Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dom's Top 11 Favourite Film Directors : Part Three

Peter Mullen

Peter Mullen – the go-to-man for scratchy-sounding scotch gruffs in everything from Paddy Considine's “Tyrannosaur” to the odd-ball prison guard in “Children of Men” to his many TV appearances over the years - has only directed three feature length movies, each of which he scripted.

“Orphans,” his debut, is a tragi-comic oddity following the slowly facturing family of sons ( and their handicapped sister ) as they come to terms with the loss of their mother in the lead up to her funeral.

“The Magdalene Sisters” follows three young Irish Women through their despaired experience in one of the Magdalene laundries.

“NEDS” shows the slow-burning violent self-destruction of a young man in seventies Glasgow.

Ah to be sure, it could be describing any oul shit, you're probably saying to yourself because you're Irish and have a wonky Irish mouth because of your wonky Irish accent. You're probably even saying to yourself, ah be jasus but don't they sownd awl serdious and dat? Oi loike a bith of a laff n dat which is whoi oi luv de Savage Oi and Mrs Browns Bhoys n dat. Bring back Fadder Teth.

You're wrong and you're a grotesquely ugly human being. More on this shortly.

See, one of the things I look for in a film-director is someone who can take me in different directions than I expected, who can offer me as a viewer enough familiarity to sate my stupid human desire for comfort yet give me interesting, new imagery, and perhaps subversion of my expectations.

This is why Peter Mullen is, to me, one of the most exciting film makers out there. He has managed to take what might seem like simple and straightforward, dreary even, ideas, and has created dark, funny, whimsical, bizarre, magical, angry movies from them. Americans might call his movies “quirky” but the truth is his naturalistic style is far closer to the docurealism of a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh than the overly whimsical nausea of an “Amelie.” Yet he never shies away from whimsy.

He is, to quote Josh Hartnett in “The Faculty”, a contradiction.

He could be described as an angry film maker but he has a barbed, and sometimes ridiculous sense of humour, the type of film maker that straightfacedly presents a handicapped actress as one of our most pathos-filled protagonists ( in “Orphans” ) yet never deems to speak down to her, instead treating her with enough respect to centre several truly funny scenes around her without ever patronising. More often than not what we get from Mullen as a film maker is a sense of empathy for his characters, never a sense of sympathy. It's an important distinction to make.

This is notable in each of his films, but most obviously in his exploration of the hideous treatment of Irish women in the Magdalene laundries in his searing second film. Where “Orphans” utilised religion in some ways as “backstory” to the main narrative, tying it to the Glasgow-based characters and their personalities, and from time to time throwing some almost sarcastic religious imagery into the mix, “The Magdalene Sisters” is unflinching in it's pointed fury towards religion, the Catholic church, and in particular towards the use of religious fervour to excuse the terrible abuse these women underwent.

There is controversy surrounding this movie, of course. It's fair to say that some of the mud flung in Mullen's direction sticks. 

It is an anti-catholic movie to some degree, and therefore can be described as anti-religious agitprop; it has an agenda and focusses sometimes detrimentally on this agenda over fact. It is a fictionalised account of very real events, and as such can pick and choose the moments it wants to describe, in this case the elements of abuse it depicts. Although Mullen reportedly chose to water down the abuse for a more palatable film, he has very acutely chosen to highlight the sexual abuse knowing that – in particular in Ireland – this will be the quickest way to raise the ire of his audience and gain acceptance of what he represents as "truth." 

This shows Mullen to be both intelligent, but also manipulative and it makes it hard to fully accept the truth behind what the film is saying, even if we know that at it's core it is accurate.

An interesting sidenote is that the film was lauded not only for its own merits ( it is a well made, well acted and furious film ) but because it "got people talking.” I don't know if that's always good enough. It's not enough to present a work of fiction as though it's factual, heap all the emotive elements of a subject onto the slag-pile then step back and expect other people to have an opinion or agree ( stating by omission that you either agree, or are against humanity. ) I don't always agree that everyone's point of view needs to be seen, but there needs to be sense of balance, a sense that we're not being preached to. Especially when a film like this is in direct opposition to the very idea of religious preaching.

