Obviously, I’m a movie addict but many of my favourites are low-budget features or belong to tiny sub-genres. In this episode we talk a walk through the last seven decades of cinema, picking out some of the exceptional productions that either had a deep effect on how I see the world, or explore some of the themes and ideas that are close to my heart.
We spend a lot of time on this podcast criticising films and TV, primarily for their politics but also for bad writing, poor conception, weak execution and so on. And let’s face it, Hollywood does make itself easy to criticise.
But there are plenty of good films and TV, and some truly great experiences in screen entertainment so in the name of positivity, offering up some kind of antidote to the stuff we usually examine, and taking a bit of a break from piles of documents, I’m going to do a run down of some of my favourite films of all time.
Naturally, all of these are recommendations, but I am aware of just how varied people’s reactions can be so if you hate some of these then that’s all fine. My taste in movies is a little unusual so we’re not going to do a standard top ten listicle in podcast form, but instead let’s take it genre by genre, or even obscure sub-genre by obscure sub-genre, and see where that takes us. Though we’re also going somewhat chronologically, but not entirely.
My reasoning is that it’s impossible to do the big, broad genres like comedy and sci-fi because they cover too much space. So we’re going to look at my favourite American noir, favourite military legal drama, British satire, war film, and a few others, rather than have me try to name my all time favourite romantic comedy.
Though, for the record, it’s Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers movie with George Clooney playing a divorce lawyer and Catherine Zeta Jones playing a lady who marries and divorces rich men. I actually think it’s a more honest romantic comedy than many, less of a fantasy, even though it’s kind of ridiculous on its face. Plus, it’s got Billy Bob Thornton, who improves any film.
Touch of Evil
Let’s start with film noir, a curious genre that sits somewhere between the 30s crime movie (think Public Enemy with James Cagney) and the resurrection of gangster cinema in the 1970s, though noir arguably shares more in terms of storytelling and themes with conspiracy thrillers. Stylistically these films are identified by having dark themes, but a fairly nihilistic or at least cynical approach to right and wrong. This is in contrast to horror movies of the same period – the 40s and 50s – where the aim is to scare the audience with the face of evil before a hero of some kind saves the day. It’s clear who is good and who is bad, and the ending is usually (not always) the reassurance of good winning out over evil.
In film noir, no one wins, one side just loses more slowly, and it’s usually our protagonist.
Visually, the films tend to make use of high contrast, silhouettes, Dutch angles, offset framing and German expressionist lighting, whereby you light scenes very sharply and usually from below, or at least low down, creating high contrast between light and dark that expand as the light rises.
Critics and film buffs tend to name Chinatown as the best noir film, but I disagree. It’s an outstanding film…
… and I do love it. However, my pick is Touch of Evil, from 1958 – not just because it’s my favourite Orson Welles movie and it’s from the proper period of film noir, not the neo-noir period like Chinatown. I think the main reason is that the story is set in a border town between the US and Mexico, and revolves around the sorts of things that go on in border towns.
Borders are the things that most obviously define nation states – the border is the limit of the collective private property of the state, it is quite literally the physical limit of the state. But maintaining those borders is difficult, frequently violent and invariably involves a lot of corruption. Put simply, they are a representation of the struggle for clearly defined moral boundaries that goes on within all peoples, everywhere. We like the idea of distinguishing between moral good and evil, and in some instances the margins are clear, but most of life involves subjective judgement calls. It isn’t just about where you draw the line, it’s about how you draw it and maintain it.
The result is that national borders, much like moral codes enforced by a corrupt church, are vague and hazy. The state frays when you get to the fringes, and hence a border town is the perfect setting for a story which is most definitely not a morality tale. The connections between the internal moral imperfections of the individuals involved and the larger-scale moral imperfections of the border itself and how it is maintained, are drawn out subtly but very intelligently in Touch of Evil.
As Derrida might ask, if your border is continually disrupted, penetrated, overriden and undermined, is it actually a border at all? Or is the notion of the border an arbitrary figment of our collective imaginations, enforced on us by government, that in practical reality is nothing more than a line drawn on a map that bears little semblance to the facts on the ground?
Indeed, it was Orson Welles who changed the location to a border town because he wanted to bring in elements of American racism and xenophobia, and he also wrote and directed the movie in a deliberately confusing way to show different points of view as events unfold. This led to arguments with various editors on the film, led to the studio demanding reshoots to provide more linear exposition (precisely what you don’t need in a mystery story), and a butchered version being released that didn’t do well with critics or audiences. Part way through this process Welles wrote a 58-page memorandum outlining his vision for the film and how to recut it to make it work. This is the version that people should watch, which was reconstructed in the 1990s along the lines Welles explains in that memo.
