Monday, July 28, 2008

"This one sees me and smiles"

I love Batman. Everybody loves Batman, right? According to the box office grosses for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight", anyway. He and Spider-Man are way out in front of Superman these days when it comes to being the world's favourite, most culturally iconic Super-heroes. Its understandable. Batman is a truly great character. Visually arresting, with psychological depth and complexity and a real, universal cultural resonance. And gadgets. You can't go wrong with gadgets.

One of the greatest strengths of Batman as a character is his versatility. There is really no "definitive" version of Batman, only personal preference. I love many different portrayals of the character, from the uber-realist bruiser played by Christian Bale, to the 70s International-Playboy-crimefighter of the Englehart-Rogers and O'Neill-Adams eras, to Year One's gritty and vulnerable beginner, to the sleek stingray of the night drawn by Alan Davis in Detective Comics and Batman & the Outsiders. But then there is "The Animated Series" from the 90s and perhaps the closest thing to a fully-balanced and beautifully rendered "definitive" portrayal of Batman and his world. I love that too. And the way Batman evolved in the final series of that show and into his role in the Justice League show that followed. And the way DC translated that Batman back into comics, especially as drawn by Mike Parobeck or Rick Burchett. And I love any Batman as drawn by Jim Aparo, who is one of the pencillers I most associate with the character due to years of reading reprints of classic the Brave & the Bold storys. And the Batman of Giffen-DeMattiess-Maguire's comedic Justice League, given to one-line putdowns and knockout punches. Or Matt Wagner's version of the character, especially from his Grendel crossovers. Or Adam West, calling Robin "chum" and figuring out preposterous riddles, all the while carrying what you just know is a little martini-belly. Somehow I could reconcile that with the character I read about as drawn by Michael Golden and Bernie Wrightson as a kid, another tribute to his versatility. Or Miller's Dark Knight, in his original outing, at least, a stirring reminder to my 13 year old self of how much I loved both comics and Batman. Or the Batman who cast a long shadow over Gotham Central and appeared occasionally to terrify both cops and criminals. Or Tim Burton's rubber-clad neurotic, lost in a nightmarish, dollhouse version of Gotham. But the incarnation I want to discuss here is more recent. Its the Batman written by Grant Morrison and primarily drawn by Howard Porter in their JLA in the late 1990s.

As an artist, Howard Porter was quite often purely awful. Bad panel composition, poor storytelling, dodgy perspective, plain wrong anatomical details all add up to bad comics art. But these comics were written by Grant Morrison. Who, at that point, was seemingly rediscovering the joy to be found in pure superhero stories, was realising how much scope such stories gave him to work in as many extreme ideas as he could come up with, was obviously working out how to write team books so that his run on X-Men a few years later would be far tighter and more controlled. But his JLA run hums with invention and excitement. Morrison can barely keep up with himself, so many ideas is he trying to work in. And not just the signature little science tidbits hes read about and felt a yen to translate to the DC universe, no. There are also ideas about characters (nobody had gotten Kyle Rayner so well or made the interplay between Aquaman and Wonder Woman - two otherworldly royals among humans - so fascinating), about the glue of the DC universe itself, about superhero narrative and how it can be twisted and manipulated. And there is Batman.

Morrison was something of a surprise choice for the new JLA. He had never done anything quite like it at that point. He was a Vertigo guy. His most famous superhero work had been on Zenith, Animal Man and Doom Patrol - each of them a left-field revisionist view of the genre, each of them great. But pure superheroics? This was new for him. I remember reading an interview with him before the first issue appeared where he described Batman as his favourite member of the JLA, and wondering just how this would translate. Well, it translated as an awesome portrayal of Batman as the most formidable member of a team made up of walking Gods. Which is how it should be.

