Weekend Film Recommendation: Sexy Beast

You’ve watched the scene countless times before, so much so that it’s known by a common trope: The ‘One Last Job.’ The gangster protagonist, with his career of crime behind him, has retired to a more sedate life. This new life offers a different kind of satisfaction – the banality of providing for one’s family, perhaps, or the simpler pleasures of legitimately acquired leisure. And yet, a figure from the character’s criminal past re-appears and coaxes our protagonist back for that One Last Job.

You may have seen it performed by Andy Garcia in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), or Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven (1992), or Robert DeNiro in Heat (1995), or Daniel Craig in Layer Cake (2005). But in each of those films, the scene in which the protagonist is persuaded to return to his criminal life acts as a footnote in the larger trajectory of the film; it’s a happenstance that directors dispense with quickly to get on with the real business of the film’s plot. Not so in this week’s Movie Recommendation, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000).

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 22.01.12The film begins with an opening shot of Gal, played by Ray Winstone, enjoying indolent retirement in Spain with his wife and two close friends. Gal is the kind of character with which Winstone has become synonymous; he is foul-mouthed and gruff, yet still possesses that inimitable East London charm. He languishes at the poolside with his wife – herself a character with a rich backstory to tell – played by Amanda Redman.

But news arrives that an old companion from Gal’s former days is flying in from England tomorrow. Don Logan, in what remains one of Ben Kingsley’s finest performances, is the equally foul-mouthed capo of the gang to which Gal belonged. Unlike Gal, however, who has been softened by the Spanish sun, Don is a callous and mean-spirited man who does not sympathise with Gal’s desire for a quiet life. More to the point, Don has One Last Job for which he needs Gal’s help.

The rest of the film deals with Gal’s efforts to dissuade Don from bringing him back to England to do The Job. Tensions mount, and tempers flare. The remainder of the film is a thorough treatment of the complex character development that other films relying on the One Last Job conceit overlook, and it is superb. Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 21.52.38Don is vicious and unpredictable, Gal is pathetic and desperate, and the film provides a compelling portrait of a monumental battle of wills.

At various moments throughout the film the plot meanders a little. This is especially so towards the end, once it becomes clear that relatively little has actually happened. However, the ending is well worth the wait, if only to watch Ian McShane deliver his outstanding performance as the mob boss Teddy Bass.

The film is interspersed with metaphors that capture Gal’s anxieties and neuroses with varying levels of subtlety: the opening scene shows Gal’s tranquility disturbed by an unexpected boulder; the eponymous Sexy Beast plagues his dreams with nightmares relating his impending doom; and the brightly coloured Spanish scenes become gradually more etiolated as Gal begins to realise that his resolve is vastly outgunned by Don’s sheer obstinacy. Regardless, Glazer does a fine job in his first attempt at directing a feature-length film.

 

 

Trivia time, RBC. Name other films that feature the One Last Job trope. The rules: One Last Job is specifically about gangsters. Entries about heroes/law enforcement officials nearing retirement or revisiting a pre-retirement case are excluded from consideration. Therefore, films like Lethal Weapon, Blade Runner, The Incredibles, or High Noon (etc.) are out of the running.

Quote of the day

Political influence may be acquired in exactly the same way as the gout; indeed, the two ends ought to be pursued concurrently. The method is to sit tight and drink port wine. You will thus gain the reputation of being a good fellow; and not a few wild oats will be condoned in one who is sound at heart, if not at the lower extremities.

–F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician (1908)

Weekend Film Recommendation: Habemus Papam [We Have a Pope] (2011)

This week’s movie recommendation is a new favourite of mine: Nanni Moretti’s recent Italian film Habemus Papam [We Have a Pope] (2011).

White smoke billows above the Vatican, as the College of Cardinals selects its newest Pope. An unwitting and reluctant Cardinal Melville exchanges red vestments for pristine white, and is led towards the balcony where believers await their new leader’s first public appearance in his new office. However, on the way to the balcony, Melville suffers a nervous break down and refuses to show his face to the expectant crowd.Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 17.02.03

Unlike much of Italian cinema, in which the personal developments and relationships of the characters are used to tell the history of broader political and social changes (Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963) and Bertolucci’s Novecento (1976) come immediately to mind), this film is not about the Roman Catholic church as an institution. What little salutary reference is made to the challenges facing the organisation appears in the form of content-neutral calls for ‘a Pope capable of modernising the Church.’ Instead of attending explicitly to the church’s dwindling attendance and criminal intrigue, Habemus Papam focuses on the tribulations of an old man struggling with a deeply personal challenge. Melville, played by Michel Piccoli, is trying throughout the film to reconcile his devout faith in God with the profound scepticism that accompanies his belief that he isn’t up to the job. Piccoli does a superb job leading the audience through the dilemma: if Melville acknowledges that he was chosen not merely by a group of men in robes, but rather by the will of God ventriloquised through those men, then his disbelief in his own competence is simultaneously a disbelief in God.

