Author Archives: Ed Wall

About Ed Wall

Musician, photographer, writer.

Looper | review

Rian Johnson’s Looper is not only a welcome return to form after the quirk overload of 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, but also sees the director achieving the rare feat of crossing over into the mainstream while retaining pretty much all of his stylistic quirks. Johnson is a man of vision, and, luckily for cinemagoers, seems to have producers who are wise to his not-inconsiderable talents.

Of course, it’s the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – made up beyond recognition and doing an uncanny take on Bruce Willis’ off-key manner – plays Joe, a mob goon who assassinates people from the future’s future – a ‘looper’. It’s a grubby line of work usually ending with a grim payoff – what’s known as ‘closing the loop’: murdering your future self. Bruce Willis is the older version of Joe who’s determined not to die – and has some ominous information that could change everything.

Looper has at some stage been compared to The Matrix, a comparison stemming from pure laziness on the part of some hack, picked up on by the press team in a move (albeit an understandable one) no doubt designed to get bums on seats. At the risk of sounding pompous, comparing Looper to The Matrix is a bit like comparing a Madlib album to Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001, Grizzly Bear to Mumford and Sons or Fiona Apple to Alanis Morisette. While those comparisons aren’t necessarily formulated to express the relative merit of each film, they do serve to highlight that, despite Looper‘s mass appeal, it’s still pushing for something a little deeper.

If a comparison to a Keanu Reeves science fiction film were to have to be made (oh, go on then!), Looper would probably end up a lot closer to A Scanner Darkly – which took the novel approach of sorting out Reeves’ acting by turning him into a cartoon. A Scanner Darkly was also, it should be remembered, a film that was misunderstood in a lot of quarters – a fate that seems entirely possible for this film if audiences go into it expecting the kind of depressing bangs-whizzes-and-relentless-gun-battle fare that has become the norm since The Matrix ‘changed the game’ (ruined everything), and Christopher Nolan ‘changed the game’ (added a snow level).

This film’s refreshing difference lies in its concern, not in plot information factoid overkill, but the human element of the tale. It’s very much a character-driven story, and the acting and casting are superb. To list the great performances in this film would be pointless, as they’re all pretty flawless, but a special mention should go to young star Pierce Gagnon who is terrifying as Cid, a preternaturally mature child that Joe comes across in the course of his journey.

As in his debut Brick, which cleverly subverted the conventions of film-noir, Johnson simply uses the science-fiction genre as a way of exploring themes that interest him – memory, fate and consequence. The clever move he makes is to have the film breeze over its concept (setting out its sci-fi stall, so to speak) in the opening few minutes. In this way, Johnson dispels the impulse to pick the story to pieces. Either you take it or leave it.

In some senses Looper has the makings of a slick film aiming at a bigger target audience than Johnson’s previous efforts – but as a writer/director he also isn’t afraid to take the leftfield option at the risk of showing a rougher edge. It’s far from perfect, and at times experiences something of a lack of coherent movement between acts, but in taking more risks it rewards the viewer with a richly emotional and thoughtful centre.

Unlike some genre staples, it doesn’t make a song and dance over instances of directorial inventiveness, of which there are many. It’s playful, rather than po-faced. It has no cartoonishly alluring latex-clad sex-token girl-trope cartwheeling about the place – although Emily Blunt’s single mum is a subversive nod to the type and does simultaneously function as a love interest for Gordon-Levitt’s character. The action sequences are muted and interesting rather than bombastic. Its tone is nuanced between light and dark and (like Duncan Jones’ 2011 Source Code) it doesn’t simply rely on a dark, gritty colour palette to make it feel weighty.

In the end Looper’s smartness lies deeper than some smug pseudo-philosophical meditations. It also doesn’t literally end on a shot of the main protagonist flying away like superman to a Rage Against the Machine tub-thumper – all wise moves on balance, when the idea is to get some brainboxes working, rather than a monster truckload of fifteen year-old boys’ throbbers pulsing.

Looper is in cinemas from Fri 28 September. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

The Queen of Versailles | review

“Through these hallowed gates…”

These are the words uttered by David Siegel, ‘The Timeshare King’, gazing off into the middle distance as he pictures his dream house: a sprawling bomb-blast of nouveau riche pomp and bombast. It’s a taste abomination that could only have been conceived in the peculiar vacuum of imagination opened in the heads of the Babyboomers by the day-glo visions of that liar Disney and his tepid concept of romance, aspirational living and happy endings. It’s a particular version of an even greater mistruth: the infamous ‘American Dream’ (Happy Endings R’ Us), which stipulates that anyone can be anything they choose to be if they work hard, play hard and consume consume consume.

After a pause it’s clear that nothing else is coming. David Siegel’s head is pleasantly empty. The words hang in the air, a grandiose sentiment that Siegel is able to start but powerless to finish. He’s clearly bamboozled by this sudden reminder of words’ flightiness; he doesn’t wield the same influence over mock-poetic language as he does over people and things. There’s a hint of impotent desperation somewhere behind his eyes as he glances furtively at the camera, as though on some level he’s aware of playing a part – that of himself – and has no desire to be playing it.

Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles, a cheekily-edited documentary charting the epic fall from grace (American grace – ie. wealth) of one of America’s richest entrepreneurs, his extravagent wife Jackie (the ‘Queen’ of the title), and their large family of children, maids and pets is a good film that could have been great, but falls victim to that same need for tidy allegory that demands there be such things as happy endings. In this case the ‘happy’ ending is the moral ending – where David is shown the error of his greedy materialist ways by the advent of a crisis beyond his control. From unintentionally hilarious characters having not a care in the world, the impact of ‘The Crash’ both humbles and humanises the Siegels, bringing them to the level of ordinary people like you or I.

Supposedly.

We watch with a certain glee as bumbling David and former beauty queen Jackie are forced to ‘adjust’ to a life within reason – a life without a private jet, without a team of housekeepers, without continuous spending on frivolous items (which Jackie, in a constant rapture of materialist desire, continues to do). Cleverly, Greenfield uses interviews with the Filipino maids, Jackie’s adopted daughter and David’s estranged son, as well as various other interconnected characters to create a rich tapestry of opinion and experience that acts as a commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the couples’ life as they go from oblivious (with some moments so ludicrous they might have been scripted by Christopher Guest) to humbled, emotionally vulnerable and relatable. The building of their personal palace is put on hold as David struggles to hold things together, a fittingly symbolic state of affairs mirroring the struggle of ordinary Americans.

Except, of course, their lives aren’t the lives of ordinary Americans. What is shown but not explicitly commented upon is that, despite their apparent poverty (see the dog shit on the carpets, the dying pets left to starve in the absence of maids) Jackie continues to spend sums that most people could only dream of. What is not shown (Greenfield deliberately chose to cease filming at a point of financial uncertainty for the family) is that just after the events depicted David managed to turn things around. He’s now happily ripping people off with crappy timeshare apartments in much the same way as he was before. In humanising them, Greenfield defends the Siegels as much as she mocks them. They clearly don’t want or need her validation; the added irony being that David Siegel, in addition to resuming work on Versailles, is now suing for defamation of character– two rampantly egotistical moves that conveniently sum up the total lack of perspective he was supposed to have gained according to the film’s narrative.

Greenfield has said in interviews that she chose not to continue filming to leave the film as ‘a parable’, which, as a natural fan of this film, was incredibly disappointing to hear; I had felt that this was an important piece of work, something that should be shown to the Trumps, Camerons and Osbournes, Romneys, Sugars and Greenes – all the posh boys and self-made men who don’t give two shits about the people they left behind or never knew. I can’t help but feel that consciously leaving something so important out undermines the strength of the argument, rendering a great deal of meaning the film might have had void.

Having said all that, The Queen of Versailles is still very much worth a watch, especially for the unintentional comedy of the opening half hour. Greenfield has been called a sociological photographer for her work in stills – as director she acts very much like the arch sociologist, crowbarring meaning onto situations and events that don’t necessarily have inherent meaning, to portray the world in the light she’s clearly already decided she wants it to be seen. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it honest? Not really.

The Queen of Versailles is in cinemas now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

FAKE! Orson Welles Tells Art to F-off

“Talent borrows, genius steals.”

That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?

Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.

True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?

For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.

Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.

Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).

They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.

If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.

F for Fake is being screened at the BFI Southbank from 24th August 2012, as well as selected venues across the UK. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

The Expendables 2 | review

For quite some time now the ambiguous influence of that pernicious force known as postmodernism has been sending popular culture – and with it the previously established ‘normal’ way of regarding and interacting with the world – spiralling down the rabbit hole. As the ‘postmodern’ continues its evolution from purely theoretical ‘ism’ to something more palpably woven into the fabric of daily life, what might once have been considered surreal impossibilities start to be routinely enacted. Only recently, we watched slack jawed as the actual Queen appeared as the Queen alongside the fictional character of James Bond in a video sequence for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony.

Almost everything in our contemporary existence seems to aspire towards self-reference, ironic nods or a head-fuck. Is this simply a more playful way of interacting with life, or a dangerous disconnection with what makes it real? What’s certain is this: shit is getting weird and we’re all in it together. My greatest fear is that this self-reflexivity will keep pushing things closer, diminishing space – that the world will just become smaller and smaller until it finally disappears with some kind of comedy ‘pop’ sound right up it’s own painfully distended anus.

And so now, in 2012, we come to this: the second instalment of a potentially never-ending Expendables franchise – a film so ludicrous in conception and follow-through it almost makes perfect sense. But doesn’t. At all.

“That was it”, I will tell my kids. “2012. Year of the Mayan Prophesies. I was there.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the event that was, in later years when humanity has pieced itself together from the ashes, recognised as the key to triggering the apocalypse.

“I was there,” I’ll say, “when Arnold Schwarzenegger (wearing an expression one can only describe as mildly beatific, like a glowing child possessed with the will to clarity as they prepare to pour salt on a slug), fired a Gatling gun out of the side of a Smart car being driven by Bruce Willis. I was there”, I will say, “when Chuck Norris cracked a Chuck Norris joke onscreen and everything came apart at the seams.”