In most respects, the plot of Touch of Evil is less relevant than the experience of watching it, because it’s more about capturing moods and emotional dynamics that are metaphors for political dynamics than it is about characters and context. It isn’t as simple as Quinlan, played by Orson Welles, representing America and Vargas, played by Charlton Heston, representing Mexico. Indeed, both work for the governments in their countries in a law enforcement capacity, and both turn out to be fairly thoroughly corrupt, so this is about images of two nations but is also about the institutions underpinning all nation states. Because those institutions are just a bunch of people doing some stuff, the institutions and the borders and boundaries they supposedly maintain are as ambiguous and riddled with conflict as humans are.
Hence the multiple perspectives, the continual attempts to dislodge the audience from a comfortable seat watching a simple exposition, the focus on moods and psychology rather than politics and narrative. If you want people to realise that they are capable of feeling more than one thing at once, capable of having and understanding more than one reaction to a situation, then you have to build that into your story, your characters, your filming and editing. The fact the studio didn’t get that this is what Touch of Evil is about and tried to turn it into a fairly standard detective and crime movie just shows a massive lack of imagination on their part.
Paths of Glory
We’ve looked at several military-legal dramas on this podcast, both in terms of movies such as Rules of Engagement and A Few Good Men, but also procedural TV including NCIS and The Code. This is a sub-genre where the rubber meets the road, because it is not only an opportunity to explore the morality of warfare and military life but also an opportunity to examine the justice system, in this case the military justice system.
It’s very difficult to do this sort of story well, not just because of the involvement of entertainment liaison officers, but also because Hollywood is inherently shallow. Most screenwriters simply don’t have the guts to write a film about someone facing a court martial for murder. It’s too multi-dimensional, potentially controversial, and emotionally sticky for them. They want a nice clean story about a pair of FBI agents who identify and catch a serial killer, and preferably a woman in her late 30s in a blue suit prosecutes the killer on behalf of the state. Clean moral lines, keeps everyone dumb, keeps everyone trusting the state and the system.
The majority of products in this sub-genre have been supported by the Pentagon, to help shape perceptions not just of what happens when someone in the military does something wrong, but also of how well their criminal justice system works. They are the military equivalent of a cop show or a trial drama.
One of the few that had no such government support, and is a decidedly anti-war movie, is Paths of Glory, one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest, while he was still working in the US studio system. It is based on a novel by a Canadian WW1 veteran, who fictionalised the story of the Souain Corporals Affair. This was an incident during the Great War where four French corporals were executed for refusing to follow orders, as a means of motivating the other soldiers.
In Kubrick’s version three men face a court martial, rather than are executed on the battlefield, but the result is much the same – they are sentenced to death. The context is them refusing to carry out an utterly futile assault on a well-defended German position called Ant Hill – an ironic name chosen specifically because it is mundane and ridiculous. Why send men to die over an anthill?
The story is an indictment of both war and the legal system within the military, which supposedly upholds the rules of war (itself a fairly insane notion). As Kubrick put it, ‘Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved – that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.’
Hopefully you see how similar, thematically, Paths of Glory is to Touch of Evil. Both are explorations of the savage side of humans and how this is manifested through law enforcement institutions, in one case the police in a border town, in the other a military court. While neither are morality tales, they do share a similar moral in their stories – that law enforcement is only ever as rational and effective and fair as the people within the law enforcement institutions.
As I’ve said before, being a cop is like being a politician – if you want the job then you’re the wrong sort of person to have it. Perhaps I’m projecting my own anarchistic attitudes and beliefs onto these films, but I did see a lot in both of them that struck some chords. The notion that we can eliminate human corruptness and vice by having humans create idealised versions of themselves through these institutions is little more than self-delusion. If we cannot address these things within ourselves then what good does manifesting the conflict between the angels and devils on our shoulders within buildings and written laws actually do?
Indeed, one might argue (though neither of these films argue this point) that creating these institutions is a deflection that prevents us from addressing these things within ourselves. Because we defer our authority to make these judgements onto laws and the courts and the state and abstract notions of societal identity and the like, we successfully avoid having those difficult conversations with ourselves. One could argue that the entire invention of government is just a psychological evasion technique so we don’t have to confront the worst in ourselves.
Indeed, the governmental responses to the film illustrate this evasiveness – it was banned by all US military establishments, and was banned for varying periods in France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain. It touched on something they were not willing to countenance, so they made it taboo.
The 1960s isn’t a great decade for films, in my opinion. While it’s interesting to see how the studio system started to come apart, the production code was liberalised and then scrapped entirely, and the entire industry was shifting, this didn’t produce that much in terms of exceptional cinema.