One of the greatest aspects of Batman as a character is that he has willed himself to be what he is. He has striven to become the ultimate human, in a way. He is at his peak, both mentally and physically. Most portrayals capture the physical side well - its inescapable, really, dealing with a character who swings through a city and beats criminals with his fists and feet nightly. But the mental side is more often neglected. Batman is referred to as "detective" by Ra's Al Ghul, with reason. He has a magnificent mind. He is a genius, really - not only detective, but scientist, inventor, mogul, strategist. Morrison gets this. His Batman always has a plan, his mind is always working on multiple levels. Everything is a game of chess and he is always several moves ahead. He is not intimidated by the Kryptonion God he orders about, because he knows he is smarter than him, knows that if it comes down to just the two of them, then he will win. Morrison writes him as possessing a sort of curt disdain for Wonder Woman, suggestive of the contempt that the aristocracy often reserve for royalty, which gives their relationship a pleasing spark. The others - Green Lantern, Flash - fear Batman, are in awe of him, despite their powers far outstripping his. He has a presence and authority lacking in the rest of the League. He is really the only one Superman defers to. In a group of the most powerful heroes in the DC universe, the single powerless character is the closest thing they have to a leader. Part of this seems to be his arrogance, his certainty that he is right. As Morrison writes him, he usually is. This is part of why I love Batman so much in Justice League storys - they really give a context in which to consider just what a fabulous character he is.

Wonder Woman: "Why should anyone know how long they can hold their breath?"
Batman: "Three minutes, fifteen seconds. You'd be surprised why."

In his JLA run, Morrison really sold the big moments. Every issue has a couple of purely cool scenes, where a hero does something to make the fans cheer. Many such moments involve Batman. For example, the first story arc focuses on the arrival of a race of new Super-powered aliens, the Hyperclan, on Earth. They set about ending the planets problems by first transforming the Sahara into a garden and second murdering a series of super-villains. They are greeted with worldwide adoration. The JLA, sensing mind control, decide to investigate, leading to a series of confrontations from which the JLA do not emerge well. The Hyperclan take most of them prisoner in an Arctic installation, leaving only Batman at liberty. They're not worried about Batman, because he's only human. However, as a bound Superman tells the Hyperclan's leader : "He's the most dangerous man on earth." Batman breaks into their installation, and when A-Mortal comes to investigate, Batman reveals that he has reasoned their secret - they are Martians, like the Martian Manhunter. And, like him, they have one weakness - fire.
When three more of the Hyperclan come after their comrade, they find him hanging from the ceiling with a note affixed to his chest : "I know your secret!" Batman, faced with three super-powered aliens, lights a match. End of fight.

Batman: "Luthor still has no idea he's dealing with someone who's as familiar with corporate takeover techniques as he is. Someone who plays the game much better than he does...Bruce Wayne. Let's take him out."

Another example - the villain Prometheus has trained and prepared his entire life to defeat the JLA's pantheon. He wears some sort of technologically advanced armour and the way he defeats Batman is by downloading the moves of the world's leading martial artists into his own brain and then beating him in hand-to-hand combat. Batman is humbled - a rarity - but you know he is already planning a retort. When they meet again, Batman is ready for him. This time he uploads a virus into Prometheus' armour - the nervous system of Stephen Hawking. End of fight.

Perhaps the peak of Morrison's run on JLA was "Rock of Ages", an epic and insanely inventive multi-stranded six part story which found space for the Philosophers stone, Darkseid and New Apokolips and the Revenge Squad, amongst many other things. In one strand, several of the heroes ended up cast years into a future in which Darkseid has conquered earth, killing most of the planet's heroes. The present JLA find themselves in the bodies of their future selves. So Flash is fat and powerless, Aquaman and Wonder Woman guerillas living underground. Superman and Martian Manhunter have been killed. The heroes discover that Batman is a rare survivor - he had been captured and imprisoned by Darkseid's torturer, Desaad. When they attempt to rescue him, they discover that a white-haired Batman, his body criss-crossed with torture scars, has in fact escaped and replaced Desaad. He explains it like this : "Eight years...four of them in Desaad's Psycho-fuge, experiencing all the physical and emotional pain of his ended two months ago. Battle of wits. I won. Hh."
Nobody writes Batman like this, really, with an awareness of the force of will he should have, the insane drive of the man. This strand of the story ends with Batman planning and leading an attack on the all-but-unbeatable Darkseid in his warship, narrated by the Black Racer, Kirby's avatar of Death. One by one the Black Racer describes his visits to the heroes as they fall, having played their parts in Batman's plan ("Wonder Woman calls me by an old name and speaks it quietly, calmly as she dies"). Meanwhile Batman is convincing Metron to become human, only to punch him out and drug him so that the trapped heroes can return to their own time and prevent this reality from ever existing. Leaving Batman face to face with Darkseid, the most powerful villain in the DC Universe, an immensely evil god. The Black Racer describes Batman's response to his presence with the line I use in the title to this post: "This one sees me and smiles." Batman can't resist rubbing Darkseid's nose in his impending defeat, and even lecturing him, a little:

