Author Archives: Guillaume Gendron

About Guillaume Gendron

Paris-based freelance writer and journalism student at IFP (Institut Francais de Presse). Ex-Londoner (five years!), King's College London alumnus.

Holy Motors | review

It may have come home empty-handed, but no one would deny Holy Motors was the talk of Cannes a few months ago. The comeback of Leos Carax, French cinema’s favourite “enfant terrible”, after a decade spent in near-obscurity, was the perfect occasion for the industry to do what it always does: celebrate the outcast it formerly ostracized for being such a weirdo. It’s something the filmmaker himself is so aware of that he made it the subject of his film. In the opening images, a sleepy Carax is waking up in his pyjamas and breaking the wall that – literally – separates him from the world. He ends up into the light of a film projector, in a full-house cinema, where all the spectators are transfixed. The “film” hasn’t even properly started yet, and the director’s own hibernation and his return are already staged and set up for endless mise-en-abymes and self-reflexive aphorisms. Above all, Holy Motors is a Leos Carax film about Leos Carax making films again.

Hailed by most critics present as an “ode to cinema”, a “love letter to the big screen”, a “return to form” and all the usual superlatives, the film has retained an element of mystery. Despite reading a dozen reviews beforehand, I still had no clue about what Holy Motors was about when I sat on the first balcony of the Max Linder cinema, one of Paris’ most colourful theatres (you should really catch a film there if you visit the capital by the way). Once seen, it still evades description. Yes, there is a story, or rather, stories, but no real narrative. Each “appointment” of the main character, Mr Oscar, is the pretext for a slice of genre cinema, often pushed to its most absurd corners.

However, Holy Motors avoids being a collection of sketches. Despite going through the tropes of horror, thriller, fantastic, musical (the rather sublime part with Kylie Minogue singing in a deserted department store) or even naturalistic drama, including an incredibly violent father and daughter emotional contretemps and an interminably melodramatic “dying old man” strand (did Carax unconsciously parody Cannes winner Amour?), each sequence belongs to a coherent whole; everything united in its madness, its preposterousness, its own internal logic. Even the silent film inserts or the “entracte” – a music video for a fictional alt-rock accordion band – doesn’t spoil the ensemble.

Style-wise, Carax is also all-embracing. If the cinema du look neon stylings are prominent (he was, after all, with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, the creator of the aesthetic in the 1980s), the impeccably shot Holy Motors, goes from CGI motion-capture porn to the chic classicism of perfume adverts. Carax is a nostalgic: he longs for the huge machinery of bygone years – the “holy motors” – against the miniature technology that pervades our everyday life, but his vision still looks futuristic.

Carax’s visual mastery would be nothing without Dennis Lavant’s truly extraordinary Lon Chaney-esque lead performance. The face melted by a hard-lived life, his Mr Oscar is a weary clown putting on masks all day when he steps out of his limo, in a world populated by actors, all immortal and polymorph, meeting each other during mysterious appointments. Mere humans, in all their surburban mediocrity and sameness, are monkeys (once again, Carax is not affraid of using literal images for his metaphors).

The “stars”, when they appear, rise up to Denis Lavant’s incredible presence. Minogue, as mentioned earlier, is impeccable, but it’s Eva Mendes that truly impresses. Her meeting with Monsieur Merde (Mr Shit, Mr Oscar’s most revolting incarnation) is a jaw-dropper. Looking something like a cross between a stoned drag-queen and a high-end escort, she’s kidnapped during a photoshoot in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, and drawn half-naked in the sewers. There, Mr Merde forces a makeshift burka on her, before lying down nude on her knees, with a sizeable erection. Such association between the Hollywood star and the freak, staged in a long take, disturbs as it seems so inconceivable. The erect penis here (fake, as Carax wanted Lavant’s dick to look like a dog’s attributes) in front of one of the industry’s illustrious representants encapsulates Carax appetite – for life, for film, etc – and his will to shock, to say “fuck you” to the studio system. The penis is also flesh and blood, against all the virtual matter surrounding us.

