Book review | ‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ by Nadia Denton

Living In Bondage (Dir. Chris Obu Rapi, 1992)

Living In Bondage (Dir. Chris Obu Rapi, 1992)

I interviewed Nadia Denton—author, consultant, programmer, and more—for this site around the time of the release of her excellent last book, ‘The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success’ (2011). Denton has applied that book’s insight and practical rigour to a new subject for her latest project.

‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ is an extremely well-resourced and -structured reference manual designed for a new generation of ambitious Nigerian filmmakers who, says Denton, “want to have theatrical runs of their films, compete on an international level, tour festival circuits, secure favourable distribution deals and win academy nominations.” In her introduction, Denton argues that Nigerian cinema is on the brink of a renaissance, and primed to move beyond the stereotypical landscape of straight-to-video/TV histrionics. The book does a fine job of illustrating how such a revolution might come to pass.

It’s neatly and helpfully divided into distinct sections in accordance with the traditional chronological process of getting a film out into the world: finance, development, marketing, exhibition, and distribution (plus a generous index full of helpful weblinks and references.) Each segment opens with a digestible, informative breakdown of the subject’s key issues before segueing into a series of in-depth (but never overly heavy) interviews with industry experts—there are a whopping 78 interviews in total. The talent roster that Denton has assembled is impressive, and speaks to her standing and experience in the field. Particularly informative contributions are made by Kunle Afolayan (The Figurine, Phone Swap) and Chris Obi-Rapu (director of the first Nollywood film, Living In Bondage), who speak in detail about their careers and the subject of financing. It’s notable, too, that Denton has assembled experts from around the globe (Africa, USA, Europe), giving the book an international, accessible flavour.

For anyone interested in the business of Nigerian cinema—at whatever level—‘The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: Beyond Nollywood’ is a must. It’s of equal use as a handy reference tool to dip in and out of, and a book you can read from cover to cover. It comes highly recommended.

Find out how to purchase the book on Nadia’s website.

I’m only human: opposing thoughts on Boyhood

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I grew up being taught that it was OK to hold more than one competing thought in one’s head about a given subject at any one time. It’s an approach that seems sorely lacking in our current cultural/critical climate: just consider the fount of “hot take” articles about certain recent films (American SniperSelma) in which the author stakes out ideological ground and defends it with ferocity at the expense of nuance.

Yesterday, Richard Linklater’s timid epic Boyhood – which has had its fair share of vocal detractors along the way – was subject to a hatchet job editorial which screamed ‘Racism in BOYHOOD is the worst kind’, and compared it unfavourably with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK shocker Birth of a Nation. Just like Kanye West’s indefensibly tone-deaf request that the highly qualified and experienced artist Beck “respect Beyonce’s artistry”, the claim should be taken with a dumpster of salt. Yet the outrageous surface shouldn’t totally obscure the genuine feeling propelling it. While Kanye’s more salient (and perhaps indivisible) points about historical white industrial colonisation of black music are full of merit and worthy of investigation (particularly by many of the white commentators so quick to dismiss Kanye as an idiot), many nonwhite viewers’ ire has been stoked by the non-presence, and patronising representation of, nonwhite characters in a film that’s been described by some as an American epic.

I think what’s really pissed people off is the feeling that Linklater’s film – and much of the critical discourse around it – represents, essentially, a glowing elevation of white mediocrity in a world where such constructions aren’t hard to come by, and where female/queer/POC/disabled people have to fight 76 million times as hard to get their work seen/championed. As I once remarked upon emerging from a screening of Miranda July’s blank-eyed hipster gadabout The Future, “I want to be alive in a time when black people can get to make a film about so fucking little and have it released internationally.”

Anyway, here are my opposing (or maybe even complementary: you decide) thoughts about Boyhood repurposed from a couple of end-of-year round-ups at Reverse Shot, the Museum of the Moving Image, NY’s wonderful online journal. Why now? Well, consider it a cash in. Lots of people are talking about Boyhood this week, seeing as its up for the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, and I figured this was a decent way to get a few more hits for my blog.