However, I’ll get it out of the way right now: I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

This project could, and probably should, have had a massive whiff of cynicism about it – a cash-in by ageing action stars on the ‘meta’ fad. But everyone seems to be having so much fun with it that it draws you in almost despite yourself. Whereas the first in the series suffered from something of an identity crisis, unsure of quite how far into farce it wanted to descend, The Expendables 2 has no such qualms. They’ve taken what worked in the first, got a new director and writers on board and basically remade Expendables 1 but sillier and better.

The result is magnificently deranged. In some senses it actually resembles an episode of a long-running sitcom, where old favourites enter to a cheer and applause from the canned audience (though the audience in the screening I was at did actually applaud every time a new hero appeared) and knowingly steal each other’s catchphrases.

Van Damme as Jean Vilain

This is a world where men (big, oversized men) are capable of transcending the boundaries of space and time, where characters can be shown running through the jungle and seconds later are at the controls of a massive plane flying down to wreak havoc on a faceless army that surely only built that massive dam so it could have the SHIT blown out of it. Surely these men, with their insane control of the space/time continuum, are the real super heroes. They have the power of deities. Being armed with guns seems both completely necessary yet totally redundant.

It’s tantamount to admitting that the action genre, no matter how serious it might take itself at times (I’m looking at you, Señor Nolan) is really just about stuff blowing up, stuntmen falling off things and the hero making a pun at the end of it. For all these perma-sculpted men (what on earth are they going to look like in their 80s?), who at one time or another must also have considered themselves quite seriously, to basically admit as much takes a lot of guts. Guts raining from the sky it is, then.

For anyone who’s ever enjoyed a cheesy action film from the 80s and 90s, pretty much everyone is here. The only notable absentees from this roster of action movie legends to feature across the series so far are Jackie Chan, Mel ‘naughty step’ Gibson and the bloke who played McGuyver. And Steven Seagal, I suppose. Considering none of these men are exactly known for their acting chops, the relaxed atmosphere works wonders. That, and the fact that they’re basically playing themselves. Or an amalgamation of all their various selves, Basically, they know the terrain, and they’re totally comfortable in it.

Stallone these days resembles an uncannily animated totem pole, but at least he can almost crack a smile now (I wouldn’t rule out CGI there). Jean-Claude Van Damme (who’s actually not new to this postmodern game, having starred in 2008’s really very good JCVD) is rather brilliant as Jean Vilain. Dolph Lundgren is much more comfortable in his role this time around and at times has an almost (I shit you not) Klaus Kinski-esque madness to him. Schwarzenegger and Willis, Norris and Li, Crews and Statham, Yu and Couture – all are very watchable. Also watch out for a ‘plot’ line involving young Liam Hemsworth that is simply brilliant for it’s tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.

So what next? No doubt there will be a third Expendables, but part of me wishes that, having succeeded so brilliantly here they just let it go. What could they possibly do that could top this? The ‘meta’ approach only allows for so much before some serious imagination needs to come into play. Expendables 3? Joined by David Hasselhoff, Shaft and Kevin Costner. Taking on Skeletor and the reanimated zombie corpses of Charles Bronson and John Wayne. With Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap playing Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dennis Quaid in Total Recall (but voiced by Colin Farrell’s penis). Or we could have a remake of Lethal Weapon with Jamie Foxx and Larry David. Or we could do Columbo with Vin Diesel…

(Ed Wall stops writing, turns and looks wistfully out of the window. Apparently trying hard to think of a good way to end the article he’s working on. After a moment’s pause, he turns and looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He pulls off his face, revealing a smiling Tom Cruise).

Tom: “The possibilities are endless.”

(Fade out).

The Expendables 2 is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @Edward1Wall.

God Bless America | review

Had Falling Down been made by the goofs behind National Lampoon it might have turned out something like this black comedy, which posits itself on the side of intelligence, but is arguably just as inane as the pop-cultural figures it mercilessly assassinates, argues contributor Ed Wall.

“America has become a cruel and vicious place.” 

So speaks Frank (Joel Murray), the protagonist in Bobcat Goldthwait’s gory, silly and occasionally hilarious is-it-or-is-it-not-a-B-movie God Bless America. Frank, a middle-aged divorcee, finds himself at odds with a contemporary America whose vapid culture leaves him cold. Yearning for something more than his anodyne life, he has no outlet. He’s surrounded by morons. His pubescent daughter is a bitch. He’s a passive victim of our modern mediaocracy: unable to stomach the quality of the programming, yet still compulsively watching the television at night. When Frank is forcefully retired from his beige office job and told he has terminal cancer on the same day (ouch), our grey suburban ‘hero’ decides enough is enough and tools up. Soon he finds himself joined by disaffected teenager Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), an intelligent outcast with an unhealthy taste for bloodshed.