Hence Leos Carax re-asserts himself as the missing link between La Nouvelle Vague and the New French Extreme movement. Holy Motors‘ disregard for reality and narrative and love for mise-en-abyme and surrealism are pure Godard, while the successive transgressive tableaux of sex, dirt and violence set in a nocturnal Paris wouldn’t go amiss in Gaspar Noé’s or Claire Denis’ work.

Holy Motors‘ nihilistic approach to narrative, genre and even taste makes it impossible to review in plain terms of “good” or “bad”. It’s surely not for everyone. But as a filmic object, it’s truly unique. Something you seldom see, an immensely watchable ride into one of cinema’s most creative and deranged cinematic minds. A love letter to cinema indeed, with added stains of piss, blood and sperm.

Holy Motors is in cinemas from Friday, released by Artificial Eye. Contributor Guillaume Gendron can be followed on Twitter @GGendron20.

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Music video week | The PPH interview | AG Rojas

‘Sixteen Saltines’ and ‘Hey Jane’ director AG Rojas in the shadows

Despite a tender age of 24, music video director AG Rojas has caught the eye prior to his much-commented upon video for Jack White’s recent single ‘Sixteen Saltines’. He was responsible for the divisive, fish-eye heavy breakout clip of the Odd Future crew – ‘Earl – which, like ‘Saltines’, took immense care in depicting teenagers up to no-good. The lo-fi aesthetics of that early effort are now long gone, as evidenced by his sublimely rendered treatment for the late Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You‘, which boasted a Million Dollar Baby-shot-by-James Gray vibe. His masterwork to date is the ten minute epic ‘Hey Jane’ for Spiritualized. Though not for the faint hearted, and a touch reliant on shock-tactics from the start, it has an intensity rare in short films, and even rarer in promo clips.

Still reeling from the delectable savagery of the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video, I recently went on Twitter to nonchalantly compliment Rojas, comparing him in the process to Romain Gavras. Rojas replied, correcting me on my assumption that he was American (he’s not; born in Spain, he’s been living in L.A since he was seven) and thanking me for the kind words. I grabbed the opportunity to ask for an interview and a few emails later, here we are…

PPH (in bold): How did you come up with all the transgressive stunts performed in the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video?

AG Rojas (in regular): I enjoy conjuring up images of youth involved in precarious situations. It’s not always based on something I lived through or influenced by any specific reference – just my corrupt imagination.

This year, it seems that the best, or at least most visually striking videos (M.I.A’s ‘Bad Girls‘, Woodkid’s work for Lana Del Rey and others) have been shot by European directors and all feature some kind of post-modern teenage nihilism. Is that just a coincidence or some kind of a scene, a style that you feel close to?

Well, I don’t think it’s an aesthetic or theme that is rare in music videos. For me, energy is always the most vital element for a music video. There are few things more vibrant and full of life, however dark or dormant, than youth.

The other reason I compared you to Gavras is that, in a way, ‘Sixteen Saltines’ reminded me of Justice’s video for ‘Stress‘. The whole “boredom make you do crazy things” concept as you put it on your site, and the ending with kids putting a car on fire (though in yours there’s a rock star in it). Is that a real conscious influence?

I think ‘Stress’ is obviously a huge influence on a lot of young music video directors. In my case, not necessarily because of the aesthetic or violence, but more so because it shows you how great a music video can be when a director is given complete (or, almost complete) creative control over the visuals, and takes advantage of this by creating something provocative.

What’s your influences film-wise and music video-wise? ‘Sixteen Saltines’ is a bit David Lynch meets Larry Clark, isn’t it?

I pitched ‘Sixteen Saltines’ as Larry Clark meets Roy Andersson. In the same way I love Harmony Korine [of Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy] and Michael Haneke. It’s a balance of visual aggression and subtlety.