In addition to directing the film, Moretti appears in front of the camera, too, playing the psychiatrist called in to assist the new Pope in coming to terms with his new office. My favourite scene in the film is their first therapeutic session, in which the two find themselves surrounded by the entire College, and all the questions are mediated through a cardinal.

Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 17.04.51The way Moretti captures generational divides is, in my view, especially sweet. At one point, Melville surreptitiously disappears from the Vatican to clear his head. In so doing, he leaves the cardinals confined to their quarters along with the psychiatrist, who, to alleviate the boredom, organises a ‘world cup’ volleyball competition. The cardinals initially are engrossed by the novelty of the activity, but the psychiatrist becomes exasperated when they lose interest as quickly as they acquired it. Melville, on the other hand, is captivated by the simpler pleasures of Roman life, and yearns for a sense of independence that he believes his new post will wrest from him.

Make your own mind up about the ending. Some find it disappointing; others find it appropriate. My sense is that your appreciation of the ending will depend on whether you think the film is about a Pope, or rather about an old man coming to terms with an uninvited change of lifestyle. I dare say no more.

 

When disorientation is cinematically effective

I don’t share most audience members’ love of being disoriented by the camera in films. In trailers, however, I appreciate that the game is a little different – the director wants to give an audience member enough cause to be intrigued, but not enough material from the feature to think that they’ve already got the juicy bits out of the way. Hence trailers for comedies typically fall flat so much more often than do trailers for, say, dramas. The jokes have to be delivered in a way that’s funny in the trailer, and telling them anew in the feature means that they lose their spontaneous flair.

But I just came across this trailer for the film Leviathan (2012), which is a documentary about the fishing industry. The trailer, I think, is superb on its own merits, without telling me all that much about the film. It’s unquestionably disorienting, and I find it supremely effective.

I don’t know whether the film is supposedly shot from the perspective of a fish, or even from that of the eponymous Leviathan; I don’t know whether the Leviathan is a phantasm told as myth among the sailors, and is therefore a cinematic conceit, or whether the Leviathan is the industry itself; I don’t know whether the film paints the sailors sympathetically or pathetically; I can’t tell most of the time what on Earth is going on on the screen, but I think it’s mesmerising. In short, I really can’t say much about what direction the film takes at all, but I certainly want to go see it.

Kudos to the director. I imagine that whole classes at film school are devoted to how one packages one’s feature-length film into an intriguing two-minute clip. If so, I think this one aces it. See for yourself (apologies if the link doesn’t show up [insert typical Luddite self-deprecating note about one’s inability to use technology]):

Weekend Film Recommendation: Once Upon A Time in the West

After Sergio Leone completed the ‘Dollars’ trilogy in 1966, the studios granted him the license to make a Western without fear of studio intervention. The film that resulted, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is this weekend’s movie recommendation.

The film is set in a time of rapid industrialisation, when the railway barons raced to connect the coasts of America with iron track. The prospect held fabulously lucrative promise, and Leone constructs a world in which the laws governing the realisation of that prospect were frighteningly flexible. One such baron is particularly ambitious, and reluctantly hires a henchman with higher designs – ‘Frank,’ played by Henry Fonda – in order to help him get the job done Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.58.42before tuberculosis denies him satisfaction.

Don’t expect to see the moral probity of Juror Eight, Wyatt Earp, or Young Abe Lincoln in Henry Fonda’s performance. Instead, Frank is a terrifying, psychotic character with an appetite for child murder, corruption, and an unquenchable thirst for power. Charles Bronson appears opposite Frank as an enigmatically taciturn gunslinger. He is identified by the only thing about himself he is willing to reveal from his past – his hauntingly played ‘Harmonica.’ Harmonica cherishes his instrument with as much attention as he does his burning desire to kill Frank, for reasons that he’s willing to divulge “only at the point of dying.”