Mainstream film was dominated by spy films, crime films, Westerns and family dramas, and while there are some politically exceptional movies like Z and The Battle of Algiers, I’m not convinced either is actually a great movie. Likewise, the decade gave us Dr Strangelove, perhaps the most famous anti-war comedy of all time – but which isn’t especially funny – and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most philosophically ambitious mainstream film of all time – but which is quite dull to watch.
I’m not a fan of horror films generally, with the odd exception like Gutterballs, so the classic Hitchcock horrors and Rosemary’s Baby – while technically very good creations – don’t do much for me. Likewise the original Cape Fear, which I find more disturbing than the Scorcese version, but that’s not a good thing.
If we’re talking regular blockbusters then I am a big fan of the original Planet of the Apes, and I have to admit to quite liking Thunderball despite everything. In terms of subversive movies of course, there is Seven Days in May but we’ve looked at that before so let’s think about something else. Since so far the films have all been black and white and have some kind of dark human drama with political thriller overtones let’s continue in that vein, with If… from 1968.
In terms of genre I’m not sure where to place this movie, because it’s a satirical drama about English public school culture that turns into a violent revenge fantasy. And to be clear, parts of the movie are in black and white, parts are in colour. It stars a young Malcolm McDowell as a schoolboy in his penultimate year – so 16 or 17 years old – at a public school (or what in most countries are called private schools – i.e. your parents pay fees for you to attend, it’s very much an upper class and upper middle class thing).
Anyone who has read Roald Dahl’s account of his own time at public school will be familiar with the hierarchical structure in these places, whereby the older boys (public schools were always single sex at that time) were empowered by the teachers to act as enforcers, which in effect meant they bullied the younger kids and treated them as servants and slaves.
While bullying and abuses of various kinds take place in all sorts of schools, in the posh, public schools it’s very much bedded into the culture, it is expected, or at least was at that time. There’s a lot of crossover between public schools and joining the military, which in turn continues this abusive, violent, cruel institutional culture.
The director and producer of If…, Lindsay Anderson, was a left wing film critic and commentator before getting into filmmaking, and the writer David Sherwin drew heavily on his own experiences having gone to Tonbridge School in Kent. Naturally, finding a filming location wasn’t easy when your story is about an armed insurrection by a bunch of sixth-formers rebelling against the abusive hierarchy of their school. Both Charterhouse and Cranleigh were approached and were open to the idea until they found out what the plot was. In the event, the primary shooting location was Cheltenham College, who only agreed on the proviso that they would not be named publicly as the place where the film was shot.
You see again how the institutions of state (even though public schools are private entities, they’re very much part of the class structure) are resistant to stories that explore the dark, animalistic underbelly that is codified within these buildings. They want to convince themselves they are above it all, they are the civilised ones, but their practices are just more regimented versions of the behaviour of jungle animals. And in trying to hide behind the veneer of civilisation, they only prolong those instincts and allow them to fester.
Now, I didn’t go to a public school but nor did I go to a standard everyday state school, I went to something of a hybrid. But I have known plenty of people who have been to schools like the one depicted in If…, and while I’m sure they say that things have changed for the better, they haven’t. They are still cesspits of violence and emotional and sexual abuse in the name of toughening people up for the real world.
In reality, it’s got nothing to do with toughening them up, and hurting someone physically and emotionally is a shit way to toughen someone up, in any case. It’s about institutionalising cycles of abuse – if your entire system depends on people bullying, harassing, threatening, being violent, invading people’s privacy, lying and emotionally manipulating then you have to do that to the people who’ll be leading that society in the future. There are two reasons – 1) it helps normalise these behaviours in the minds of those young people, make them seem like that’s just how things are done and the way the world is, and 2) it fucks them up emotionally, making them a whirlpool of unspoken pain and resentment, which means they have endless negative emotional resources to tap into in order to inflict these behaviours on others.
I imagine you’re starting to see the comparisons between the British public school system and the French colonels who were executed in order to force the other soldiers to keep fighting. It’s essentially the same principle – a combination of dulling their instincts to rebel against a violent, stupid situation and of scarring them, hurting them so they take out that pain on the designated enemy. You’ll find this same culture of cruelty combined with emotional repression in every branch of the security state, and in this country an awful lot of military officers, politicians, senior police figures and pretty much all the senior people in the intelligence agencies went to public school.
What this film has that neither of the prior films we’ve looked at have is the element of open rebellion. The conflict is between the establishment and the rebels, though the film is also about the darkness within that is manifested without. This is largely a reaction to the counter-culture that emerged in the 60s, and the desire of the film-makers to side with the rebels.
Whether you see this movie as a revenge fantasy or a satire of the British establishment or a coming of age high school story, or all of the above, it is one of those films where its thematic arcs and its emotional arcs are perfectly in tune.