Painted in the broadest strokes, Frank and Roxy’s rampage through a culturally deficient USA is on the one hand far less shocking than it imagines it is, but also more covertly sinister than it appears. Besides spending the duration wondering quite which America it is Frank might be sentimentalising about, there’s an uncomfortable sense that, despite the schlocky feel, the film is actually taking itself reasonably seriously while ultimately upholding the values of the culture it rails against. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Over the course of two hours we’re ‘treated’ to the slayings of various token hate figures including, but not limited to, a far-right religious group with God Hates Fags signs, some Tea Party members and a fat man who may or may not be excusing paedophilia. These set pieces are executed (excuse the pun) with all the snappy dialogue you’d expect from a veteran of the stand-up scene, and decent acting from the two leads (particularly Barr, who endows Roxy with a needs-to-be-loved emotional vulnerability as the flipside to her downtrodden arrogance).

However, in keeping with the trashy pulp aesthetic, there doesn’t seem to be any point to all the violence. The film, ultimately, is trying to say something without wanting to be seen to be trying to say something. In advocating exactly the same response to a problem that a prevalent strain of American ideology demands, the film had the potential to be highly satirical. However, the nagging suspicion that for all the protagonists’ ‘journeying’ this isn’t really going anywhere is confirmed by a weak final third, replete with all-too predictable twist.

Making a film about the decline of culture that is itself artless, pointless and throwaway is either an unflinchingly brave act of postmodern artistry or a beautifully ironic faux pas, on a level with Alanis Morissette’s infamous, blundering misuse of the word ‘ironic’. It’s child’s play simply to list all the things you’re against in order to create a groundswell of sympathy amongst like-minded others (ask Vice magazine). Too much in God Bless America is rooted in the same divisive rabble-rousing actually employed by right-wing organisations like the Tea Party.

God Bless America, then, is not the wholly satirical deployment of the phrase that it might appear. I found myself wondering, in view of all of the recent unforgivable loss of human life, not least the truly abhorrent acts committed by the Assad regime in Syria, and those by Anders Breivik in Norway: is there not some kind of solution we can come to that doesn’t involve killing everyone?

God Bless America is in cinemas now. It is also available on DVD from July 9.

L’Atalante

‘The mythological ground of Art is littered with the scattered corpses of lost heroes and heroines.’

So we might be heard to remark, downing a last pint of bitter with the rabble in our local Public House before kicking off another opium-fuelled, semi-apocalyptic night of gambling and debauchery at the Notting Hill Bear-Baiting Pit to the soundtrack of Jim Morrison as read by William Burroughs.

Our modern era tends to fetishise the Romantic cult of the tragic and self-destructive lone genius. It’s a familiar legend and often takes two distinctive forms: In the one, a young flame burns bright and fast, and is extinguished early (think Byron, River Phoenix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse); in the second the artist’s talent is only fully appreciated after their anonymous death (think Kafka, Arthur Russell, Van Gogh, John Kennedy Toole).

In both of these forms the artist appears as an elevated ephemeral presence. Their death is often portrayed as being somehow synonymous with their art, as though in the pursuit of that art they really had no other option but to live fast and die young. Often, in hindsight, they are seen as doomed before they started: silent, enigmatic, unknowable. In the latter form (the Kafka-Russell-Van Gogh form), this inscrutable muteness stems largely from the fact that the artist was never given the chance to exist in the public sphere –limited (or no) words beyond their work, no interviews, no way of being seen from other angles; in the former, the enigma is retained and fostered through the alluring tragedy of a young death – the artist never had the chance to exist in public whilst growing old.[1]

Jean Vigo, director of L’Atalante has a little of each of these forms in him, and a third, having died both as a young and mostly unrecognised talent, and directly in the pursuit of his art.[2] The supposed tragedy of his existence[3] (which takes as its basis the assumption that the sum of a life is simply the ‘things that happen’ to a person as opposed to the journey and growth of one’s spiritual and emotional character) can lead to critical portrayals of his human qualities (and from there, his work) that are neither accurate, nor essentially in keeping with what we can tell about his perspective on the world as evidenced through his films and writings and as recalled by his friends.[4]

Here we find that Vigo belongs on a different list. On the whole the majority of critical responses linger, not on his definitive genius, but on his potential for genius. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that what remains (ie the work itself) is in itself by no means fully expressive of what he seemed capable of.

This is obviously a very confusing standpoint. If Vigo did not produce the goods[5] then is his legend founded wholly on the tragedy of his death? And if this is indeed the case, could we all not be appreciated many years after we die?

It is clear that the ‘tragic’ reading[6] of his life might initially have been the only reason Vigo’s films, not only continued to linger, but also gained a significant following in the decade after his death. But it is clearly only possible to consider his legend from the perspective of what is there to be seen. Similarly, to speak of the films Vigo might have made had he not died so young, as many rapt fans are wont to do, is as pointless an act of imagination as to speculate on, say, what a Unicorn might enjoy eating for breakfast (pancakes).

‘As for L’Atalante, there are as many ways to love it as there are ways to love.’[7]

L’Atalante is the kind of film that fans tend to whisper about in tones of hushed reverence. Those who don’t ‘get it’ decry it loudly as over-rated nonsense. Some postulate that Vigo’s previous film Zéro de Conduite is his real masterpiece and more truly representative of his anarchist social-political character. It’s an argument that has raged since L’Atalante’s 1934 press screening, subsequent theatrical recut, and ultimate commercial failure: is it actually any good? Or just flashes of a good film? And does it represent Vigo the man? In this context, I think it appropriate to comment from a particularly personal standpoint on what it was about this curious, strange and tender film that affected me.