I recently got into trouble for trying to open a discussion on a play centred on a particularly emotive subject, a few weeks ago. What I encountered was the knee-jerk reaction of anger and stupidity from the very people I was trying to open this discussion with. They metaphorically grabbed the scruff of my neck and shook me because I dared to suggest that it's not enough to present fiction as fact and then stand back and let others do the work. It's not enough to expect engagement in a discussion, you have to engage too, and I was subjected in the end to my own unpleasant mini-witch hunt as a group of adults who should know better searched my Facebook profile for ugly excuses not to engage with me in the simple discussion I was trying to open and instead accused me of being insensitive, and worse, insensitive with a materialistic agenda.

I think that this is a very Irish response. The Irish do not like being told when they are wrong and will often act in the most defensive manner to deflect the accusation. Call me racist but I've lived here too long not to see it. This is what happened to me and I have observed it for a very long time. In fact, I'll bet if you're Irish, right now you've just read the above statement and thought - but isn't everyone like that? 

Possibly. But why should that excuse you?

I gave these people ammunition, to be sure, by not protecting myself before entering the fray but just as I can say that I should have expected the onslaught ( if not the viciousness behind it ), I can also state quite candidly that these people should have been prepared for adult discussion on the extremely sensitive subject matter they had chosen to exploit for dramatic and commercial reasons.

I should have protected myself, yes. But they chose to use the very people they were exploiting to protect themselves. In a manner of speaking they chose to use innocent bystanders as shields in the most cowardly of fashions, rather than calmly and rationally discuss the matters at hand.

For these people, it was enough to present something, to have a “message” without a full understanding both of the message itself, and the consequences of it entering a forum. For me, I needed more. I got it, in the end, ironically from someone defensively trying to prove me wrong but it convinced no one that I wasn't an agit-propogandist with my own dark agenda. For these people the controversy alone was enough and I unfortunately, albeit briefly only added to it, to my own detriment.

The hysteria drowned out the reason and all that was left was the “other” - that is, me as the villain trying to attack and poison impressionable people's minds while these adults were desperately trying to get their message across. Think about the children, as it were.

I suspect that “The Magdalene Sisters” is a little guilty of this same knee-jerk reactive rhetoric, and like talking to an angry Scot who can't buy drink on Hogmanay it's hard to argue intellectually when someone is shouting you down. You can point to the fact that stories and images were chosen to make a point whilst others were disregarded because it did not serve the party line. But these reasonable statements will be drowned out by emotive shouting that will shatter you and make you seem like a heartless beast ( if done right! )

But at least what the film is shouting is articulate and coming from the right place. Whether or not it ultimately changed things for the better or the worse, “The Magdalene Sisters” came at the right time and briefly got people talking. The problem is, they were talking about the movie and not the subject matter in the end.

Mullen later admitted that he wrote the screenplay in a “white fury,” and by stating such seems to be trying to both excuse his excesses while creating an empathy for himself from equally angry people. The truth is, however, it takes a lot of work to make a movie – and however furious he was during the writing stage, by the time of making the movie there had to be some reasonable thought given to the extremity of his presentation. It is this reasonable thought that chose the images and stories to show. The truth is, he went into the film defensive and remained so in defending his choices and by shouting over everyone about religion and Catholicism to the detriment of discussion.

With all that said, “The Magdalene Sisters” is still a powerful, and angry piece of agitprop. It is a good movie with its heart and mouth in the right place. Criticisms have been levelled further at the movie that it does not represent a balanced view of the nuns or parents who put these abused young women into the laundries. I would argue that the film's sole focus is the women and their experiences. It is not discursive of society at that time, but angry at it's willful acceptance of something that was clearly wrong. We don't need to see the whys ( I'm not sure we could ever understand them ). In this case Mullen presents – fictionally – what happened and how it affected the women at the heart of the abuse. And for this – for giving angry voice to the victims - I think he should be lauded.

I have discussed “NEDS” elsewhere, but what I will add is this. It is clear Mullen was stung by the criticism and misunderstanding of his prior film and as such, took a different approach to his next film. Rather than provoking thought on a very real subject effecting Scotland and in particular Scottish males, instead he chose a fantasy-realistic approach that encompassed a wider vision of the issue from a different - though no less thought provoking - manner.

Mullen is a passionate, angry, and funny film maker. An artist to be sure, but one who is in constant conflict between artistry, and anger at the pretentiousness of art. It's as though the arty farty part of his mind is constantly at war with the gruff Scot blood pumping through his veins.