‘Earl’the clip you directed for Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, has reached the 10 million views mark and served as the orignal landmark of their aesthetic. How did you get in touch with the Odd Future crew before their overnight fame? It seems that in a recent interview for Pitchfork, you hinted that they took to much credit from it. Do you feel that way? 

We all rolled in the same circles, and once I heard Earl’s music, I recognized something special there and wanted to capture that moment. I don’t think they take too much credit. The video wouldn’t exist without the track, and it wouldn’t have been as successful without Earl’s skill and complete commitment to my vision.

Your work tends to be quite narrative-driven, do you see your videos as short films rather than just promo shots for the artist? Do you have plans for a feature film in the future?

There are enough performance videos being made. There is room every once in a while for experimentation. I’ve always gravitated towards narrative filmmaking, and music videos are a great place to hone your skills as a storyteller.

The fight scene in the motel in ‘Hey Jane’ feels so real, it’s pretty hard to watch. How many takes did it take to achieve this rawness? What’s the meaning behind the kid dropping the gun and going back to play video games?

My DP Michael Ragen, our stunt coordinator and I discussed my treatment and what I had in mind. Then we refined it and made sure the energy and composition of the scene matched the intensity of the track. We did the take somewhere around 15 to 20 times. As for the video game, I’m obsessed with small practical details happening at the same time as extraordinary moments. It’s open to interpretation.

The photography in your recent videos is very cinematographic and gritty at the same time. How do you achieve that?

I’ve worked with Michael to really define our aesthetic and to always create images that are as cinematic and natural as possible.

What’s your background?

When I was seventeen I was accepted into the BFA Film Production program at Art Center College of Design. I dropped out a year and a half later and began directing music videos two years after that. After this, I began working for several production companies at various capacities – mostly as a researcher and writer. All the while I was directing, until I finally was signed to Caviar Content as a director.

And what do your have lined up for your next projects?

Commercials, short films, and hopefully features down the line. I have a short film, Crown, which is playing festivals and should be released in late summer.

You can watch the rest of AG Rojas’ work on his website.

Want to join the conversation? Find us on Twitter @PPlasticHelmet and use the hashtag #MusicVideoWeek.

Moebius: Human After All

Jean Giraud passed away on 10 March 2012, aged 73. To comic book fans around the world he was mostly known – and revered – as Moebius, a nom de plume the French artist used when he imagined sci-fi adventures, or Gir, the one he used to draw the enduringly popular “baguette western” Blueberry. “Cowboys versus aliens” would be a great way to sum up Giraud’s oeuvre, if it wasn’t also the title of a terrible movie.

Though it may seem like a bit of a stretch to justify the title of this piece, in many ways, Moebius was all by himself the Daft Punk of the comic-book world. His own brand of French Touch was largely influential on both sides of the Atlantic; from Marvel comics to avant-garde bande-dessinées – and all the way to Japan. Giraud himself surely liked the duo, maybe not for their music, but their bionic look. Indeed, the publishing house he co-founded to print the cult magazine Metal Hurlant and free himself from the constraints of the conservative Franco-Belgian strips is named Les Humanoïdes Associés (Humanoids Inc.). Hell, the robotic duo even make an appearance in Tron Legacy, the sequel of the 1982 film for which Giraud was largely aestheticlally responsible. The desertic setting and bizarre bursts of nudity in their own movie Electroma are pure Moebius.

Since PPH is not a graphic novel or comics blog, I’ll have to send you to Steve Holland’s apt obituary in The Guardian for a more detailed overview of Moebius’s impressive career in his favoured field. What I’d like to do here is focus on Giraud’s cinematic heritage, particularly his extensive influence on the last thirty years of sci-fi, from Blade Runner to The Fifth Element.  This is something I already started when I wrote about “french comic-strip maverick at the movies” for Sight and Sound magazine a few years back.

Interviewed by the prestigious newspaper Le Monde a couple of years ago, Moebius declared, “I’ve always tried, since [my] earliest childhood, to make films on paper.” So let’s take a closer look at Giraud’s “filmography” – on paper and on film – as a parting homage to the visionary he was.