Darkseid: You overcame Desaad? Do I know you?
Batman: We've...shared a few laughs. Everything you know, everything you own: I'm taking it all. Look up.
(the Moon, and Darkseid's "Zombie Factory" explodes)
Darkseid: No. My zombie Factory.
Batman: You're all alone, Darkseid. Your allies have fallen, your troops have no guidance.
Darkseid: How small you are, have hurt me. I respect that.
(He sends the beams of his Omega effect at Batman)
Batman: You want to know why you're surrounded by all these "maggots", Darkseid? Because you did what you said you'd do; you recreated the world in your image. And what you see in them is your own ugly faaaaaaa-
(Batman dematerialises)
The Black Racer: Then he is gone, out of time, out of space. Beyond what even Gods know.

All of this, sad to say, drawn by Howard Porter. His art wasn't all bad. He could deliver a suitable sense of grandeur when called to, and some of his action sequences flow along. But generally there he is, getting between the reader and the tale with his bad choices, his lack of detail, his sheer ineptitude. Only the quality of Morrison's writing makes him worth it.
Morrison followed "Rock of Ages" with an even bigger storyline, "One Million" which crossed over through every DC Universe title, with Morrison writing them all. Then he left JLA, but he returned only a few years later with the opening storyline in JLA: Classified, a sequel of sorts to "One Million." This features Batman opening what he calls his "Sci-Fi closet", pictured below and featuring some Thangarian wings, a Boom tube Gauntlet and a Dalek:

He returned to Batman last year, when he took over as regular writer on the ongoing series. So far he has portrayed a different Batman from the one he featured in JLA, but its plain that he is striving to pull all of the different Batmans contained in DC continuity together into one coherent character. So his Batman has to deal with the result of sleeping with Talia in "Son of the Demon" - a child. He endures flashbacks to pot-roasts cooked by Aunt Agatha. He keeps a Black Notebook of all the supernatural, unexplained things he has encountered in his life. He is bowed beneath the weight of his own past, almost traumatised by such a busy, schizophrenic collection of experiences, and Morrison is pushing this and its relevance for the character into the next storyline - "Batman RIP". This Batman suggests the Batman of the 1970s, or as Morrison calls him; "hairy-chested love god Batman". He is something of a globetrotter, his action scenes and gadgets are to the forefront, and Morrison fills every scene with references to Batman's history. He's a great version of a great character, but he's not the JLA Batman.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 11

Belmondo. All wrinkly. Slumming it, a little. He does that these days. Has done for a long time. More or less every shot of this trailer that features him, features him punching somebody, kicking them, slapping them, shooting them, or trying to ram their car with his. There are a couple of obviously post-coital shots too. The suggestion being : all he does is sex & violence. The subtext: you need to see this film.

Plus : Ennio Morricone over the top. Lovely.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shuffle : Ex Factor

Remember when Lauryn Hill looked like she was going to be the next Female Superstar? It was a long time ago. But she was poised on the brink. She had a great voice, she was pretty and sexy in a unique way, she could write songs, she could rap (sorta), she acted, she was in a big, important crossover Hip Hop act and she went solo and was just as big that way with an album that played a big part in advancing Neo-Soul in the mainstream. She seemed smart, articulate, motivated, together. And she was young. Who knew how far she could go, how great she could be?

Then she lost it. Religious denouncements, rambling speeches about "the machine", a boring, self-indulgent live and unplugged second solo record. She never looked happy during that mercenary Fugees reunion a few years back, even if it did demonstrate that she still possesses that gorgeous voice. The reunion fell apart, due to her "issues", according to Pras. She lives with Rohan Marley and their 5 children. Apparently she writes. Good for her.