As a first-time viewer what really strikes you first about the film is the lightness of directorial touch. Vigo wasn’t purist avant-garde, but a firm advocate of socially committed experimental cinema. From this standpoint we get a lot of documentary-esque shots of barges and the French canal system. Vigo’s director of photography was Boris Kaufman, who went on to win an Oscar for the cinematography in On the Waterfront, and if there was to be nothing else worth seeing in the film it is stunningly shot.

This very authentic sense (one might consider it as an expression of Vigo’s social conscience – for example, the film uses shots real unemployment lines to touch on the economic crisis of the time) is offset by a tremendously playful script and warm, open performances from the cast. Much has been written about the tour de force performance Vigo coaxed out of Michel Simon as the old Seadog Pére Jules, but Jean Dasté as the inexperienced, clumsily-loving Jean and, in particular Dita Parlo as the by turns innocent and curious, erotic and feline Juliette are stunning. There’s an abundance of comedy throughout the film. On the kinds of issues that, even today, are often naturally approached from a moralising and judgemental position, the film is surprisingly neutral. This neutrality makes it feel strangely contemporary – not even contemporary – something still existing beyond, in a more enlightened future. Its approach to gender relations, and in particular its approach to the idea of what love might be or mean is way ahead of its time. It could almost act as a manifesto on gender equality.[8]

On paper Vigo’s last film is a very simple love story (‘run of the mill’, as described by film blogger James Travers). The script – a nothing piece by a man called Jean Guinée – was given to Vigo by his producer and ardent supporter Jacques-Louis Nounez with the intention of keeping him out of trouble (Zéro de Conduite had been banned for subversive content)

This original screenplay was so stolid and moralising in tone that the radical Vigo apparently exclaimed: ‘What the fuck do you want me to do with this – it’s Sunday school stuff.’[9] But some days later he had suddenly and unexpectedly become excited at the idea of filming it, having apparently found a way to operate within its template.[10]

In fact, all he ultimately kept was the bare bones of the plot. All the moralising overtones of the Guinée script were not simply abandoned but operated against. Out of a traditional Romantic tale full of petit-borgeouis moralising, Vigo created something that could easily be called subversive. By eschewing the traditionalist moral ‘lessons’ of the parable, whilst keeping the traditional format of the plot, Vigo transformed a rather conventional love story into simply: love, rendered.

Don’t write love poems…’

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is the hardest subject to breach – it’s necessary to wait until one’s talent is fully formed to even think of making an attempt.[11]

Vigo is often described as a visual poet. In contrast to what might be implied when critics write extensively of his potential, his talent was certainly fully formed at the point of making L’Atalante. Alone, the film stands as an effervescent affirmation of non-judgemental love – a testament to the necessity of independence and equality. Considering the time it was made, but also the incredible difficulty of the shoot (Vigo directed most of the film from a stretcher) and his relative inexperience, it’s quite an astonishing achievement. As Marina Warner notes in her fantastically perceptive book for the BFI: ‘Vigo’s complete transformation of pessimism into hope fulfils the conditions of classical romance, of course, but it also proposes a modern strategy to the dilemmas of life and love, as opposed to morbidity and misogyny. Paradoxically, his romance represents a turning away from romanticism.’

To attempt to go into further depth about this film would surely take a much longer article, and would, I’m afraid, make something of a love poet of me. In that sense it might also (and with justification) be read as contrary to the (somewhat contradictory) point this author offers, and in steadfast opposition to the advice of Rilke – my skills notwithstanding. Best then to leave on one last quote from one of the film’s other admirers:

‘L’Atalante is a film whose feet smell.’

So said Francois Truffaut, and I can’t think of a more fitting appraisal. This statement is not simply an affectionate comment on the fact that the film is flawed. It touches on Vigo’s inclusion of a hardened reality and a social/political message at the heart of a love story. It also implies, indirectly, the film’s most subversive message: that there is joy to be taken from the smell of feet. More, that there is nothing really beyond the fact that nothing is perfect: the willing acceptance of flaws is all there is. Idealisation, then, is a misnomer when real life is so much fuller.

The difficulty in writing about L’Atalante has not been finding words. Quite the opposite: the difficulty for me has been attempting to present a balanced and realistic portrait of an actual film that can actually be seen in an actual cinema – within the confines of a word limit, and without going overboard with my evident enthusiasm.[12]

Finally I would say that, especially when considering the absence of a current DVD edition of the film, L’Atalante’s extended run at the BFI Southbank should be a cause for celebration. I would recommend anyone with a passionate interest in film to take the opportunity to see this on the big screen.