Alien (1979)

Concept artist 

In 1978, the “adult” comics magazine Metal Hurlant (co-founded by Giraud and later developed in the US under the name Heavy Metal) published The Long Tomorrow. Penned by Dan O’Bannon, a close collaborator of John Carpenter on Dark Star, it was a parodic transposition of Raymond Chandler’s universe into the future, providing Ridley Scott with the sci-fi meets noir concept that would make Blade Runner so distinctive.

Scott didn’t yet know he would make such a film, but Moebius became some kind of obsession: “At the time I was staring at Moebius magazines – I had them stacked in my study when I was a commercial maker, even before I did The Duellists – and I was thinking, my god, they’re a great vision of futuristic ideas. I was influenced almost totally by Moebius.” Consequently, the English filmmaker didn’t hesitate when, a few years later, he stumbled upon a script entitled Alien, written by… Dan O’ Bannon.

Moebius immediately got the call to help define the visual identity of the film, along with H.R Giger. The Swiss sculptor elaborated the viscous, Bacon-esque creature while Giraud drew the iconic spacesuits (some kind of samuraï armour topped with a diving bell) and costumes. “I wanted them to look like space truck drivers, wearing plain T-shirts and functional, random clothes.

Blade Runner (1982)

Inspiration / Uncredited 

Extract from “The Long Tomorrow”

Infitine skycrapers. Flying cars. Neon everywhere. Populated by shifty androids and bitter humans, the baroque metropolis of The Long Tomorrow is undeniably the blueprint upon which Ridley Scott based his futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner. The director gladly admitted it in the DVD commentary of the recent final cut reissue but neither Moebius nor O’Bannon are mentioned in its end credits.

Contractual issues seem to be the reason why Moebius didn’t effectively work on the film like he did on Alien. His fingerprints are nevertheless everywhere, fuelling the enduring vision of Scott that would mark the sci-fi aesthetics of the following decades from the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s to mangas like Ghost in the Shell (1995), and family blockbusters like Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (more on this later).

Jodorowsky’s Dune (unreleased)

The genesis of both the above films actually comes from another science-fiction white whale, the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune. In 1974, the avant-garde Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky was stil basking in the cult success of his “acid western” El Topo, that earned him the lifetime admiration and financial backing of John Lennon. Backed by an obscure montage of international financiers, he embarked on the project to adapt the reputably unadaptable opus. To tackle the near-impossible task, he assembled a creative unit in Paris, comprising of Moebius, Dan O’Bannon, H.R Giger and Chris Foss (a British illustrator known for his sci-fi covers) – all working together for the first time.

The project was a typical mid-seventies extravaganza. The rumour mill had it that Orson Welles and Salvador Dali were part of the cast, with the surrealist painter allegedly demanding $100,000 a day to play the Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Pink Floyd, along with other psychedelic groups, started working on some songs for the soundtrack. Among other follies, the main protagonist was to be played by Jodorowsky’s son and the film duration was planned to reach 14 hours.

A year later, Giraud had drawn 3,000 sketches for the film, the script was “the size of a phonebook” according to Herbert, and  $2 million of the $9.5 million budget had already been spent in pre-production. The American distribution company involved in the project pulled the plug, and soon enough the French producers still on board called it a day. The rights of the book were sold to Dino de Laurentiis, and the rest is history. David Lynch’s version, released in 1984, didn’t reuse any of Jodorowsky’s preparation, and was later disowned by its director.

Nevertheless, without Dune, Dan O’Bannon wouldn’t have written The Long Tomorrow out of boredom on his days off and given it to Giraud. Also, he wouldn’t have been depressed by the failure of the film to the extent of writing Alien. Which in turn wouldn’t have given the Ridley Scott the opportunity to reassemble the winning trio of O’Bannon, Giger and Moebius for Alien. Nor would the material at the origin of Blade Runner have existed. Jodorowsky went on to pen dystopic sagas for Moebius with the successful Inkal series (from 1981 to 1989), which updated The Long Tomorrow imagery and ended up as the primary influence on Besson’s The Fifth Element.

