Category Archives: The Silver Screen

Film reviews and discussion

Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines

BY JON PILL

I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:

 

In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,

Jon

P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.

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Movie Monday Double Bill: Ryan Reynolds and Elliott Gould

 

BY JON PILL

For Movie Monday this week we have a double bill of rambling gambling movies. Robert Altman’s masterpiece of atmosphere California Split (click here for the full review) and the definitely not a remake Mississippi Grind (click here for the full review).

Both are pretty good and I expect that a little like Infernal Affairs and its just-inspired-by-and-definitely-not-a-beat-for-beat-remake The Departed, which you prefer will probably depend heavily on which you see first.

If you want a sense of what the gambling grind is like, these should be your first stop. If you want a retro-seventies feel go Mississippi if you like your seventies straight-up go California. Either way there’s plenty of poker shenaniganising to enjoy.

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Movie Mondays: The Hustler

This week’s Movie Monday link-out is my PokerTube review of The Hustler, one of my favourite movies of all time, a strong contender for my personal top ten.

Charlie Burns: Quiet.

Fast Eddie: Yeah, like a church. Church of the Good Hustle.

Charlie Burns: Looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.

The lines are spoken early on in the movie and set the tone for what is to come. Take the Wittertainment view that Jaws is not really about a shark, then The Hustler is not really about pool. Ostensibly about a small time hustler taking on the best in the game for his first big score, the movie is far more about the almost religious nature of things done well for their own sake…”

My full PokerTube review can be found here. You can also read a much better review of the movie by Roger Ebert here.

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Movie Mondays: God of Gamblers II

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Cover art for the God of Gamblers II DVD

As part of a new regular series on What Is There To Option, I’m gonna be putting up something movie related every Monday. These will be mostly links to the most recent of my regular movie reviews for PokerTube. But in the absence of that, there’s my back catalogue, and occasionally something written special, just for WITTO.

Today I have last week’s review of God of Gamblers II for you. The Hong Kong comedy gambling flick. I reviewed the first God of Gamblers a while ago. There’s a link to that review in the review below. Review-ception.

“The 1991 sequel to God of Gamblers looked a bit naff when I first picked it up. The excellent Andy Lau still playing Knife, but so is the somewhat inconsistent writer / director Jing Wong. Plenty of minor characters from the last film make a small return but notably Chow Yun Fat sat this one out, with Andy Lau taking his place and Stephen Chow stepping up as the new hapless comedy sidekick.

The plot sees Knife…”

Click here to read the rest.

 

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Dear Jim… (#7) Re: We need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin

“I received a perfectly lovely letter last week. It wasn’t yours.” – Groucho Marx, paraphrased.

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-2011

Ezra Miller looking scary-sexy and just plain scary on the poster.

Dear Jim,

Although I did also receive your gracious letter, I thought it was particularly clever to use the stream-of-consciousness style and vague gesturing towards formal innovation to disguise the total lack of content while you complained about the rest of the internet’s lack of content.

In an effort to move these letters away from navel-gazing and hipsterish listicles complaining about listicles – because, you know, irony – I thought I’d just segue into talking about that advertisement for post-natal abortion we watched last-last week: We Need To Talk About Kevin.

I want to talk about it, because after watching it last week I keep going back to it in my head, piecing all the little details together and half trying to tie them all up, half just enjoying the pleasing patterning of the thing.

There’s this excellent episode of Every Frame A Painting about Lynn Ramsey’s filmmaking style which is worth a watch and my own addendum to his points about sound design and detail in What A Friend We Have in Kevin is this list of the most obvious visual detail that accretes: red goo.

  • Opening shot of some sort of weird tomato festival orgy thing. Happy Tilda Swinton looking young, covered in tomato pulp. Bright red colours.
  • Cut to older, unhappy looking Tilda Swinton in a house that has had red paint thrown over the front (shades of Hawthorne there). Her car too has been paint splashed and we see her driving, seeing the world through this red watery painty filter.
  • There is paint in the straggly bit of Tilda’s hair (Kevin also has straggly bit of hair in roughly the same place) as she waits for her interview.
  • Some of the food baby Kevin flings at the fridge is red. Much of it is a foul looking green though. Don’t feed babies gross stuff is the lesson here. The lesson for the rest of the movie is don’t feed them at all. People who starve to death in infancy have a tougher time growing up to ruin your life.
  • Numerous, thoroughly revolting looking strawberry jam sandwiches, all made by Kevin. One of which is slapped jams side down on the table.
  • Tilda, punched in the face, bleeds human blood (red in colour).
  • Kevin sprays black and red paint all over the walls of her newly decorated room. When Tilda angrily smashed the water pistol he used, it is full of red paint.
  • Hamster goo in the waste dispenser. Hamster goo is also ruddy due to the similarity in colour between human and hamster blood.
  • Injuries outside the school: red in colour c.f Human blood, colour of.
  • Tilda’s red dress, worn out with Kevin for dinner, worn out to office where gross man hits on her.
  • The one time Tilda strikes back breaking Kevin’s arm and causing a scar on his arm, we don’t see Kevin’s blood at all.

These details are striking and visual and there because they add up to something. There is the surface link between all these things – they are all part of Kevin’s torturing of Tilda, however indirectly. But they also have a purely visual effect, generating something similar to the rhyming of sounds in words. It’s pleasing to have these details strung out in a line. Like video collections of things fitting together neatly, or things happening in extreme slo-mo they have an aesthetic effect just by virtue of being beside each other.

On the other hand there is a detail like:

  • the sound of the sprinklers,

which repeats over several scenes, always with a sense of the ominous about them. Its an incidental detail in the final analysis but works as a sort of pavlovian hook so when we hear them over the garden scene our spidey-sense is doing whatever spidey-senses do (tingle right, as in Chuck?).

I don’t want to give you greater license to head towards abstraction, especially given your already spiralling contempt for our readers. But the efficacy of Ramsey’s these two types of repetition in detail struck me as interesting on a technical level, and something worth flagging up given how your next novel looks to be structured.

I look forward to reading your letter next week addressing the Presidential Debates.

Yours in detail,

Jon

P.S. The trailer for Westboro’s Boolean Kevins can be watched here.

 

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