The 70s is perhaps my favourite decade of American cinema – the emergence of blaxploitation and other exploitation cinema, the radicalism of movies like The Spook who Sat by the Door, the rise of conspiracy thrillers, the anti-Vietnam war movies. And Network, one of the most fascinating and revealing films about the evolution of news into infotainment, and about the media industry in general.
It’s also the decade of my favourite spy movie, Three Days of the Condor. Despite some low-key CIA support it is the relationship between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway that I find especially compelling, as well as the overall tone of the movie. The plot is not that different to Scorpio in that it’s about the Agency murdering their own employees, but the two films are worlds apart in terms of emotional substance, pacing, energy.
However, I don’t want to talk about Three Days of the Condor, I want us to discuss an even more serious movie – Blazing Saddles. I believe that Mel Brooks deserves his own sub-genre, because he makes musical comedies blended with other genres – horror, western, sci fi. I generally don’t like musical comedies, but somehow Mel Brooks found a way to do them that appeals to me. The vaudeville song and dance number in Young Frankenstein always amuses me, the performance of Springtime for Hitler in The Producers was ahead of its time, and then we get to Blazing Saddles.
Let’s unpack this. Madeline Kahn is playing a thinly-veiled version of Marlene Dietrich, but her backup dancers are dressed in WW1 imperial German uniforms. Marlene Dietrich was big in WW2, and worked for the OSS recording German version of American songs, and anti-Nazi albums for morale and propaganda purposes.
So, Brooks and Kahn is not only doing a wonderful homage and pastiche of Marlene Dietrich’s performance style, but also her role as a propagandist, by recasting her as working for the other side in a different war. Which itself is incongruous with the setting of the Old West, which is pre-WW1.
This movie isn’t just very funny, but there’s a lot going on in terms of clever characterisation, a sardonic attitude towards ethnic and racial prejudice, as well as being this odd mishmash of genres.
The movie comes up in a couple of other odd places too – it was the name of a GCHQ operation monitoring online radio. A sample of three months of data from August to October 2009 was analysed by GCHQ to see who was using radio on the internet. Even this small selection from the available data represented 6.68 million unique events originating from over 224,000 IP addresses. This was a part of a larger online surveillance program called Karma Police, with Blazing Saddles designed to help the spies ‘understand more about the listeners of any one particular radio station’ by understanding more about ‘any trends or behaviors’.
So, by listening to this podcast you may find yourself logged in some GCHQ data centre on a server named after a 1970s movie. Operation Bad News Bears?
Whether Blazing Saddles is funnier than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is an open debate on which reasonable people can disagree but there’s another story I want to tell you. Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette was in command of the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group when Stennis skipper Captain Ronald Reis recorded a series of complaints about his conduct. He was removed from that command and reassigned.
One of the specific allegations is that he took ‘a photograph of an enlisted African-American male aircraft mechanic onboard STENNIS… and subsequently emailed [it] to six White male senior Navy Captains in the Strike Group. Complainant characterized the picture as “an obvious attempt to solicit stereotypical sexual humor and innuendo”.’
Essentially, the Admiral took a picture of a black guy working on the somewhat phallic refuelling probe for an EA-6B aircraft and emailed it to several officers, even trying to start a caption competition and offering up the line ‘it’s twoo, it’s twoo’. This comes from a scene in Blazing Saddles featuring Madeline Kahn.
The Navy Inspector General summed up:
We now conclude that the language in Subject’s emails described a racial stereotype pertaining to the anatomy of black males and, when coupled with his reference to the scene in Blazing Saddles, a racial stereotype pertaining to the sexual prowess and proclivities of black males. Consequently, because of the language in paragraph 5 of the SECNAV instruction, we find the Subject’s actions were contrary to Navy’s Core Values.
However, they did not find that this contributed to a hostile working environment because the person who complained never actually saw the email. But this begs the question – how did they know about it so that they could complain, if they never saw it? Were people on the ship gossiping about this stuff, or making jokes?
I wish I could say that a joke from Blazing Saddles got a US Navy Admiral fired, but that isn’t the case. The investigation – while not finding any violations of the UCMJ – resulted in a reprimand and effectively ended his career, because while the email did not constitute hostile behaviour he did have a habit of trash talking black sailors and generally talking as you might expect a Navy Admiral to talk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit vs Robocop vs Full Metal Jacket
The 1980s also presents a quandary, because cinema went a little crazy. The arrival of first generation digital effects and the commercial opportunities provided by the home video market shifted the industrial dynamics once more. But my favourite films of the decade are two more than defy simple genre definitions, or even more complex ones.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit wasn’t the first combined animation and live action film – Disney made Song of the South in 1946, one of their more overtly racist movies and one that is not available on Disney+. Roger Rabbit is, however, the best of the fairly bad sub-genre that gave us Space Jam, the film that resurrected Michael Jordan’s career in the NBA.