And when it comes to his movies, I will take this contradiction and the resulting movies over all the docu-dramas and all the fantasies out there.

Mullen's best film  :  NEDS

Mullen's worst film  :  too soon to tell...

oh and if you have time - watch one of his first shorts. They're excellent. Bitter, dark and funny as hell.

Martin Scorsese


All right look, I can go into a big long boring diatribe about blah blah Scorsese, greatest living American director, blah blah, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”, blah blah etc etc.

Anyone reading this, you already know all this. Scorsese is Catholic. He grew up on the mean streets of New York, he was going to be a priest but a love of movies led him in another direction so he studied film in college. He made a couple of Roger Corman cheapies, which ultimately helped fund “Season of the Witch” which became “Mean Streets” which became the first true Scorsese calling card and from which you can see extending the tendrils of all the themes he would revisit over every one of his following films, from the brotherhood of crime to the Catholic guilt, from his use of camerawork to remind the audience they're watching a movie to the use of incredibly naturalistic performance ( and editing ) to convince the audience that the movie they're watching is somehow real, from the unpleasant violence splashed throughout his oeuvre to the DJ Scorsese on Cocaine soundtracks, and ending in his own unending love of movies.

Scorsese is of course considered a master pretty much by everyone, from critics to peers to audience but I think it's fair to say that, even now, he would consider himself a student first and foremost. And I think that is what is most thrilling about him as a film-maker. He loves not only what he is doing, but what other film-makers do : and he wants to learn from them.

Watching “Mean Streets” now is a little bit of a chore. It's an underdeveloped movie with some great moments, some incredible acting, but little in the way of cohesion. It works, to a degree, because while we watch Harvey Keitel struggle onscreen with the duality in his heart ( the strains of his religion and faith creating a moral quandary at odds with the petty criminality he almost instinctively engages in ) we feel Scorsese struggle offscreen with trying to create a proper movie from the reality of his own upbringing. What is interesting about this movie, now, is that you can see the first elements of Scorsese experimenting with form – his use of editing, his long takes, his jukebox music soundtrack, allowing his actors to improvise dialogue and character beats, and his unusual shots ( at one point attaching the camera to Harvey Keitel, to give a strange, woozy, drugged out effect ).

Scorsese has never ceased this experimental streak, be it his only half-successful attempt at creating a big budget MGM-style musical in “New York New York,” ( a slog of a movie but genuinely interesting to watch – it's biggest failing is, funnily enough, that very same clash of ideals that make most of his films such a joy; by trying to created a big-budget, highly stylised musical that also had a naturalistic realism to it, unlikable characters, and a fuck-off bleak ending, he – by his own admission – created a mess of a movie that panders to both styles without ever gelling them together ) to his interesting and subtle use of CG-assisted changing-era-colour-pallette in the excellent “Aviator,” right through to his use of 3D and Ali G for his one and only kid's movie, the awesome love letter to the movies, “Hugo.”

He is always learning, always trying to be better, and it is this that I find attractive in him as a film maker as much as his confidence. I guess it helps that he also makes amazing movies, too, and collaborates with the greats, from Thelma Schoonmaker's superlative, jagged editing to Robert de Niro and latterly Leonardo De Caprio's onscreen avatars for the director himself.

So there's little left to be said about Scorsese that hasn't already been delved into. You don't get to be the greatest living American director without a ton of exterior analysis.

So let's look a little at his faults.

Scorsese has and can be accused of glamorising violence, or at least the people capable of perpetrating it. I think this is a valid accusation, most notable in “Goodfellas,” where we are both appalled as an audience, yet titillated by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci's capacity for brutal ( albeit cinematic ) violence. He rarely shrinks from showing the consequences of those actions, but the fact is he is more attracted to these people then repelled, and as such often gives them a soap-box to stand on and cinematic framing to glamorise them.

His interest in women is perfunctory – in some ways akin to the way in which “Taxi Driver” sociopath Travis Bickle places them up on a pedestal while feeling a strange desire to degrade them. Interestingly, his strongest female character is Liza Minnelli's in “New York New York,” though I suspect all credit must go to Minnelli for her revelatory performance. At his worst, his movies use women as antagonists for his male characters, getting in the way when they should be helping, as seen in “After Hours,” “Casino,” and “Cape Fear.”