That debut album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is a classic, but a lot of it I can't really listen to. All the filler stuff between songs is unutterably tedious, and Hill's lyrics - even then, before she really went for it - could be terribly preachy and worthy. But some of the songs, many of them, even, are knockouts. None more than "Ex Factor", Hill's breakup ballad and a song that sounds as if it could almost have come off any great soul record since 1970 without seeming out of place.

The arrangement is solid yet gossamer, containing a Wu-Tang clan sample - a delicate piano figure riding swirls of what sounds like harp and a rolling, casual rhythm track. All of which puts the focus on her voice and the passion she puts into these words. Always a marvelously expressive vocalist, Hill is capable of sounding joyous, of making us hear the smile on her face as she sings. There is none of that here. She soars and growls through some of it, but most of the time she sounds as if she's singing on the verge of tears, her voice always fragile, at the cracked emotional edge of her register. The echoed channels where she repeats words, acting as her own m.c. and her speaking voice sounds calm and lucid, even bored, just makes the passion of the sung performance more obvious. At the climax the song explodes, unable to contain that level of emotional tension, and multi-tracked Hills demand that this Ex cry for her and remind him he said he'd die for her. Meanwhile a pointed guitar solo cuts through the mix.

Reportedly inspired by her relationship with Wyclef Jean, the lyrics are breathtakingly candid and truthful - Hill by turns berates this man, scolds him, pleads with him, professes love for him, regrets how it has gone between them. It's a love song suffused in hurt and self-knowledge; Hill singing as a woman clinging to a man she knows is no good for her. The sadness coming from the realisation that it must end, and the only thing worse than it ending would be it continuing. A song of bad love, a song based, like all great love songs, on universal human truths, on the realities of human nature. And yet always a Song - filled with lovely rhymes yet never precious in its poetic plain-speaking: "Tell me who I have to be/ To get some reciprocity" "And when I try to walk away/ you hurt yourself to make me stay/ This is crazy".

Its a beautiful song. I once saw the Afghan Whigs cover it as part of their live show, Vanilla Fudge-style, and it was perhaps the best moment of the night, all the more so for being so unexpected, with Greg Dulli seemingly living the end of the song as much as Hill does, the band laying down a much heavier groove than in the Hill version. I imagine it will be covered a lot more over the coming decades, maintaining Lauryn in her retirement.

The original:

The Whigs:


Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Nine guys, no weapons"

I first encountered the work of Larry Gross in Sight & Sound a few years ago. He contributed a piece on William Freidkin, focusing on his less-appreciated films like "Sorcerer" and "To Live & Die in L.A.". This was at a time when Freidkin's critical reputation - Mark Kermode's constant cheerleading for "the Exorcist" aside - was at an all-time low. Gross is also a screenwriter. That career is spottier than his criticism, with tv movies and episodes of MacGyver and Midnight Caller scattered over the last decade or two alongside his few credits in modern cinema. Recently hes been contributing a fascinating column to the Movie City News website - his diaries from the heart of a Hollwood production in the early 80s - "48 Hours" (1982).

These diaries are generally fascinating for the insight they offer into various stages of big studio movie-making. The politics, compromises, personality clashes, artistic disagreements and often grim grind of the process are all vividly evoked. Gross had been brought onto the project directly by Director Walter Hill to do rewrites and act as a sort of artistic sounding board, so much of his account is focused on Hill's struggle with the material, and Gross' own struggle with Hill's needs and direction. But there are also funny, strangely gripping accounts of conversations with Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Joel Silver. Gross wrote the diaries contemporaneously, and he was plainly an intense, somewhat pretentious young man. At times they read as if he has consumed too much Joan Didion and woodenly struggle for style. Gross obviously wrote them with an eye for posterity and they would probably work better collected as a book, where a reader automatically allows for some more stylistic risk-taking. For there are great observations and portraits here; most especially of Nolte as a complex, sensitive Nice guy who wears his fame and talent lightly, and of Murphy as a young and hungry, slightly insecure comedian, not yet the bloated Super Star of the past two decades.