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Good!

Without wishing to indulge in hyperbole, the real miracle of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—a moving, intimate family drama shot in small chunks with the same core cast over a period of twelve years—is not simply that its audacious concept was ushered through to completion. (Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, the youngster at the center of the film, could have at any moment decided the acting life wasn’t for him, and effectively scuppered the enterprise.) Rather, it’s the unshakable faith that Linklater has invested in stillness, subtlety, and—whisper it—banality, as a pathway to emotional resonance. Think about it: how many other directors would make a film over the same period and resist the temptation to shore up the intimidatingly diffuse timeline with dramatic clichés, coming-of-age touchstones (for instance, young Mason’s hilariously perplexed reaction to a pair of locker-room douchebag bullies), and actorly pyrotechnics? Save for one spectacular, alcohol-fueled family blowout, Boyhood is comprised of hushed, beautifully observed interactions that cut across generational lines, performed with grace and restraint by underrated actors like Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who both shine as Mason’s separated parents. Moreover, the film is structured with stunningly brusque ellipses—sometimes the only way to spot the significant passage of story time is in the unheralded alteration of a character’s hairstyle, or the sudden appearance of an ill-advised moustache. Linklater’s decision to shoot entirely on 35mm film lends the potentially patchwork project a rich, sun-kissed aesthetic unity, while simultaneously rendering it a gentle elegy for an ailing medium. Boyhood plays like some magical collapsed-time capsule: inherently nostalgic thanks to its production history and in the sense that it represents an extratextual commentary on the evolution of Linklater as a filmmaker. But with its implacable forward momentum and refreshing belief in the importance of living in the present, it is thrillingly now.

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Bad!

I loved Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for reasons I outlined in a brief write-up above. That said, it’s an imperfect work. Much of whatever opprobrium has been directed toward it has, not outrageously, focused on its representational approach. One recurring allegation, more or less boiled down: with its pretentions-to-universality title and monocultural core cast, Boyhood posits the white, middle-class experience as default. And it’s certainly true that some critics have fallen into a trap by lauding this representationally limited film for its portrayal of the quintessentially “American” experience, consequently—without pre-planned malice—abetting the replication of patterns of cultural dominance all too familiar to those of us (like me, a critic of color in a white-dominated field) who fall outside the previously described demographic.

I’m a firm believer in critiquing a film for what it does include rather than what it doesn’t, so with that in mind . . . In all of Boyhood’s 165 minutes, there are, I think, four noteworthy speaking roles for actors of color: less controversially, an awkward college roommate, and a young schoolboy who gets teased by his older friends. And there’s mom Olivia’s black female colleague, who in a brief, very curious moment, appears to make sexual advances toward a freshly graduated Mason Jr. (Perhaps it’s the result of a bad edit—there’s no laugh to release the tension—but the scene carries a weird charge, unwittingly reviving the old jezebel stereotype of the sexually ravenous black woman.) And then there’s inarguably Boyhood’s nadir, the use of the character of the family’s Hispanic one-time handyman (Roland Ruiz). He first appears in a scene in which Olivia slightly patronizingly praises his skills, calls him “smart,” and recommends he take night classes. Then, in a forehead-slappingly silly moment near the film’s conclusion, he reappears at a restaurant where Olivia is dining with her now grown kids. He’s managing the restaurant and, rather than let the audience process his presence independently, Linklater has the man gushingly thank Olivia, this shining beacon of white womanhood, for changing his life. The smug, clunky sequence not only ruptures Boyhood’s refreshing absence of diegetic self-referentiality—rarely does Linklater feel the need to have the film comment on itself to foster continuity—it also plays like it was directed by a drunken Cameron Crowe in ultra-sentimental mode.

In the grand scheme of Boyhood—a generous, expansive, and ultimately loveable work—it’s a minor thing, but it did raise my hackles. Linklater had an opportunity to afford a young Hispanic actor a role with agency, but disappointingly opted instead to utilize him as a symbol genuflecting toward that time-honored trope: the white savior.