He tends to make the same movie over and over again, often in the same montagey way. A flawed genius of a man ( always a man ) lashes out at everyone while dealing with some kind of psychosis ( generally religious, though money or drugs slip in from time to time too ). He overcomes his psychosis. Or does he.

He is racist; or at least his movies seem to represent him as such. Befitting perhaps his upbringing, and indulgence from the broadly white Hollywood set, he rarely includes folk of colour or ethnicity other than Italian in his movies unless they are stupid, villainous, or both. There is enough use of colourful ethnic slurs in his movies to suggest that, whether he believes it himself ot not, there is an inherent racism to him.

He is also a bit of a chancer – where other film makers would be denigrated for an over use of montage, music, and voice-over, and attacked for sometimes hideously jarring out-of-time editing and lapses in continuity, for some reason Scorsese is positively lauded for it. So many internet tit-wallops took to their keyboards to ( erroneously ) complain about Peter Jackson forgetting to remove a sticker from an apple, but where are they when Morrie's phone and wig are flapping all over the place between shots in “Goodfellas”?

These days his films tend more toward love-letters to movies of old than forward thinking, progressive shots-to-the heart like he used to film. In that way – and only that way – can he be compared to Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino.

So what's left to say then?

Well, the least interesting of his movies are often his over-rated “masterpieces.” “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets,” and the bizarrely oscar-winning “The Departed” are not bad movies by any stretch. But they are over-rated.

“Casino,” “The Aviator,” “Hugo,” and “Age of Innocence” on the other hand are better, more controlled and far more interesting movies, exploring his favoured themes from different ( and in the case of “Casino” almost parodic ) perspectives.

“Taxi Driver” is probably the film that pinpoints all of his themes, characteristics, and negative personality traits. It is film which – somewhat worryingly – most male viewers ( this one included ) identify with. But it's not an easy watch and truth be told, it's not his best.

“The Last Temptation of Christ” is worthy, beautifully filmed filler. It's duffer than a dead fluffer. But even then, a dead fluffer can be used for their original purpose if left out for a while.

“King of Comedy” is the one everybody calls under-rated. That's the very definition of irony right there, but then so is the movie. It's good. It's prescient. It's also dated, clumsy in it's satire, and far too aloof to fully appreciate. Remember, despite everything, the film has this view about you, the viewer, not just Rupert Pupkin. Ricky Gervais employed this comedy of embarassment far better decades later. And both he and Robert De Niro were shit in “Stardust.” Kevin Bacon wasn't in that though so I don't know how that would fit in with six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

So that's it. It's embarrassingly obvious that a lover of movies is going to fall in love with Scorsese. He makes epic, flawed ( sometimes hilariously so - “Gangs of New York” anyone? ), messy, violent, vibrant, wonderful movies. What else do you want, movie lovers?

Best Scorsese film : “Age of Innocence” - this film makes me cry in a way no other film can.

Worst Scorsese film : “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Sergio Leone

There are many directors out there – and pretty much everyone on this list counts, I think – who can be called an “actor's director.” 

Now – what that usually means is a director who is capable of pandering to the actor's “sensitivity” in order to extract a performance. They may believe they are James Cameron, pissing in actor's faces to make the “best” movie he can ( ie make the most commercial version of his vision possible so he can reap the rewards so fuck the actors ( see “No Acknowledgement in the Arts” ) who'll damn well do what they're told!) but in reality, very few people get away with not pandering to the names. They very often as a result get extraordinary performances from their cast ( again, see James Cameron movies – can any one of them really be accused of containing extraordinary performances? Reallly? Think about it for a second. )

It is the director's job to pander to the actors, to get a good performance, and to make that actor look good not only to pander to, but to actively sell the actor onscreen. It is their faces who will sell the movie, not just their acting. And most directors understand this.

Sergio Leone on the other hand, just made his actors look fucking cool onscreen. He made everything look fucking cool onscreen. A field looks fucking cool, in a Sergio Leone movie. A twig looks fucking cool. Actors worked with Leone knowing that they would enter his movies in fucking cool ways, to fucking cool music, in a fucking cool shot. If they died, it would be a fucking cool death.

If ever I was to get the wish of someone directing my entrance into a movie – or for that matter into a room – it would be Leone every time. First, he might frame the room in a wide-shot, maybe slowly panning around, while Ennio Morricone music tinkled gently at the sides of the room. There might be people in the room, muttering to themselves. Dangerous people. Or maybe the room is empty. Suddenly, the music swells – actually, you know what – see for yourself.