I don’t want to examine the movie in detail except to note something that came up in a recent review on RedLetterMedia, still the best movie review channel on youtube.
That’s right, the plot for Who Framed Roger Rabbit was purloined from an unmade sequel to Chinatown, which is probably why it has so many of the same beats and turning points. There is a lot more to the film, I feel, and it probably deserves it own episode but there is something fascinating about the toons that I’d like to quickly explain.
The toons are much physically freer than the humans, in that they are almost immortal, they can more or less do what they want and no one stops them, but the one thing they cannot change is how people see them. They can’t actually change how they look, and as a result they cannot change how they are perceived. As Jessica Rabbit says:
Is this not a perfect metaphor for celebrities, and the ruling class within the entertainment business? They can buy whatever they want, live these supposedly enviable lifestyles, get all this attention, but they cannot control perhaps the one thing most important to insecure, self-absorbed extroverts – how people see them, and whether they like them.
An altogether different film that also made an enormous impression on me is Robocop, which is usually my pick for my favourite of all time. It’s a gorgeous melange of corporate conspiracy thriller, dystopian satire, sci-fi action adventure and transhumanist drama. And it launched the Hollywood career of Paul Verhoeven, the only director I rate higher than Kubrick. I appreciate that stylistically they are quite different but a lot of the same themes prevail across their work.
Before we leave the 80s behind I should give a shoutout to Full Metal Jacket, my favourite war film even though it’s a fairly unrealistic depiction of combat itself. I loved the book that it is based on – The Short Timers, by Marine Corps Vietnam war vet Gustav Hasford, though the film is quite different in a lot of ways. For example, the sniper battle sequence at the culmination of the story takes place in the jungle in the book, but this is transposed onto a wrecked, crumbling city in Full Metal Jacket.
I think this is because Kubrick was taking this metaphorical scene and layering it with an additional metaphor. This prolonged sniper sequence – in which several US Marines are shot and either killed or seriously injured before the lone, female Vietnamese sniper is defeated – is a metaphorical microcosm for the war as a whole. That it takes place in a crumbling cityscape is more about what the Vietnam War represents – that the richest, most industrialised country in the world couldn’t overcome a bunch of rural peasants. It is the geopolitical moment at which industrialised state capitalism was exposed as not being inherently superior or exceptional.
The 20th century is the century of industrialised warfare, and in WW1 and WW2 the richer blocs won – put simply, the larger percentage of GDP won. It had nothing to do with democracy vs fascism, after all the Nazis were elected and Britain was a monarchy, i.e. an elitist system based on the notion of superior bloodlines. Freedom did not win WW1 or WW2, wealth did. In a competition between different models of industrialised state capitalism, the better funded military industrial complexes won.
But in Vietnam, this wasn’t the case. One might also point to Korea, but hardly anyone remembers the Korean war or has any idea of where the present North Korean regime and the South Korean sham democracy came from. So, in Full Metal Jacket we have the second half of the film largely shot in London, in the wreckage of former industrial buildings in the Docklands, which doubles for Vietnam, even though Vietnam doesn’t look anything like that.
This has to be deliberate. Kubrick wasn’t stupid, he wouldn’t have taken a location that doesn’t resemble Vietnam and expected it to work as a double for it in a plausible, convincing way. No one watching Full Metal Jacket thinks they’re looking at Vietnam in those sequences.
The Last Broadcast
The 1990s was the last pre-internet decade of movies, but we also had early CGI spectaculars like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. While the actual CGI-laden shots are kept to a minimum in those movies, and as much as possible was done in-camera, it did open the door to abominations like the Star Wars prequel trilogy (which was almost entirely shot using blue screens, hence the soulless, plasticised feel to those movies).
There are lessons here, not least that CGI is not a substitute for a good story. Compare Terminator 2 and The Matrix. Both are action-heavy shoot em ups, one involves virtual reality while the other involves time travel, so fairly similar conceptually. And both have central characters played by actors who can’t really act – Keanu Reeves, and Edward Furlong – but who were picked because they look good on magazine covers.
But the movies could not be more different in terms of what they offer the audience. The Matrix is just a bloody, narcissistic superhero fantasy with transhumanist overtones while Terminator 2 is the perfect blend of action thriller and sci-fi concept film. The idiotic zombified teenagers watching the Matrix want to be Neo. No one watching Terminator 2 wants to be the Terminator.
I wouldn’t mind being Sarah Connor, who is possibly the most fleshed-out, complex, compelling female action lead in American cinema. Certainly far more so than the snarky, hateful girlboss bitches served up by post-#metoo Hollywood.