Put simply, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unseen Dune is probably the most successful failure in sci-fi history.

Tron (1982)

Art consultant / Storyboarder

Giraud, probably marked forever by the Dune fiasco, was always rather dismissive of his experience in the film industry. Tron is the exception. Hired by Disney to draw the integrality of the storyboard, Moebius remembered fondly working on the first ever movie to use computer generated images : “My involvement in this film was much more intense and important than the work I did on Alien. I love this film.” Indeed, the clear lines and curves of Tron‘s cyberworld bear without a doubt the mark of Moebius’ unique style.

In the following years, Giraud kept on drawing for Hollywood, creating visuals for the seminal heroic-fantasy turkeys (and also terrific mid-80s guilty pleasures) Masters of the Universe and Willow. However, George Lucas didn’t use any of his designs, nor did James Cameron, who found his ideas of the subaquatic creatures in The Abyss a bit too leftfield.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Art director 

From L’Inkal, by Jodorowsky and Moebius.

The Fifth Element is probably the film that owes the most to Moebius, even more so than Blade Runner. It didn’t just keep the flying taxis hovering over the bottomless metropolis of The Long Tomorrow and L’Inkal – it also recycled Giraud’s humour and esoteric penchants.

Moebius was hired by Besson as early as 1991 to work on a script entitled Zaltam Bleros. The project was be revamped until it became the high-camp space opera we know today, but most of the sets and costumes come from this first draft. On The Fifth Element, Moebius shares the “artistic direction” credit with Jean-Claude Mezieres (another figure of French bande-dessinée and a friend of Giraud from art-school ), which is euphemistic, so much does the movie looks like an adaptation of his oeuvre. Indeed, the script bears so many similarities with Moebius’ Inkal series and Enki Bilal’s work (a disciple of his also published in Metal Hurlant), that Les Humanoïdes Associés sued Besson for plagiarism. A case which they ultimately lost.

Blueberry / Renegade (2004)

Creator / writer 

An art student in Paris during the peak of the Nouvelle Vague movement in the early 1960s, Giraud had no choice but to become an instant cineaste. Logically, Jean-Paul Belmondo became the model on which “Gir” based his rogue lieutenant Blueberry. They were countless cowboys adventures in French bande-dessinées at the time, but Giraud’s creation, along with writer Charlier, instantly made a difference. Infused with a real sense of frame and montage, its incredibly detailed landscape and overall ruggedness owed everything to American Westerns.

Cinema is the image reservoir for Blueberry,” Giraud used to say. “It owes a lot to Sam Peckinpah. The Wild Bunch overwhelmed me. There’s also some Sergio Leone there. But as for Blueberry’s close relationship with Indians, I got that from John Ford, who, all his life, was torn between his own white machismo and the consciousness that oppressed minorities also existed along the conquest of the frontier.

Vincent Cassel in “Renegade”, by Jan Kounen (2004).

Starring the badass trio of Vincent Cassel, Juliette Lewis and Michael Madsen, Jan Kounen’s 2004 adaptation of Blueberry (renamed Renegade outside France) marked the first time Giraud’s work was directly adapted for the big screen. Unfortunately, despite its great cinematography, the film bombed with audiences and critics who expected a faithful, mainstream rendition of the heritage bande-dessinée. What they got is an experimental albeit clumsy transplant of Moebius’ psychedelic fantasies into Blueberry’s more conservative universe (which many called a treason of Gir’s work) with a ten minute, pre-Enter The Void CGI peyote trip slapped into the third act.  None of this fazed Moebius, who credited his experience of hallucinating drugs in his early twenties during a nine month trip to Mexico to be responsible for his creativity, schizophrenic production and split personality.