The real star of the diaries, however, is Walter Hill. "48 Hours" was probably the commercial peak of his career, and one which he has not remotely approached in the years since. It has aged pretty well - well-paced and stylishly shot with a great feel for its San Francisco setting, it makes much of the chemistry between Nolte and Murphy, who seem to bring the best out in one another. Murphy has rarely, if ever, been as good in anything else, and it seems likely he was spurred on to such heights by working with an actor of Nolte's calibre. The dialogue is juicy and quotable, and the only jarringly dated element is the films racial politics. But it is a great example of the type of film that just doesn't get made anymore - an adult action-thriller, heavy on character and dialogue, sprinkled with comedy but never shirking on violent incident either.

At that point in the early 80s, Hill was seen, alongside the likes of John Carpenter, as a sort of second tier auteur. His films were all genre pieces, and he had a narrow stylistic range and even narrower range of thematic and narrative concerns. But he made a series of great movies which gave him some artistic and commercial clout. From his debut in 1978 with "Hard Times" (1975), through "The Driver" (1978), "The Warriors" (1979), "The Long Riders" (1980) and "Southern Comfort" (1981), he made a series of fine films, obviously the work of a distinctive creator. These are all spare, terse films, with a narrative simplicity which, at their best moments, edges towards the purity and power of mythology. Hill has claimed that his first reading of Alex Jacob's screenplay for "Point Blank" was a revelatory moment for him, since he realised how a spare, dialogue-light style could succeed and remain poetic and narratively driven. Nevertheless, his work as a screenwriter had been generally undistinguished, films such as "The Mackintosh Man" (1973) and "The Drowning Pool" (1975) agreeable genre films without much of an individual voice. Only his work on Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972) had really indicated the direction his own career might follow.

"Hard Times" was the first time he put the qualities he had admired in "Point Blank" to work in his own films, and this story of a bare-knuckle streetfighter (indeed, the film's UK title was "The Streetfighter") makes better use of Charles Bronson than more or less any other film from the era when he was at the peak of his commercial appeal as a movie star. He says little throughout the film, allowing his actions to speak for him. This was the first in a long line of semi-existential loners who would crop up repeatedly in Hill's work. His handling of the fight sequences - brutal and yet stylish - established him as a young action director to watch, and "The Driver" was a consolidation on both fronts. Following the pursuit of a getaway driver known only as Driver (Ryan O'Neal) by a cop known only as Detective (Bruce Dern), the film is full of terrific car chase sequences, beautifully shot and obviously self-consciously archetypal in its use of nameless protagonists. Again, Hill utilises the limitations of his stars acting abilities as an advantage, with O'Neal's handsome blankness echoing Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai" (1967) much as Hill's narrative and noirish palette echo Melville's approach.

However, for all their success with critics, neither of these two films was a popular success. There was perhaps something slightly too arty and self-conscious in Hill's sensibility. In his prime, he was very definitely an auteur working in the shadows of the likes of Hawks, Ford and Kurosawa, and his work was always a bit too serious and individual for mainstream acceptance. He and Alec Baldwin pitched a version of "The Fugitive" to Warner Bros. prior to production on the Andrew Davis/Harrison Ford version, which was rejected - according to Baldwin - because Hill compared the story to a modern-day Dostoevsky tale in their meeting with the Studio Executives. This elevated, rarified sensibility would prove a consistent problem throughout his career, but it has given many of his films a certain cult following. None moreso than "The Warriors", an adaptation of Sol Yurick's novel, which is in turn based upon Xenophon's "Anabasis" (the film makes several references to Greek mythology in tribute, with a gang named the Furies, a member of the Warriors called Ajax, and a direct parallel with the Sirens in the Lizzies). Relocating the story to New York, "The Warriors" follow the titular gang as they make their way home through New York to Coney Island, fighting off various other gangs along the way. Hill refines his visual scheme so that the film is set in a neon-lit, rain-slicked urban nightscape with a great deal of comic book simplicity in the colours and compositions. The real world seldom intrudes onto the world of the gang members and the whole thing has an almost sci-fi, post apocalyptic feel. Again, Hill excels during the action scenes, where he uses slow motion extensively. But some of the acting is stiff, the script just as bad, and it all feels camp - the Warriors wear leather waistcoats - when seen from a modern perspective. None of which has prevented it from becoming a bona fide cult classic, and probably Hill's most fondly-regarded work.