Indeed, Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park is a much better female role model than she is as Vice Admiral Gender Studies in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Apropos of nothing, I did recently watch Jurassic World: Dominion and it’s quite bad, they bring back Sattler and Alan Grant, introduce a whole new character who is a black female former Air Force pilot to go with Chris Pratt’s former Navy SEAL. The only truly good thing about the movie is Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm.
In terms of weird little 90s movies I have mentioned before The Last Broadcast, a supernatural true crime mockumentary that is thematically and stylistically way ahead of its time. It pre-empted the modern fascination with true crime and the various ways that factual media exploit grisly murders and rapes to serve up politicised, socialised narratives that are often untrue.
While most true crime falls into two categories – the tale of someone who’s guilty, and the tale of someone who was found guilty and later proven innocent – there’s a curious lack of overlap. There have been endless documentaries about killers like John Wayne Gacey and Ted Bundy but they are often state-sponsored procedurals, explaining how the undoubtedly guilty killer was finally caught. The notion that they, like so many others, might not be guilty simply isn’t considered.
But true crime producers are well aware of some of the famous miscarriages of justice because they also cover them as part of the genre. I am purposely excluding real-time mystery/investigation true crime podcasts because they are more live journalism (of a sort).
Now, there obviously aren’t as many cases of people being wrongly convicted of serial killings than there are people wrongly convicted of individual or spree killings, but they do exist. I’m not suggesting Bundy or Gacey were actually innocent, merely highlighting how the true crime genre encourages the audience to assume the guilt of the accused.
The Last Broadcast inverts this, because it starts out as a found footage reconstruction-style mystery documentary (albeit a fake one, a mockumentary) before becoming an exploration of the likely innocence of the convicted killer, before turning into more of a live investigative piece. And, without giving away the ending, the moral of the story is not to trust anyone using media to exploit crimes for entertainment and propaganda purposes.
Which I think is an excellent moral to take away from a film.
Before we move on from the 1990s I do want to give a quick mention to Mike Myers, Wayne’s World and Austin Powers, because they make me laugh. The sequels, less so, and Myers did recently do a conspiracy-themed comedy called The Pentaverate which was fucking terrible. But there is a mildly surrealist magic to his breakout films that I have always enjoyed, though I won’t forgive him for going to CIA headquarters and posing for pictures with his girlfriend.
The 2000s was a really shit decade for movies – lots of inferior sequels, remakes, reboots, and tedious adventure epics directed by Peter Jackson. No wonder the Marvel films were so popular when they turned up at the tail end of the decade – there really wasn’t much else to choose from. Ditto the Nolan Batman films – they were lauded because there was no competition.
There are a few very good films like Children of Men, American Gangster, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, District 9, Kung Fu Panda. But truly first rate movies? I’m struggling to think of any 2000s film that achieves the zenith either of a genuinely wonderful blockbuster like Jurassic Park or of a truly in-depth indie production like If…. This is partly because of the growth of DVD box sets and the emergence of binge watching high quality TV series. Even before Netflix first came along as a DVD rental service people were spending entire weekends watching a season of The Sopranos. Plus, TV was getting better at a time when films were getting worse. The Wire and Heroes are two from this period that really stood out to me.
I want to give a quick mention to Training Day and Crash, both of which were inspired by the Rampart scandal, a massive police corruption scandal in the Rampart division of the LAPD. Crash won all kinds of awards but I don’t think it is a special film, and I prefer Training Day in terms of the narrative. Crash would probably have worked better as a limited series, giving everything more time to play out, give the consequences of this corruption the space to ripple out. Nonetheless, the cultural impact of the Rampart scandal – which I touched on in my video on The Rookie, is probably worth an episode of its own.
As a listener pointed out, the Denzel Washington character in Training Day also provided the inspiration for the cop character in Snake Outta Compton, another low-budget comedy that is genuinely worth your time. Somehow I missed this when I first watched Snake Outta Compton, it being a long time since I’d seen Training Day, so this was a nice reminder that I am not perfect.
But we have to pick something from the 2000s so I’m going for Moon, from 2009. Made for just $5 million, it was directed by Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, and it is quite special. It’s a dark sci-fi thriller about a man living on the moon harvesting helium and sending it back to earth, who discovers he is a clone – simply a temporary worker whose body will expire after a given time and he’ll then be replaced by another clone.
As far as grim depictions of our increasingly isolated, technocratic, resource-obsessed future go, Moon is not just clever and apt, it is very touching. Sam Rockwell plays our protagonist very well, and I’ve always found him easy to watch, while Kevin Spacey voices his robot companion – the HAL 9000 in this story. I’ll just leave that comparison there for you to dwell on at your leisure.