Get On Up | review

Get On Up

by Ashley Clark

[Editor’s note: an edited version of this review first appeared in the October issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, which hit shelves in early September. The film’s UK release was put back a couple of months after the mag went to print, so the review was unfortunately published way ahead of schedule.]

With his debut The Help (2011) — a whimsical, formally conservative Driving Miss Daisy for the ‘post-racial’ generation — director Tate Taylor offered little indication that he’d be the most appropriate choice to bring the life of the electrifying, pioneering funk musician James Brown to screen. Yet within moments, any notion that Taylor has played it similarly safe are up in smoke; PCP smoke, to be precise.

Get On Up begins in Atlanta in 1988, where an evidently high Brown (Chadwick Boseman, giving an energetic and charismatic performance), clad in a green velour tracksuit, marches into his offices, and reacts furiously upon discovering that an interloper has had the nerve to use his toilet: a transgression he can discern by the lingering smell (“Which one of you gentle folks hung a number two in my commode?”) Brown fires his shotgun into the ceiling, reprimands the culprit, then stares straight down the camera in a baroquely Brechtian flourish, beckoning us to join him on his journey of memory. Repurposing this bizarre incident — which allegedly really happened — constitutes a boldly disarming way to kick off a major Hollywood biopic, and is curiously microcosmic of what follows: a portrait that’s irreverent, loose and often fun; but also deeply strange, chronically indisciplined and never quite serious enough about its subject.

Beginning with Brown at his lowest point might imply that a traditional rags-to-riches-to-rags arc is to come, but Taylor and British screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth (who wrote the recent, chronologically playful blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow) fashion an elastic narrative which, initially at least, places proceedings closer to experimental cinema than any traditional biopic template. Key influences seem to be Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America (1985), an elliptical documentary about the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which uses an actor to portray its subject as a small child in flashbacks; and Francois Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), in which discrete stories clatter together to conjure an impressionistic vision of its enigmatic pianist subject. In its first 20-or-so minutes, the equally impressionistic Get On Up hops from Vietnam in 1968 (where a boisterous Brown arrives to play music, and harangue the U.S. Army), to dreamlike passages of a troubled childhood in 1939 Alabama, where alcoholism, abuse, and nebulously-rendered racism lurk in the shadows. We then jump from a 1964 support gig by Brown’s first band for The Rolling Stones, to a press conference at an airport (a scenario which is frequently returned to, and acts as the closest thing the film has to a framing device.) The filmmakers’ desire to do something different with the form is laudable, but the bizarre editing and wild tonal oscillations prove exhausting rather than exhilarating.

The film’s bells, whistles, smoke and mirrors ultimately render Brown an enigma, but Boseman’s nuanced performance at least hints at his character’s transformation from cocky, gauche extrovert into a shark-like businessman who’s as much of a performer offstage as on it. It’s telling (perhaps also of the filmmakers’ priorities) that the sudden death of Brown’s manager, Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is depicted as the single life event that hits Brown the hardest. The death of Brown’s son Teddy in 1973, by contrast, is skirted over in quite literally a matter of seconds, while the portrayal of his relationship with wife Deirdre (Jill Scott) is comically undercooked. If it is Brown who’s supposed to be telling this story, as the inconsistently-applied fourth-wall breakage implies, it never feels like he has much control over it. Sometimes, the use of the straight-to-camera gambit is downright bewildering, such as the late scene where Brown punches his wife in the face, then wanders up to the camera and stares at the viewer with a gormless expression.

Get On Up‘s biggest flaw — other than the rather pedestrian nature of its musical sequences, and a tendency to suggest Brown’s signature talent was somehow magical rather than the result of militaristically rigorous practice — is its failure to engage directly with why Brown meant so much to African-American audiences in the politically tumultuous 1960s and 70s. Brown was a complex, contradictory figure — he considered arch-segregationist and South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond a mentor figure — but his commitment to black self-actualisation was unambiguous and influential. One snippet of ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and a couple of shots of Brown sporting a dashiki hardly suffice. The filmmakers (a white director and two white screenwriters) have the time to include cosily apologetic jokes about the white appropriation, and misunderstanding of, black culture, but they’d have been better served tackling what made Brown’s black audiences tick.