So anyway, Sergio Leone knew how to frame a shot. But beyond that, he knew how to pace a movie, subvert a genre, make everything look cool as fuck but best of all, somehow managed to create the most stylised worlds imaginable and yet have them seem completely normal once you were enveloped by them. Like Scorsese, Leone was fascinated by the form of the films that had come before him. In many ways, he really just wanted to copy those forms but – well, he was just better than most at doing it.

From the sparseness of his “Yojimbo” reinterpretation “A Fistful of Dollars” to the increasing depth and emotion of the Dollars followups and beyond, what sets Leone's movies apart is the intensity and style he used in shooting, scoring and editing his stories.

His visual style – this is the most obvious pointer that you might be watching a Leone film. MASSIVE WIDESCREEN VISTAS, slow burning pans, and sudden lurching cuts to extraordinary extreme close-ups. He treated vistas like actors, and shot actors like vistas. 

His use of violence – up until this film, still cowed by the almost draconian decency rules, most film makers tended not to show a gun firing and a victim falling in the same shot. Though apparently Leone simply did not know, it's hard to believe that he wasn't aware of what he was doing by having gun firing, bulllet hitting, and recipient dying within the same shot. By not cutting away, he tied the violence together. It seems simple now of course but this film was shot in the late sixties. He revised violent imagery and made it seem both glamorous, and horrible.

His use of sound – Leone's sensibilities were wild, and not only did he approach Morricone to create the incredibly odd scores he wrote for Leone's movies, but his use of over the top, almost ridiculous sound effects added immeasurably to their atmosphere.

His films were never recorded with sound, partly down to budget but mostly down to the fact that he would use an international cast, many of whom could not speak English. His films were then dubbed for the territories they were being sold to, but it also meant that Leone had complete control over the sound of his movies. Perhaps today the squealing ricochets, cannon-ball slamming doors, squeaking hinges and jangling spurs might seem silly but each sound was in itself a musical motif, perfectly complimenting the main score. Often, Morricone would incoporate these sounds into his music. Both men became more confident with each new movie they made together; indeed, Morricone often wrote his score from the screenplay alone, with Leone then filming with the score blasting on-set.

It's easy now, too, to laugh at the poorly synced dubbing of some of the actors and the oddball voice-overs but the acting quality in Leone's movies remains surprisingly high. It's not for nothing that we remember Eastwood's effortless cool throughout the Dollars trilogy, but watch as his emotions and character evolves throughout each movie – starting a as a brash, hardcore bounty killer and, by the end of “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” lamenting the tragic waste of life in a civil war.

He has worked with, and drawn incredibly layered performances from such typically American tough guys as Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, and the incredible Rod Steiger ( his performance as Juan in “A Fistful of Dynamite” burns through the screen ) along with a slew of international performers.

His visuals were sumptuous but as he grew in confidence as a film maker ( though strangely enough, he was terrifically self-conscious as movie maker, reportedly terrified that each movie he made would be the worst yet ) so too did his desire to tell complex human stories. It was not enough for Leone to make movies set in the past, he began to tackle the past too, from the civil war anger of “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” to the surprisingly balanced discussion on revolution in “Fistful of Dynamite.”

His two “Once Upon a time..” masterpieces West and America were his ultimate discussions on genre, self-aware love letters and revisionist ripostes at the same time, both films filtered through a terrible sadness for the loss of an era ( personified in characters who are slowly moving out of sync with the changing times ) and explorations of genre and historical violence.

His strange lack of self confidence as a film maker, despite being consistently lauded, meant that Sergio Leone spent much of his career in the background, guiding and producing younger film-makers who had already begun to emulate and parody his style ( in fact, there are stories that he quietly took over the reins of several of these movies, perhaps simply wanting to direct without his name being attached. )

But each time he went back to making movies he made his best one yet. Each with his characteristic visual style, increasingly epic running times, wicked humour, and desire to build on genre while revising it.

All of the above and he always made his actors look cool as fuck.

Best Leone film : A toss-up between “For a Few Dollars More” and “A Fistful of Dynamite.”

Worst Leone film : None. Honestly, watch them. There's not a bum note among them.

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