Moebius’ heritage

I was involved in several projects as a director in the past, but in the end, I didn’t complete any. I wouldn’t say that cinema left me dry on the road, but that I just let it pass me by.” Indeed, his unique directorial effort is the rather disapointing 3D animation short, La Planète Encore, which was shown during his retrospective at the prestigious Fondation Cartier in 2010.

South Park’s Major Boobage

Moebius’ creative flair must be found elsewhere – and it’s almost everywhere. In his close friend Hayao Miyasaki’s surreal fables for example, or Christopher Nolan’s attempts at cerebral sci-fi. “Inception develops the motifs of parrallel worlds and dreams that were present in my comics, like Le Chasseur Déprime”, Giraud would say to Le Monde. Just a couple of years ago, David Fincher, Zach Snyder and James Cameron seriously considered remaking Heavy Metal (1981), the Canadian animation film derived from the American version of Metal Hurlant, the publication Moebius created as an output for his “deviant” production. The project, despite being many fanboys’ wet-dream, never happened. Instead, Trey Parker and Matt Stone put out Major Boobage, a South Park episode in which Kenny, after snorting cat’s pee, would get high and dream himself in the world of Heavy Metal, riding dragons and meeting bare-breasted desert princesses. Now if that’s not a sign of Moebius’ importance in pop culture, I don’t know what is.

Further viewing: the excellent Moebius Redux documentary, broadcast on BBC4 a couple of years ago.


Taxi Driver gets Gondry’s “swedish” treatment

It’s never been in doubt that the best thing about Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry’s bittersweet ode to home videos and rental stores, was the “sweded” movies. These cheap yet charming remakes of the pop film canon filtered through the memories of Jack Black and Mos Def’s characters stand today as some of the most potent demonstrations of the French filmmaker’s boundless inventiveness and adorable D.I.Y aesthetics.

To mark the recent Parisian premiere of Martin Scorsese’s latest – the family-friendly Hugo  the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director delivered this cracking Christmas treat; a lovely lo-fi version of Marty’s most iconic (and least PC) work, Taxi Driver… with coloured pencils for bullets and en français s’il vous plait. Profiter:

Joe Pesci tries gangsta rap. Non-ironically.

Ask yourself: What if the original inspiration behind Jay-Z’s oversuccessful brand of gambino gangsta rap was none other than the diminutive Joe Pesci? Well, check this unbelievable piece of evidence and get your mind blown.

Yes, Joe Pesci, in his Nicky Santoro satin suits and 70s collar, raps and reps over a sample of Blondie’s Rapture – and means it. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s drafted in his then-girlfriend Naomi Campbell (yep, as PPH has already dutifully reported, it happened) as the video vixen, as well as go-to mafioso Frank motherfucking Vincent as a hype man.

So Jay-Z, even if you can boast Harvey Keitel and Versace shades in your wiseguy videoes, you will never reach the levels of sheer wiseguyness exhibited in this gem.

Addendum: he actually released an album entitled Vincent Laguardia Gambini Sings Just For You, featuring such gems as ‘Take Your Love And Shove It’.

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Summer Blockbusters: Spielberg Vs. Spielberg Vs. Optimus Prime

In a summer that was particularly lacklustre blockbuster-wise, marked by weak reboots of near-unknown superhero franchises and the final chapter of that gazillion-dollar budgeted, magic-themed posh school play known as the Harry Potter saga, two popcorn movies produced by a pioneer of the genre – yes, you guessed it, Steven Spielberg – particularly stood out. I’m talking about Michael Bay’s Transformers III and JJ Abrams’ Super 8, the former still baffling by its seemingly unfailing success growing with each further regressive sequel (bigger, louder and more dimensional) and the latter unexpectedly ending up as the critics’ darling (alongside, perhaps, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) for the title of this summer’s most enjoyable teenage entertainment. It’s not that surprising given that Spielberg basically created the blockbuster concept in the late seventies along with his evil twin George Lucas (now a successful toy manufacturer I’m told), brushing aside the artistic ashes of the New Hollywood in favour of global mainstream dominance.