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer + Q&A with Charlie Ahearn | BFI, 18 June, 18:10

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I’m properly excited about this event, so I thought I’d give it a plug here. The BFI is hosting the UK premiere of this documentary by celebrated hip-hop historian and director, Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style). Its subject, Jamel Shabazz, started out as a teenage photographer in early ’80s Brooklyn, and set out to document the then nascent hip-hop movement. According to the blurb, “Ahearn takes us on a modern day and very personal journey with Shabazz as he revisits old neighbourhoods and talks to friends and colleagues about life in New York, hip-hop culture and its 30-year history.”

Anyway, it looks great. You can book tickets here.

Here’s some more of Jamel’s work to get you in the mood.

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See you there.

Recurring Nightmares #3 | The Awful Tooth

Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories. 

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By Jonathan Bygraves

In a rare passage of levity some two-thirds into George A. Romero’s otherwise downbeat social-realist vampire tale Martin (1978), the eponymous young protagonist finally ‘reveals’ his secret to his suspicious granduncle Tateh. Martin emerges from the shadows of night in full bloodsucker garb – the cloak, the pallid face – and at last bares those gleaming fangs, immediately sending Tateh reaching for his rosary. But the old man is being made a fool of: Martin dismissively spits to the ground what turns out to be a novelty oral prop, derisively quipping, “it’s just a costume”.

Such a play on familiar iconography illustrates Romero’s revisionist intent to re-purpose the vampiric for the everyday. It also serves to highlight how teeth are such a familiar signifier of malignant forces in fiction. These are defining attributes not just for vampires but werewolves, cannibals and sundry other extra-human or animal-like monsters. Teeth are so inextricably linked to fearsomeness that monstrous antagonists often take their names from their dental characteristics: Chatterer in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), Saw Tooth in Wrong Turn (2003) and providing the title, at least, of a certain killer shark movie franchise. Teeth also feature prominently as a symbol of the Other in fairy tales: consider that Little Red Riding Hood’s final – and most telling – observation of the Big Bad Wolf before she is ingested is an oral one.

Teeth have proved a handy signifier in terms of human characters too: think of Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed henchman Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), whose steeled dentition reflects his apparent physical invulnerability, or Austin Powers’ overbite, as much a visual pun on perceived poor orthodontic standards east of the Atlantic as a goofy character quirk. Brad Pitt went as far as having his Hollywood smile surgically altered for Fight Club (1999), insistent that chipped incisors were a key indicator of Tyler Durden’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the very term ‘Hollywood smile’ implies that perfect pearly-whites as a physical ideal is a notion fostered by the cinema itself.

It has not always been thus: deliberate tooth blackening was a fashionable practice among high-ranking aristocrats in Japan up until the Meiji period, and in Victorian England decaying teeth were a sign of affluence, representing the ability to purchase sugar and confectioneries. Today, however, dental decay is more likely an indicator of slovenliness or poverty. In cinematic terms, so too does it become a signifier of ‘otherness': as Carol Clover notes in Men Women and Chainsaws, bad teeth play a prominent role in the rape-revenge cycle of films of the 1970s initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film whose antagonists’ famously malformed mouths are such abiding pop culture icons that fancy dress shops are likely still to carry copycat hillbilly teeth as part of their stock range. Indeed, within the film itself, bad teeth (or indeed the absence of) are such a defining characteristic that Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is unable to identify his assailant after discovering he may have popped his dentures in.