Hill has always maintained, however, that all of his films are really Westerns. The Western archetypes and themes are easily discernible in his first three films, and he went all the way with his next, and, to my mind, best film, "The Long Riders". A retelling of the story of the James-Younger gang, it allows Hill to work at his themes of the construction of both myth and masculinity. There are versions of many of the most iconographically archetypal Western sequences - a saloon fight, a dance, a bank robbery, the hold-up of a stage. Only Hill presents them all unblinkingly, without any sentiment. The film refuses to glamourise its characters (for the most part - David Carradine's Cole Younger is presented as a lone, rebellious romantic and plays far more heroically than James Keach's Jesse James) and instead the way their acts have been mythologized is queried. These men are cold-blooded murderers, without even any real loyalty to one another. Jesse is a cold, cynical enigma, barely human. The whole film is shot in muted tones of green, grey, gold and brown, giving it an almost sepia look, and Ry Cooder's beautifully evocative score makes it even more atmospheric. Here Hill also perfected his approach to action scenes - there are two sensational gunfights, both revisitings, in a sense, of the gunfight at the climax of "The Wild Bunch" (1969) - which indicate exactly to what extent Hill was inspired by Peckinpah. The film's portrayal of the Great Northfield Minneasota Raid, in particular, is fantastically shot and cut.

"Southern Comfort" is a lost patrol movie and an incisive vietnam allegory, again enlivened by a Cooder score, some brilliant action scenes and strong work from an all-male ensemble including Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine and Fred Ward. Next came "48 Hours", and emboldened by its success, Hill and Larry Gross wrote "Streets of Fire" (1984), something of a fantasy project for the director. Its a sort of 50s-retro action-comedy-musical-drama, replete with Wagneric Jim Steinman-penned rock and roll (the promotional materials described it as a "rock & roll fable"), biker gangs, elevated trains, gleaming streets, tough guys in leather jackets and uncomplicated good versus evil situations. Its also something of a mess, never quite confident enough in its convictions to embrace any of the genres it flirts with fully, and saddled with a weak lead in Michael Pare. But it does have its moments, chiefly when Hill indulges his skills as a visceral director of action. Its distinctive look and mood and the full-on intensity of its rock score have given it a cult appeal, but at the time it was a huge flop and set Hill's career back in a way that he has arguably never really recovered from.

As a result, he moved sideways into comedy, directing Richard Pryor in the middling "Brewsters Millions" (1985), then taking on a Ralph Macchio drama, "Crossroads" (1986) which bizzarely applied the formula of "the Karate Kid" to the story of Robert Johnson and duelling guitars. While they demonstrated that he had some range, these films also underlined that what made Hill truly distinctive as a director was his handling of violence and action. So he returned to more familiar territory with the insanely bloody modern Western "Extreme Prejudice" (1987), a remake, of sorts, of "The Wild Bunch" which climaxes in a massive gunfight in a border town killing off most of the cast. Its a decent action film, weirdly echoed by "No Country For Old Men" in its story of cross-border drug deals and blood feuds, but Hill seems to be going through the motions to some extent, and the film perhaps suffers from its attempt to combine the arty spareness of his early work with the populist instincts of "48 Hours" and his previous two films. His next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-James Belushi buddy movie "Red Heat" (1988) suffers even more from this eagerness to satisfy the mass audience, with its crude comedy and clumsy violence. Hill seems to be parodying himself with the exaggerated fistfight in the snow at the start and the bus chase at the conclusion.

"Johnny Handsome" (1989) felt as if he had invested more in it. A b-movie revenge noir, it is one of the forgotten minor gems of 80s cinema, with fine performances from Mickey Rourke, Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whitaker, Ellen Barkin and Lance Henricksen. Hill's direction is stylish and assured, his strong storytelling keeping the pacing taut, without any of the more hyperbolic excesses of much of his other work. It also features a fantastically downbeat ending, which is one probable reason for its box office failure, alongside Rourke's declining star power. This failure sent Hill back to his biggest success with "Another 48 Hours" (1990), a lacklustre retread of a sequel without the sparkle and wit of the original. He followed this with "Trespass" (1992) an interesting remake of John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) which set the story in modern East St Louis and pitched two greedy firemen against a host of Ice-T and Ice Cube led Gangsters in a crumbling project tenement. It was another flop, but the recent successes of westerns like "Dances With Wolves" (1990) and "Unforgiven" (1992) had made that genre hot in Hollwood and Hill, with a proven track record in the area, was given a sizeable budget and a starry cast for his next film, "Geronimo: an American Legend" (1993).