[1] The most debilitating disease affecting artists is, of course, age (or McCartney Syndrome as it’s better known). This illness strikes the taste functions primarily, eventually leading to an overload of the dignity system, until it’s finally revealed that everything we thought we admired and appreciated about this person was in fact a total lie, the once-was genius definitively weathered away in a storm of tabloid filth, leaving only the Madame Tussauds grinning waxwork exterior, carted out at awards ceremonies as some kind of human accessory to younger, more successful artists, themselves already hard at work destroying any public goodwill… For notable exceptions to this rule, see David Bowie who has managed to exist as a very public figure whilst retaining his enigmatic status and aging, for the most part, with great dignity (Backstreet-Boys-meet-Liberace 90s stylings aside).

[2] Vigo died from septicemia, sustained as a consequence of the months of intense work the filming of L’Atalante took on his already frail, tubercular body, before the film was ever released.

[3] From anonymous beginnings as the weakly and incognito son of a murdered former anarchist and entrepreneur to an inauspicious end at the tender age of twenty-nine, leaving behind a wife and young child.

[4] It’s interesting here to note that the act immortalisation works on the basis of emotional preservation; using tragedy and pathos as a tool we mummify the artist, their life and their works, in the cultural consciousness. Hence an artist who has not lived a tragic life is harder to elevate. Conversely, the press will often be seen hounding troubled stars to their deaths. Artists of supreme talent in Western society have taken on the mantle of the sacrificial lamb or martyr; this is evidenced by the public reaction before and after their deaths.

[5] See film critic Gilles Jacob writing in the magazine Raccords in 1951 for an argument against falsely perfecting the image of Vigo.

[6] Which can be seen taking root in an obituary written by the actor and screenwriter Frédéric Pottecher and published in the magazine Comœdia 2 days after Vigo’s death

[7] Paul Ryan, Jean Vigo: The Ghost in the Vanguard.

[8] For comparative purposes, see Cathy Landicho’s fantastically incisive recent article on this site about gender roles in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Also, compare this to an article written about L’Atalante by contemporary internet critic Dennis Grunes in 2004 (you’ll find the paragraph I’m thinking of specifically as the third from the bottom of the page, beginning with the words ‘On the other hand…’

[9] Marina Warner, L’Atalante (p.9) quoting Pierre Lherminier from his book Jean Vigo.

[10] ‘The madman straight-jacketed’ as Michael Temple puts it.

[11] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

[12] And without having mentioned any specific scenes!

Films I Hate: The Lincoln Lawyer

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

While deciding upon what to spend the pleasure-scraps of our well-earned dollar at the local Cinetorium, reviews are the most accessible tool we might choose to help us in our attempts not to mug ourselves. The trusted reviewer lies somewhere between benign counsellor and sage, directing our commodity-starved, impatient and anxious attention to places it might delight in.

Once, through a testing process of trial and error, we’ve found a publication or source whose ethos we trust, these good-natured mystics inhabit the metaphorical space of the real friends we don’t have, allowing a feeling of smug complicity as we baulk at the foolish opinions of our co-workers, whose oafish half-thoughts we can now haughtily disregard like the primordial drivel they are.

There are films that receive a level of critical adulation that surprises us into watching them. Films whose titles at which we might not have otherwise taken a second glance as we crept like shadows of beggars past the Cineplex’s intimidatingly vast, glittering façade.

On the other hand, there are those that receive bafflingly good reviews from one critic or another – reviews that seem to be somewhat disproportionally favourable to what’s actually there, leading us to suspect foul play and thenceforth disregard this or that particular hack as nothing more than a money-grabbing Judas.

Then there’s The Lincoln Lawyer. A film with generally glowing reviews across the board that was, in reality, so utterly charmless it might have been sat in Starbucks, laughing emphatically down a Bluetooth headset whilst scratching its balls. Badly filmed and scripted, with dialogue to the standard of the late-night soft-core television thrillers you might have seen during the early days of Channel 5, it’s directed by a man called Brad Furman (honestly, what’s the first thing that goes through your head when you read the name Brad Furman? It’s ‘Kill Brad Furman’, right?), an apparently grown and mentally able individual, who wears his baseball cap backwards in black and white photographs on the internet, and is, I can’t help but imagine, a massive fucking twat.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to it put to you today that The Lincoln Lawyer should, nay, must, be banished to the depths of the deepest petrol station bargain buckets, never to be seen again, and the critics who have betrayed our trust brought to collective justice. I’ll endeavour to break down the case for you.

Exhibit A: Genre

The Lincoln Lawyer falls into that most ridiculous and unholy vein of film – the courtroom thriller. In this unforgivable sub-genre, we, the public, are invited to perform the frankly laughable task of sympathising with the kinds of odious creatures we all know take pleasure in licking the faces of crying children and gang raping immigrants at money-fuelled sex séances.

It will therefore mostly be enjoyed by balding alpha wannabes approaching middle age: men who still sniff cocaine because they think it’s cool; men who listen to singers like Adele and Duffy on their surround sound set-up; men who drive fast, impractical cars down small residential streets and accidentally rub their clammy crotches against teenage daughters’ pretty friends at birthday parties.

For the entire duration of a film (1 hour, 53 minutes, 26 seconds in case you were wondering), the studio expects us to imagine these no-soul creeps actually harbour feelings, dreams and hopes. What more do you expect, Furman?! Are we supposed to connect with these villains? You might as well have based an entire film on an entitled rich-kid estate agent!