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Deliverance uses dental deficiency as a signifier of the divide between the men from the city and those from the country. This a motif rooted as much in class division as much as  geographical or moral, and is used similarly in Wes Craven’s own backwoods horror The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In its economical opening minutes, the film sets up a similar dynamic, introducing the viewer to the wholesome Carter clan and the ragged, near-feral Ruby (Janus Blythe), thickly laying on the contrasts between the all-American family and their cannibalistic counterparts. Once again, this is emphasised by dental disparity: the Carters’ gleaming, perfectly-aligned gnashers against Ruby’s decay-ridden mouth and, later on, her brother Mars’ (Lance Gordon) fang-like front teeth.

While Craven’s film is using the same signifier, there is a further sub-dynamic within: while Mars is more straightforwardly villainous, Ruby is presented as an abused victim of her patriarchal family, and ultimately afforded a redemptive arc. In this case bad teeth are more purely an expression of economic difference than moral squalor. Craven’s previous film The Last House on the Left (1974) had also featured a character with bad teeth who emerges as more wronged than wrong-doer: Junior (Marc Sheffler), son of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), is also victim of his domineering patriarch – who has hooked him on heroin as a means of control – and though still an accessory to the crimes of his cohorts, is presented as a considerably more sympathetic character.

Whereas The Hills Have Eyes uses animal imagery as a means to align its cannibal family with untamed wilderness, The Last House on the Left uses it to illustrate the power dynamic between father and son: when Junior playfully imitates the sound of a frog, it metaphorically underlines his status relative to Krug as an unthreatening pet: domesticated, servile, less than human. When Krug later imagines his teeth being knocked out by one of his victim’s vengeful parents, the dental symbolism implies not just excruciating pain but a fear of the loss of power and identity. As such, teeth falling out is not just a common anxiety dream, but a body horror trope in the likes of  The Fly (1986), District 9 (2009) and even Moon (2009), representing a transformation into something ‘Other’.

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As a re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) (in which, like The Hills Have Eyes, there is direct class parallel between the antagonists and a wild, near-feral sister figure) there is a traceable link from The Last House on the Left back to pastoral folklore, and further. Bergman’s film was itself based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad, and also prompts a Biblical resonance. The Virgin Spring‘s dialectic is not merely class-based but religious too, in the form of a conflict between the Nordic and the Christian. In addressing the question of the morality of vengeance, the revenge film’s dental imagery covertly calls to mind Leviticus‘ doctrine of “a tooth for a tooth”.

Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine offers another deeper psychological underpinning of odontophobia, namely the myth of the vagina dentata and male castration anxiety. Creed cites the famous poster for Jaws (1975) as a metaphorical illustration of this (woman on the water’s surface, giant teeth hidden below), and it is presented very literally in The Last House on the Left when Krug’s penis is bitten off during the act of fellatio. In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2009), the myth is ultimately repurposed as a possible symbol of female empowerment.

Teeth, then, continue to be a potent symbol of unconscious anxieties as well as a shorthand for manifold attributes: fearsomeness, animal-like qualities, the culturally alien, the morally suspect. One might note the perfectly aligned orthodontistry of the eponymous protagonists in Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which, for all of its hillbilly horror revisionism, can’t quite bring itself to give its would-be romantic leads this one physical attribute that the cultural stereotype calls for. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then – on film at least – bad teeth might still be considered to be said soul’s hazardously-splintered front door frame.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

Dispatch from NYC – 2001: A Space Odyssey & the NY Philharmonic

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By Cathy Landicho

The New York Film Festival is currently on, but the week before it opened, the New York Philharmonic opened its season with its first ever Film Week: The Art of the Score, featuring the sights and sounds of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. As an avid fan of both film and classical music, this seemed too unique an opportunity to miss. The Hitchcock program was a montage of selections, while the Kubrick option was a full-length screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a live score. I opted for the latter.

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The Lincoln Center complex was abuzz with activity before the 8pm curtain. The crowd was younger than usual for this event, as you’d imagine. There were far more young couples, students and families, many likely visiting the venue for the first time. The Saturday night screening of 2001 was filled to capacity in Avery Fisher Hall (at right), the largest of the concert halls which seats about 2700 in four tiers. I’ve been to packed classical concerts in huge venues before – a sold-out Prom at Royal Albert Hall would seat 5000+ people – but I’d never seen a film with this many people before. The closest by comparison would be a packed screening in Screen 1 of the Leicester Square Empire, which seats about half of Avery Fisher Hall’s capacity.