In contrast, I feel that the 2010s were a new golden age of cinema. At the top level it was dominated by Fast and Furious and superhero movies, some more James Bond and Transformers because they just can’t let these franchises die, and the return of Jurassic Park and Star Wars.
But when it comes to lower-budget features we got Margin Call, The Founder, Nightcrawler, Get Out, The East, Mad Max: Fury Road, Kill the Messenger, Selma, Dolemite is my Name. Even films like Arrival, Her, The Social Network, Django Unchained, The Report are all outstanding. All of these movies are worth the time it takes to watch them at least three times over. As a movie addict we were truly spoilt in the 2010s.
But when it comes to biopics of billionaires – a small but growing sub-genre – the best I’ve seen comes from this decade, in the form of Steve Jobs, the 2015 movie written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. Michael Fassbender plays Jobs, Kate Winslet plays his long-suffering Eastern European assistant, Seth Rogen plays Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels plays the Apple CEO.
In many ways it has the perfect structure for a biopic, because it is divided into three distinct acts, each set in the half hour or so before a product launch – the LISA in 1984, NEXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. There is a bit of montage and flashback and other devices used to weave more things into the story, but that’s it.
Sorkin is very good at this – identify a structure that makes it easy for people to understand what’s at stake and work around that. Most of the conversations depicted as happening in the minutes before these product launches did not take place at those times, but many of them did take place at some point in that period of Jobs’ life. A biopic can only ever be impressionistic because you’ve got two hours to tell the story of someone’s life – which is impossible. So you have to try to capture some essence of the person, what drove them, how they interacted with the key people in their life, and then dramatise that.
A series of product launches are an ideal way to do that, because it’s an excuse to have the key people all present, everyone knows what is at stake – the product either sells well or it flops. Plus, the video that made Jobs famous was the 1998 iMac launch, so to some extent this is all a little familiar to us already, which helps us settle into the story.
By comparison, the 2013 film Jobs is a hideous mess that tries to be everything, everywhere all at once, all things to all people. Without a structure, what’s left is simply a string of fairly incoherent scenes where Jobs is one person at one moment, and a very different person the next. We never get a sense of who this man is. This is partly because Ashton Kutcher is not a good actor, which is presumably why he’s rebranded himself as a CIA front company.
Whereas Fassbender and Winslet are excellent actors, and while opinions from people who knew them as to how accurate the movie is do vary, I appreciated Sorkin focusing on some of the troubling aspects of Jobs’ personality.
The problem with his public persona of a hippy tech entrepreneur is that Jobs wasn’t really a hippy – he was a somewhat cold man, obsessed with technology but who didn’t actually innovate much himself. People point to his ‘world changing inventions’ but the truth is that tablet computing preceded the iPad by years, it’s just that the iPad was the most successfully marketed – it arrived at the right time, for one thing. The internet had developed in speed to the point where watching a movie on wifi was possible, which wasn’t the case when earlier, similar products were launched.
Also, the iPad may have changed the world, but what has it changed the world into? A place where Chinese factory workers churn out so many of these that they kill themselves, and the endless replacement with the latest edition of the same technology creates an enormous amount of pollution. Meanwhile, the consumers turn into feckless drones, unable to function without the constant stimulus of mollifying digital activity.
We need to be looking at these people not as heroes, gods of technology who granted benevolent gifts to us mere mortals, but as people who did things, the consequences of which are mixed at best. It isn’t good for us to be this connected, it doesn’t leave enough space for personal development. Our lives become dependant on interaction and the never-ending stream of content.
As an introvert, I would say this. But even extroverted people suffer from internet burn out, though some actually thrive on constant communication and contact.
Thus, while neither The Social Network nor Steve Jobs dwells on how we use these technologies and what we’re becoming as a result, neither is a celebration of the tech industry nor a vaunting, lionising portrait of tech billionaires. Some critics have argued that these films humanise these anti-social, exploitative oligarchs, and those critics are right. But I think it is more valuable to understand fucked up people as fucked up people and maybe a bit about why they’re so fucked up and the impact that might be having on us, than to demonise them.
After all, demonisation relies on tapping into people’s childish, narcissistic refusal to confront things that make them feel bad in some way. I’m not saying that exposure to things that upset you is always a good thing, but nor is constant avoidance. Some degree of dealing with things, thinking them through, feeling them through, is necessary.
Though likewise, some degree of switching off, not giving a shit, letting the world do its own spinning for a while, is also necessary. This is why simplistic, one dimensional heroisations or demonisations aren’t especially useful to the audience, from either a political-social or a psychological-emotional perspective.