Ryan Phillipe as a "rich-kid estate agent"

Exhibit B: Plot

Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe) is an entitled rich-kid estate agent who hires Michael ‘Mick’ Haller[1] (Matthew McConaughey) to defend him against some rather nasty charges. A prostitute has been beaten to within an inch of her life, and poor old Louis has the feeling he’s being set up. But why has he hired a beatnik like Haller when he’s got loads of dosh? And why does the man Louis suspects of framing him only appear in a flashback, and not as an established character? Could something suspicious be going on?

Do you think?

The film centres on the exploits of Haller, as he unwittingly goes about finding out whodunnit. I say unwittingly because Haller really doesn’t want to know whodunit. He’s a defence lawyer, see, who specialises in defending guilty men. His approach tends to involve driving around a lot[2], looking occasionally puzzled, driving around some more and getting really drunk (real men drink to explore their feelings).

Without wanting to totally ruin this film for anyone who might want to see it, here’s a brief overview: Haller drives around, gets the big case, figures out the big case, gets intimidated a bit, gets his partner killed, looks upset a bit and then kills his client’s Mum. The usual.

There’s more: He has horny sex with his estranged wife while they’re drunk (in probably one of the most prudish sex scenes of the year scene backed by a band that sounds suspiciously like a ‘street’ version of Maroon 5 – can you quite imagine how awful that is?), discredits a victim of an attempted rape in court, shouts at a crying Mexican man in a flashback, gets shouted at by the same Mexican man in the present (whose new stance against crying and for shouting, presumably hardened via numerous anus-based incidents in prison, is visually illustrated by a fully shaved head and a moustache), and cracks jokes with his black chauffeur (no, seriously, it’s not what you think – the guy needed a job. He’s grateful to be driving his Haller around. Seriously. They’re friends. It’s a favour. He’s helping his friend. Come on!).

Ryan Phillipe did it, if you hadn’t already guessed.

Exhibit C – Writing

If the above reads more like a random sequence of events than a coherent plot, then I’ve adequately summed up this film’s approach. To go into the ins and outs of the story would do a disservice to script-writers and writers everywhere; it’s genuinely too stupid for words. There’s no reason for anything that happens. Umpteen avenues and loose ends are left unexplored and loose. In some films this might be a good thing. But to return for a second to Furman (‘kill Furman’): he’s clearly a fucking idiot.

Before he even touched it though, it should be given to him that any potential there was for an emotional response to these characters beyond the obligatory bile-in-mouth reaction is made nearly impossible by the writing. The script is literally[3] hammier than Lawrence Olivier sporting a suit fashioned from slabs of honey-roast with pork scratching buttons.

Exhibit D: Matthew McConaughey

To the intended audience of this film, however, all that plot/character malarkey is essentially playing second fiddle to the wish-fulfilment of watching Mathew McConaughey be cool. That’s what this is really about. Studios probably only green-light lawyer-type films if they get the requisite actors. If films made to manipulate women play on the idea of a classy Mr Right made accessible through his emotional vulnerability, films to manipulate men are essentially about the same thing, but with the female lead relegated to (a potentially, even preferably, multiple) female bit-part, and all the mushy, kissy stuff replaced with violence.

It’s a grand acting tour-de-force for sure: McConaughey gamely flips type-casting on its head, veering from his standard job of looking creepily over-confident and sexual in countless crap romcoms to looking over-confident and creepily sexual in this – in one fell swoop switching the gender binary of his fan-base from essentially lonely, unimaginative, romantically deprived women to essentially unimaginative, lonely, romantically incapable men. Ah, individualism! How you have chastened us!

Exhibit E: What’s cool?

Haller is good at what he does, which is cool. So good, in fact, that he’s never been heard of by the big boys at the big law firm. But that’s cool too because that means he’s sticking it to the man. He drives around LA to a mid-90s Hip Hop soundtrack – not LA G-Funk though as you might expect, because cool has to be a tiny bit more obscure – looking (meltdowns aside) really cool, helping the lowlifes of LA get out of prison time. ‘You’d have done well on the streets.’ His driver/token black friend (does he even have a name? I honestly don’t think he has a name) says to him at one point. ‘Where do you think I am?’ McConaughey replies in his Southern drawl, an irritating shit-lipped grin on his face.

He’s so fucking cool! Haller’s so cool he even manages to hold his composure sitting next to the man responsible for his best friend’s death. He’s so cool he can even convincingly defend this same man in court. So cool he can get this man he knows is guilty off the hook whilst making that silly DA (what a good-hearted dork he is) look faintly ridiculous, taking apart the main witness (the victim of an attempted rape by his client) with ease and reducing her, in the process, to a stream of infantile tears (get over it honey – it didn’t actually happen). Cool.