It was obviously doomed commercially from the outset by that awful title, but its possibly Hill's best work since "The Long Riders", a handsome, adult Western with big themes and resonances. It addresses America's identity, ethnic cleansing, the relationship between politics and the military and the building of myth. Gross - who rewrote John Milius' screenplay -contributed a journal on its production to Sight & Sound on the occasion of its UK release (in a single London screen) in which he identifies its important influences as John Ford (whose Cavalry trilogy is ceaselessly evoked by Hill's widescreen vistas filled with neat columns of men on horseback) and Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian".

Its flaw is familiar from other films based on Milius screenplays - the narration affects the pacing, which is always leisurely, even when it should be tight and gripping. But Hill's direction makes up for it - this is his most beautiful film, glorying in the red sands of Utah, the action scenes on a bigger scale than any in his career, the actors (Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall) of a higher standard. He followed it with another biographical Western, albeit a much smaller one. "Wild Bill" (1995) is something of an intriguing failure. It's first half hour is brilliant - a rapid tour of Hickok's life of violence, with Hill cutting between black and white and colour as the scenes shift through various historical periods and areas of the American West. When the action settles down in Deadwood to chronicle Hickok's last days the film becomes confined and stagey, with only Jeff Bridges' fine central performance really redeeming it. Hill stuck close to the genre with "Last Man Standing" (1996) a prohibition-era Western reworking of "Yojimbo" (1961) with Bruce Willis which, in that post-Tarantino era, was obsessed with gunplay. It was also the closest thing to early Hill - in style and content - he had attempted since "Extreme Prejudice", though by comparison it lacked wit and energy, and seemed tired and second hand. Hill's trademark action scenes had by this time been utterly absorbed by the mainstream, and then surpassed by the likes of John Woo, and a film focusing on them no longer seemed anything special. He stumbled through the disastrous sci-fi "Supernova" (2000), from which he removed his name, then had a minor return to form with "Undisputed" (2002), a prison boxing film which recalled "Hard Times" and only served to underline his slow decline.

Television has offered something of a revival for Hill. Again, he has concentrated on Westerns for that medium, and the results have been instant popular and critical success for his pilot for HBO's "Deadwood" (which revisited the material he had essayed in "Wild Bill" from another angle) and and his elegiac, old-fashioned mini-series "Broken Trail" for AMC. Both won Emmy Awards, though neither seem to have led to Hill returning to features.

As for Larry Gross, some of his work away from Hill is far more complex and sophisticated than their work together. I am thinking specifically of his screenplay for "We Don't Live Here Anymore" (2004), John Curran's film which he adapted from several Andre Dubus short stories, revealing a fine sense for the agony of certain sexual relationships and the awkwardness of long term commitment. His criticism has improved, as a recent piece on Todd Haynes' "I'm Not there" in Film Comment proved. And he is preparing to make his directorial debut this year. But I hope that the "48 Hours Diaries" are not his last project of this sort. I would love to read the history of the making of "Streets of Fire", as I'm sure it would illuminate Hill and Gross' intentions when they made it. And even an account of the feeding frenzy of agents and studio executives that "Another 48 Hours" obviously became could prove utterly fascinating.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

All work and no play...

Yet another 1st Person POV-based advert, but this one is near-perfect: it gets the tone, the look and the atmosphere just right. Uncannily right, I think. The early 80s are a tricky period to pull off convincingly, but this does it very well. Its partly the visuals - the lighting, the grain of the film. And partly the hairstyles, the clothing, even the casting. It must have been a long process to make a piece that lasts just over a minute.

It uses a 25mm Cooke lens - a Kubrick favourite - and that serene steadicam glide evokes "The Shining" just as well as the immortal carpet of that hotel corridor. You get the feeling Stanley himself may actually have approved. Further viewing: Vivian Kubrick's great documentary about the making of that film, which is great stuff too. Especially the scenes of Kubrick screaming at Shelley Duvall.

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