I appreciate films that embrace the complexities and difficulties of the human condition, especially when they are writ large upon entire populations due to the centralisation of wealth and power. If this was a longer-form TV drama then exploring some of these broader consequences would be a must, but in a couple of hours of cinema where you’re trying to tell the story of one man, while also trying to make it relevant to people watching, focusing on the psychological and emotional elements is a natural choice.
The 2020s have so far not been a great decade for movies. All the government-enforced production shut downs and slow downs have caused loads of productions – both film and TV – to be cancelled, dropped, abandoned. However, the streaming giant that is Netflix is beginning its downward spiral into becoming the next Pornhub, so the industrial ground is shifting once more. The streaming platform I’d bet the most money on is Disney, because they have such a gigantic library of content and several very high-profile franchises that allow for endless sequels and spinoffs.
Whereas Netflix has Stranger Things, and Amazon has crap like Jack Ryan and The Rings of Power. The best show on Amazon – The Boys – has become, for me, just another TV show. Maybe it’s the series itself, maybe it is me that has changed. Certainly, some of the criticisms from original audience members of season 2 have hit home with me in season 3.
Given that we’re only in the third year of this decade it would be stupid to try to pick out the best films. I can mention a few that I’ve really enjoyed, such as The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Banker and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, but we looked at those in podcasts already. Ditto The Mauritanian, which somewhat surprisingly comes up on the list of BFI-certified films, which means it got a production rebate from the UK government. Also, a quick mention for Spontaneous – a romantic black comedy horror movie about a mystery virus that targets a high school and causes the students to randomly explode.
Indeed, it’s such a struggle that when I looked up lists of the best movies of the 2020s so far, most of the films listed came out in 2019. I haven’t seen Tenet but I’m assuming that it’s about a guy with a dead wife trying to solve a puzzle, like every other Nolan film. People raved about One Night in Miami but I felt it was kind of insular and self-serving, a movie trying to win awards more than trying to say or do anything.
Thus, I’m going to have to pick a very good but not exceptional film, having boxed myself into a corner by having already covered the handful of exceptional films. Oslo, from 2021, tells the story of the back channel peace negotiations hosted in Oslo in the early 1990s, seeking some kind of agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO, at that time the closest thing Palestine had to a government.
Neither side wanted to publicly admit they were in negotiations with each other, but of course negotiation is a major part of conflict resolution – perhaps the only thing that ever leads to a lasting resolution. So a bunch of Norwegian diplomats set up these ad hoc, unofficial, almost under the table discussions between senior Palestinians and Israelis.
Technically this is a TV movie, it never had a theatrical release but it was made by HBO so it’s just as good cinematically as if it had been made by a European movie studio or whoever. It even counts Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, though I get the impression that was just a screen credit, he didn’t actually contribute that much to the film getting made.
What I especially enjoyed about this, aside from the quite accurate depictions of the various players involved, is that it’s about diplomacy, a world we almost never get to see. All these sessions and talks and summits take place in rooms we don’t get to go in, we don’t even get transcripts of what was said. We simply get announcements and statements, most of which is either for show or about trying to provoke a reaction which can then be used as part of the negotiating strategy in the next session or round of talks.
As such, Oslo is a little window on a world we don’t usually get to see, and is about an issue of significance for a lot of people. Given how many films we get about a NATO security agency hunting some brown-skinned so-called terrorists, to make a movie that’s about people sitting and talking – or arguing, quite a lot of the time – is important because it models a different kind of behaviour. The vast majority of movies dealing with geopolitics in any way quickly resort to violence as the primary means of conflict resolution. Western culture is stacked to the rafters with artefacts saying that the only way to truly end a conflict is when one side eliminates the other. Not defeats, not overcomes, but eliminates.
Think of the destruction of the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, and at the end of Return of the Jedi. They don’t sabotage the Death Star, they don’t find a way to warp it out into space, they certainly don’t seek any kind of bait and switch diplomatic trickery. They just blow it up, along with the hundreds of thousands of Storm Troopers, mechanics, adminstrators, cleaners, medical personnel.
From where I’m sitting this simply is not true – all wars end, eventually, and the overwhelming majority end when some people put aside the rhetoric, get round a table and sort something out. The Germans were not eliminated in either of the world wars. It did not take the total destruction of either side for those wars to come to a close.
Stylistically I do appreciate how this is an adaptation of a stage play and hence the characters are quite sharply drawn, some of the dialogue is a little exaggerated, but this is combined with more carefully-paced Eurothriller cinematography. The overall effect is punchy moments but with time to let you react, and feel things through.
Thus, my pick for my favourite movie set in the world of covert international relations – admittedly a very small sub-genre – is Oslo. Along with all the other movies we’ve focused on today, it offers something you probably won’t find elsewhere, and does so in a compelling and provocative way.