The cracks in the façade are where we’re supposed find sympathy. Just because these people don’t air their emotions in public, it says, they’re still humans driven by the same kinds of will as our own. We just don’t see it. Thus we see Haller in a position of vulnerability. In one scene, completely alone save the camera’s beady, pervert eye, we see Mick in a private personal crisis. We know this is a vulnerable moment because the shot is zoomed unrelentingly on his wrinkled eyes, which are being anxious, and staring forward (intense thought or vacant idiocy?). This might be the scene that stirred up all those positive reviews for McConaughey. Wrinkles are a big deal for a Hollywood heart-throb.

For all external appearances though, he’s the complete man, and cracks only in private. He dominates women, of course. There’s one scene where a pretty female lawyer calls him a ‘prick’, and you know that really it’s because he’s so good at law, he sexually intimidates her and really, though she might really hate him, she just wants to fuck him really badly. I read one review of this film which asserts that McConaughey’s Haller is ‘sleazy’, and this the basis the author makes for claiming his is a good performance. I would make a different claim. The film is sleazy, and as such McConaughey can’t really go wrong.

"Part Just For Men, part Lassie" - William H Macy's hair, and William H Macy

Exhibit F: Message

Here, we come to the crux of what angers me about this film. Its principles are in total opposition to mine. I might be a bleeding-heart liberal at times, but I like ‘dark’ things as much as the next guy. It’s just that every note this film struck was a bum. Not only is Furman is an idiot, but I’d like to add ‘misogynist’ to that accusation. Moral ambiguity is great. We love moral ambiguity. Moral ambiguity can be interesting, thought-provoking. This is not moral ambiguity, make no mistake.

This film is set in a macho, emotionless world of casual acquaintances where women are two-dimensional non-presences, good for fucking, leering at, outsmarting or being smug towards. They’re easy to sleep with – either you get them drunk as Haller does, or hire them as Roulet does. If it’s that easy, the film seems to ask, what’s even the point of raping them? They’re easy to discredit in court, and easy to kill. Roulet’s mother is a rape victim herself. How does that lead to him going a-raping? Why does this lead to her killing people on his behalf? The film’s casual disregard, a lack of even attempting to broach these two key questions, further proves what a moronic piece of nonsense it is.  It’s so confused it doesn’t even know. Furman either doesn’t have a clue, or doesn’t care.

In fact, it doesn’t say much about anything, except what it’s clearly trying not to. Haller is a cold-hearted, self-serving arsehole. He’s vile. And more shockingly, he’s not even presented as an anti-hero. He’s just a hero. There’s a weirdly misjudged line about homosexuality, and an even more oddly mishandled line about capital punishment, when Haller tells Roulet that he’ll see him squirm as the needle goes into his arm. In the light of how flawed the film seems to show the justice system as being, and the recent case of Troy Davis in Georgia, this particular line dropped like a massive clanging anvil.

A film has no obligation to be morally ‘correct’. A director, however, does have an obligation not to be lazy. And reviewers have an obligation not to be idiots.

Exhibit G: Style

This is a more personal gripe: this film had the worst collection of haircuts you could have ever wished on a bunch of actors. William H Macy gives a game go at bringing some genuine supporting clout to the project, but is undermined at every moment of on-screen time by a ridiculous fluffy mullet thing that’s somewhere between a 1970s Just For Men advert and Lassie. It acts like a naughty animal too, stealing every scene it’s in, and shitting on it.[4]

Exhibit H: Cinematography

Like an episode of CSI. Totally unimaginative crap. Flashbacks, for example, are helpfully identified as such with blurry ‘we’re in the past’ figures and faded colour palettes.

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, my invective has gradually lost its energy, my righteous indignation dwindling. I’m not about to watch this film again to stoke my anger, ladies and gentlemen. Life is genuinely too short. All I can attempt to say, in closing, spent and weary with the effort, is that there’s absolutely no point to any of The Lincoln Lawyer, no reason for the film to exist at all. It says nothing about anything. Which would be fine, except it isn’t a suspenseful or interesting way to say nothing. There’s, no excitement, no interest in the journey. What’s more, every potential moment of excitement is mishandled, so you feel like Furman has let off another fart in your stupid, duped face.

The Lincoln Lawyer would love to think of itself driving around the edgy streets of LA, working hard and playing harder, making its own rules, saving the day. Instead, it opens its eyes to find itself a paunchy, red-eyed alcoholic, balding and depressed, desperately jerking off bathed in computer light on another grey, listless afternoon. One can only hope this is the position Brad Furman, and those traitorous critic bastards, find themselves in one day.


[1] As an aside, I have to note here how it’s usually possible to spot a crap book/film by the way the characters are named. Clunky character names are usually indicative of a half-arsed writer. Just have a browse down the list of characters here. Detective Lankford and Cecil Dobbs are two of my favourites.

[2] There’s the Lincoln from the title. I’m guessing the book has more on that, but it’s something to do with a certain brand of lawyer that deals with the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. As this is left totally to our imaginations, it just looks like he’s too crap to have his own office so he works from his car.

[4] Maybe the hair is the reason for Haller’s poker-faced reaction when confronted with the body of his friend face-down on the floor, gunshot wound to the head?

Contributor Ed Wall is a musician, photographer and writer. You can buy his new EP here, and follow him on Twitter @Edward1Wall