Frank’s and Harmonica’s stories coincide in the town of Flagstone. There, they meet Jill and Cheyenne, played respectively by the stunning Claudia Cardinale and the charismatic Jason Robards. Jill is an ex-prostitute trying to restore her reputation as an honest woman of means, and Cheyenne is keen to clear his name for the murders – perpetrated by Frank – for which he has been framed.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.54.15

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack assigns a stirring leitmotif to each of the principal characters. The music matches each character’s idiosyncrasies beautifully: for Frank, the music is loud and jarring; for Harmonica, it’s un-placeably morose; for Cheyenne, it’s strangely whimsical; for Jill, the melodic soprano seems dissonant in the barren wasteland of Flagstone.

The feature of Leone’s work that I find especially compelling is his ability to construct a believable history for almost every one of his characters. There are very few character ‘props’ without personalities – Frank’s venal henchmen, the licentious bartender, and the exasperated sheriff officiating the auction – all are believable.

Make no mistake: Once Upon a Time in the West is brutally violent. Clocking in at almost three hours, it will also swallow a sizeable chunk of your weekend whole. It is an exhausting experience, but as the pinnacle of the spaghetti Western genre, it is deeply rewarding. Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from: my favourite is the way the camera captures an extreme close-up of piercing eyes appearing from under the hat-brim as the head lifts, but you’ll surely notice countless other examples. Just remember that while they may seem dated, Leone is justly credited with having made them the ice cool hallmarks of dramatic cinema that they are today.

For trivia purposes, I think I’m going to play this one a little differently, given that Once Upon a Time in the West is already such well-trodden turf. I’m going to ask people to contribute instances where they think the film has been directly referenced by other films in the comments section. It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide a long list, especially given the love of Leone’s work by just about every director since (Tarantino in particular is a huge fan). The rules are that you must provide clear information detailing the reference between the new film and what scene or aspect of Once Upon a Time in the West to which it refers. Simply naming a film won’t do. Buona fortuna!

On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/feb/12/state-of-the-union-reading-level

I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

A Sobering View of Valentine’s Day

It being Valentine’s Day today, I suppose it’s as good a time as any to think about healthy and unhealthy relationships. In that vein, I give a brief overview below the fold of some recent developments in European domestic violence perpetrator rehabilitation.

Continue reading “A Sobering View of Valentine’s Day”

Why Problems in Prisons Concentrate in Medical Units

Since I moved to California last year, California’s Prison Realignment policy has been getting deserved attention. It’s no secret that prisons are the site of an acute concentration of medical and social service problems. But where did that concentration come from?

In my first post I thought I’d take a moment to enumerate some of the features of prisons and of prisoner populations that make that concentration so intractable, especially here in California:

  1. Prisons are rural and isolated, and this impedes the swift delivery of medical services.
  2. Prisoners are frequently transferred from other prisons, which complicates record-keeping – an essential feature of medical care.
  3. The architectural features of prisons themselves often either exacerbate or precipitate medical problems.
  4. Prisoners are drawn from groups where problems typically concentrate before they arrive in prison.
  5. Some prisoners refuse urgent medical care.
  6. Medical personnel don’t make much money. One would be mistaken in thinking that the high wages that prison officers enjoy carries over to medical personnel in prisons. Consequently, medical units are understaffed and, at times, the staff itself is incompetent.

Many people wonder why a sweeping policy to re-structure prisons based on overcrowding is so centrally preoccupied with the delivery of medical service specifically. The two seem related, but by no means synonymous. The answer is that the problems found in prison medical units are typically amplified by prison overcrowding, and that the medical units are the first to show indicia of deterioration.

The way problems become magnified by overcrowding in medical units is different to the way that problems are magnified in the regular prison wings. One might be able to double stack a bed in a prison cell, but the same can’t be done with a clinic bed. Medical attention requires much more prison officer manpower per inmate than is necessary for prisoners held in other parts of the facility; even simple tasks like transporting inmates from the medical unit to other facilities is vastly more difficult when the medical unit is overcrowded. The result, as was so poignantly highlighted in the Brown v. Plata decision, is an increased reliance on Secure Housing Units in instances for which the SHU was not envisioned.

Hence, the problems that accompany prison overcrowding obey a multiplicative rather than a linear function. Looking through the list, one could easily find a recipe for bleakness. Sure, it is bleak. But many of them are also eminently soluble (Number 2 in particular). There’s nothing inevitable and intractable about the way these problems are concentrated. It’s often a good idea to remind oneself that it wasn’t always like this. We got here as a result of a series of very conscious decisions. It’s generally understood that getting out of the problem of mass incarceration is going to be much more difficult than getting into it, but it’s entirely possible. We’ve just got to work for it. Hard.