As you took your seat, you couldn’t help but notice the 10+digit counter next to the conductor’s stand and imagine the recording of a score, and how the orchestra had to transplant the experience from the studio to the concert hall. Taking it all in, I thought of how bands like Radiohead have to practice and adapt their complex studio recordings for live stadium shows. Another noticeable difference from your average classical concert were the choir members visible in the front two balcony boxes with individual lights and hanging mics, rather than standing behind the orchestra. This enterprise involved more stagecraft than I had anticipated.

Before the screening began, Alan Gilbert, the Music Director of the NY Philharmonic for the past four years, led the orchestra in the film’s overture, Ligeti’s Atmospheres for Large Orchestra (1961). The ambient, spooky piece with no discernible time signature or melody established an anxious tone to frame the film, with its swelling discordant pulses overlaid with screeching strings. After a tense ten minutes, the lights came down and we all held our breaths awaiting the sun’s appearance. The wall of sound that hit me from the orchestra performing ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Strauss at full volume combined with Kubrick’s simple, dramatic images, plus the sight of the orchestra’s exertions was goosebump-inducing, a visceral high; the audience spontaneously burst into applause afterward.

Viewing the film with such a huge crowd together with the live score patently heightened the experience, making it both more immediate and more communal. I first saw 2001 in NFT1 at the BFI, and I don’t recall hearing audible laughter at HAL’s snarkiness or collective gasps when HAL reads Bowman’s and Poole’s lips while they are conspiring in the pod at the end of the first half. Moreover, the venue inspires reverence – this is a place where there are free cough drops in the restrooms to encourage absolute silence. The majesty of Kubrick’s images were well-suited for this high-art venue.

The late Roger Ebert observed: “When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick’s film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.” Some may prefer to imagine a late 19th century Viennese ballroom while listening to Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz rather than Kubrick’s space ballet. But Ebert’s observation is easily accepted in the case of Ligeti’s music. In addition to the aforementioned overture, his Requiem and Lux Aeterna were used as the theme of the monolith. (Kubrick had actually commissioned a score from Alex North that he later substituted for Ligeti’s contemporary pieces, without the knowledge or permission of either composer.) The Musica Sacra choir performed Ligeti’s pieces admirably under vulnerable circumstances – the vocal parts are cluster chords, which are extremely difficult to pitch. There was an extra level of surreal-ness, seeing forty-odd people coordinating to give voice to Kubrick’s monolith.

I was initially a bit worried that the orchestra would not play enough during the film for me to justify buying the ticket. But I needn’t have worried – several of the classical pieces did repeat throughout the film, and even the silence was heightened in Avery Fisher Hall, particularly during the scenes when all you can hear is the astronauts’ laboured breathing while HAL conspires against them. There was definitely added value beyond the live music; seeing 2001 with so many people in a beautiful venue with amazing acoustics was well-worth the price.

However, watching the end credits while listening to a live orchestra was truly odd. The audience understandably applauded the end of the film while the orchestra continued playing the Blue Danube Waltz on a loop. But since the house lights stayed off, there was a palpable awkwardness in the audience about having to sit quietly and wait for the orchestra to finish when so many of us are accustomed to leaving during the end credits; Strauss’ waltz did not feel worthy of our attention without Kubrick’s visuals. To Alan Gilbert’s credit, he attempted to fill the vacuum by conducting with added vigour; but he had to compete for the attention of the film buffs in the audience, who applauded when particular names appeared in the credits, hooting while our focus was meant to shift to the orchestra.

