by a great ‘indie’ film director…). If the characters were less entertaining it would feel like a documentary, a snapshot in their lives.

Jarmusch often leaves the camera running for five, ten minutes. The sense of desolation in the landscapes is captured so well, it’s almost alien surreal. They are not bare landscapes, rather the opposite: full of trees and movement and water. But Jarmusch ensures we see the humans first, their surroundings second.

Tom Waits is – simply put – a genius, and puts in a performance which would silence any who feel you can’t be both an actor and a musician. Benigni and Lurie are both a delirious joy and deliciously despicable respectively. Benigni spends ten minutes telling the story of how his mother hunted rabbits (completely improvised on set), explaining nothing and everything.

The use of Waits’ music within the film only heightens the sense of dusty Americana.

Tuesday

Jules et Jim,​ dir. François Truffaut, 1962

This is not a film that requires much decryption. Everything is there, to be examined, pillaged, and remembered. Watch it if you’re interested in French New Wave – it’s one of the big boys of that period.

Wednesday

2001: A Space Odyssey,​ dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968

Half my notes on these films start with something along the lines of: ‘it’s difficult to talk about _____, because of _____’. It’s difficult to talk about ​2001: A Space Odyssey​ because everyone has either seen it and has an opinion on it, or hasn’t seen it and has an opinion on it.

The film is probably not even Kubrick’s most well-known work, but ‘2001’ requires you to watch in a different way than you normally watch films. It requires you to relax. It requires you to experience strange and beautiful images without feeling guilty that there is no complex plot or detailed characterisation. To enjoy ‘2001’, I think you must tune your brain to a different wavelength and succumb to the pleasure of beauty, unfettered by the banal conventions of everyday films.

Many people are bewildered at the length and pace of this film. “Like, why does he show spaceships docking for, like, 15 minutes?” – it’s not illegal nor evil for a director to show 15 minutes of spaceships for no other reason than that they are beautiful.

What are the themes? The most ostentatious and clear is mankind’s self-awakening, a process that unfolds along a space-time continuum. We ‘see’ our primordial past, and we ‘infer’ a cosmic future. From this transcendental perspective, a conventional plot seems superfluous. Our frenzied conflicts and self-important dialogue ends up consumed in evolutionary change, and we are irrelevant in a cosmos that is vast beyond comprehension. It’s a tough lesson for a vain and aggressive species.

In this mostly visual film, we are guided by geometric symbols. Circles and arcs represent nature. Right angles represent conscious intelligence. Without doubt, the monolith is a visual metaphor for an extraterrestrial intelligence whose physical form is never shown. Mystery is more profound than explanation.

The techniques

  • In-camera techniques were used as much as possible to combine models and background shots together to prevent degradation of the image through continual duplicating. Before digital, each layer of editing resulted in some form of compression, meaning film had to be kept as untouched as possible for the clearest image.
  • For spacecraft interior shots, ostensibly containing a giant centrifuge that produces artificial gravity, Kubrick had a 27 ton rotating ferris wheel built, later copied in design in ​Inception​.
  • The most impressive part of the film, the ‘Star Gate’ sequence, is a trip through the cosmos that involves the innovative use of slit-scan photography to create the visual effects and disturbing sequences of him stunned and then terrified at what he is experiencing.
  • Slit-scan took thousands of high-contrast images on film, including paintings, architectural drawings, Moiré patterns, printed circuits, and electron-microscope photographs of molecular and crystal structures, then swirled these chemicals and paints in a pool-like device known as a cloud tank, which was shot in slow motion in a dark room.
  • 2001​ also contains a famous example of a match cut, a type of cut in which two shots are matched by action or subject matter. After one of the apes uses a bone to kill another ape at the watering hole, he throws it triumphantly into the air; as the bone spins in the air, the film cuts to an orbiting satellite, marking the end of the prologue. A.R. Duckworth said this ‘match cut draws a connection between the two objects as exemplars of primitive and advanced tools respectively, and demonstrates humanity’s technological progress since the time of early hominids.’
Thursday

Some Like It Hot​, dir. Billy Wilder, 1959

Probably the best comedy of all time.

Performances by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis win you immediately – before we even have time to meet the centrepiece, Marilyn Monroe – who manages this precarious balancing act of ditz and victim, bombshell and tragic heroine, black and white. It’s sad because she was not in a good place personally during the shooting of the film. Younger me thought her perpetually closed eyes was a trademark acting move, older me clocked it was more likely the constant haze of pills and bourbon. She could not memorise many of her lines, averaging 35-40 takes for a single line according to Curtis.

Her line ‘It’s me, Sugar’, took 47 takes to get right, she kept getting the word order wrong: ‘Sugar, it’s me’, ‘it’s Sugar, me’.

Versatile Billy Wilder directs, having to deal with three major stars at different stages of their career. On top of that, Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller both tried to influence the production, which Wilder and other crew members found frustrating.

All this on the tumultuous behind the scenes is not serving my argument well. There’s no doubt comedic sensibilities have changed since those years – always treat 21st century people who find Charlie Chaplin laugh out loud funny with a pinch of suspicion – but, seriously, you laugh through this.

Friday (non-Great)

Collateral​, dir. Michael Mann, 2003

I’ve never seen ​Ali​, ​The Insider​, ​The Last of the Mohicans ​(​Heat​, though) so this was essentially an introduction to the sleek Michael Mann filmmaking machine.

A neo-noir crime thriller about a contract killer (Tom Cruise, cast against type) who hires a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him to the 8 locations where his hits have to take place.

It’s sleekly made – and if not for strong character development – it would look more like an Audi advert than a narrative film. The palette is almost exclusively blacks, greys, blues and greens, against the crepuscular Los Angeles skyline.

Mann started filmmaking in the advertising world – so we can see where this aesthetic has emerged from. I would be remiss to mention that David Fincher’s work – especially on ​Fight Club ​and ​House of Cards ​- is heavily inspired by Mann’s camerawork. The special lighting rigs for car scenes in House of Cards​, the top down shots of driving through the night, city blocks ‘rendering’ as the characters travel through the map – their cameras work in the same ways.

There are weird and welcome cameos – Javier Bardem as an unstable mob boss, Mark Ruffalo as a strangely irrelevant detective presence. But the film is very much Cruise vs Foxx – and entertaining as hell that way.

Next week, we’ll take a woman week, and look at ​The Piano​ (Jane Campion), and ​Cléo from 5 to 7​ (Agnès Varda), among others.

Rampa  They Will Be