Despite this rather anti-climactic ending to the screening, it was certainly a worthwhile experience. Personally, I hope that Film Week at the NY Philharmonic becomes a traditional part of the season – I’m imagining screenings of Taxi Driver or Do The Right Thing with live scores…

If you have any suggestions of other films that would benefit from live scoring, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Economic Measures #6 | Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1974)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

In the run-up to the climactic duel of The Street Fighter (1974), the film’s protagonist Tsiguri (Sonny Chiba) boards an oil tanker, on which its owner, oil heiress Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), is being held hostage by the mafia cohorts who want to steal her fortune. Awaiting Tsiguri are gun-toting thugs, casual hired hands and two siblings who had earlier refused to pay our protagonist after the latter had completed a dangerous job for them. This finale is a masterpiece of meaningful action, in which multiple story threads meet in one final showdown. Driving it, as he has done the film, is Chiba, a pulsating, intense figure whose anger seeps through at every turn.

A major part of what makes The Street Fighter a more sophisticated film than its contemporaries is its high production values. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Japan by cinematographer Kenji Tsukagoshi, it boasts a dazzling display of colours and compositional vivacity – in the ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 format – that its otherwise ordinary plot would customarily preclude.

Another key contributor to The Street Fighter‘s success is of course Chiba himself. In contrast to Bruce Lee, the man is vicious from the outset, and though he is revealed to have a code, it is largely governed by financial need. Lee’s appeal lay in the arrogance with which he began a conversation knowing he had his fists of fury to fall back on when the other guy inevitably turned nasty. For Chiba’s character, fighting is the only viable means of communication.

Tsiguri’s father, we learn via flashback, was killed for being a spy, and the resulting legacy is one of distrust, resentment and a self-made tough-guy status: nothing upsets Tsiguri more than an unfulfilled promise, which is why he bears the burden physically as well as emotionally when he makes one to someone else. Indeed, physical force is an emotional outlet in itself for Chiba. To watch him in just about any scene in The Street Fighter is to witness someone channelling a deep, conflicted spiritualism into a lethal weapon. If the reason we continue to like Bruce Lee is his speedy chic – aided by the mysticism that follows a premature death (he’s a kind of Bob Marley of martial arts) – then Chiba’s charms are rooted in a thuggish morality, whereby the pursuit of monetary sustenance fuels his capacity to fight, and thus survive. Never underestimate a guy whose reason to fight is economic.

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These qualities are encapsulated in the scene aboard the oil tanker at the end of the film, as Tsiguri makes his way from the deck to the deeper corridors and engine room below, downing any man (or woman) who dares to stop him. Tsiguri’s ferocity alone seems to compel him onward, like a motor whose sound drowns out all other human attributes. To think of an equivalent performance recently – in which the gruelling element of a fistfight becomes a kind of the structuring principle – we might look to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s exhilarating one-man attack on the compound in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009). Matching the kind of formal audacity that has included an x-ray image of a skull being smashed earlier in the film, Chiba here personifies someone who really is going to go all the way. While knuckles and feet are his preferred weapons of choice, he doesn’t think twice about throwing a knife into the arm of a woman who points a gun at him, and he is unforgiving enough to throw a man to his death even after he has incapacitated him.

Beginning this 4½-minute sequence of fights by stealthily offing a guard and carrying him overboard, Chiba becomes increasingly maniacal in look and angular in movement. Indeed, so heavy is the body count to come, and so confined are the spaces in which he must run this gauntlet, that somewhere along the way, Chiba’s more balletic manoeuvres become less elegant. And that deep, cacophonous hiss-cum-growl that he summons in his throat between each attack becomes harsher, more audible. In a word, more alien: here, fisticuffs are a thing of consequence, something by and through which man is both spiritually and physically transformed. Resembling a possessed demon by the time he plunges his fatal fist into a female foe (tactfully obscured by an upturned settee), Chiba’s quest to save Sarai has changed him: even if he does down everyone in his path, we get the sense from his eyes that he’ll never quite recover from it, and that a relationship with Sarai would be out of the question.

Irredeemably intense, this odds-against, self-destructive plummet into violence prefigures that other antiheroic climax of the 1970s – that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Likewise, when his fight is over, Chiba’s fate is open to ambiguity.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.