Autobots are no laughing matter.

Spielberg directed neither Shitformers nor Vintage Camera, however his credit as executive producer is printed just as big on each poster, proof that his name still carries relevance, enhancing Bay and Abrams’ blockbuster cred. It could also be because the influence of the spectacled bearded man is so blatantly obvious on both flicks that we may just as well attribute him their paternity – especially in the case of Super 8, a biographical pastiche of Steve’s childhood, re-contextualised in the suburban world of his early 80s classics (E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the copycats they engendered (The Goonies, Stand By Me, etc.). Put simply, this summer the choice was between technoid Spielberg and vintage Steven.

Amongst film critics, appreciation of SS has been informed by an easy, convenient opposition: the dead-serious Spielberg on one side, with his edifying Holocaust dramas and WWII epics, schooling us like a well-intentioned history teacher on how fucking bad the XXth century was (with a side interest in filming slightly embarrassing slave narratives; The Colour Purple and Amistad, I didn’t forget about you), and on the other hand, the fun, kid-friendly Spielberg, the master of family entertainment with a penchant for benevolent aliens, whip-lashing archaeologists and sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures. Obviously, serious Spielberg must be frowned upon when kiddy Spielberg can be celebrated as an accepted form of nostalgia, but only in correlation with the release date of the film – the older the better – and the number of BMXes ridden by mopey kids in said feature (E.T definitely wins that one every time).

But see, this bipolar take doesn’t really work – where do you fit War of The Worlds in this? Minority Report? A.I? From the late-90s onward, Spielberg went all-heavy metal on us with a dystopian sci-fi streak, whose refrigerated, steely aesthetic has influenced many blockbusters since, including Transformers III (which stands in some ways as the apotheosis of that influence), while Super 8 is marketed as a reminder of sweeter, different times. How to make “sense” of this?

Fig. 1, in all seriousness. Click to expand.

If you have a quick look at my rubbish Word-powered diagram (Fig. 1 – the reason why I’ll never get a job at Wired), you can see that schematically, there’s roughly four dimensions, or two axes of Spielberg. The serious stuff can be divided into two genres, the historical and the sci-fi (usually thrown in with the kiddy-blockbustery category by most critics) and the fun stuff between retro serial fare (Indy) and the late 70s/early 80s golden run of aliens in suburbia tales (let’s include Close Encounters here). The dark futuristic theme came loaded with “maturity” and informed all his latest directed Sci-Fi features (how bleak was War of the Worlds?), which he compensated for with an alternating series of regressive, conservative period adventures (Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones IV and now The Adventures of Tintin, the inspiration behind “Indy” in the first place).

SS is still VERY fond of aliens – he even managed to shoehorn some into the latest instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise (where they definitely didn’t belong, as the kids in South Park said, and is credited as executive producer on the shambolic Cowboys & Aliens). The aliens are not exactly what they used to be though; they went from friends to foes. Aesthetically, this change also translated in their shape and “texture”, from organic, cuddly extraterrestrials to steely, post-Matrix war-machines and depressed androids; from a child-sized turd with a big red heart to a massive robot with door handles as nipples.

This is where Super 8 comes in handy as a kind of well-manufactured time capsule, holding up a mirror to what the blockbuster mastermind’s production has become, epitomized by the cynically perfect formula of Transformers III which combines the steely aesthetics of his darkish futuristic films and the dumbed-down action feature plots of today [1], while removing most of the heart and soul of his teen-friendly stuff in favour of a video-game desensitised detachment to form a remarkable weapon of mass distraction [2]. It’s not so much about good vs. evil, huggable Martians vs. Autobots, or even Elle Fanning vs. Megan Fox/whoever-that-blonde-model-with-the-huge-lips-is, but rather past vs. present Hollywood, old school Steven vs. modern Spielberg.

Let’s look at some key blockbuster ingredients present in both films, see how they differ and find out what they tell us about the state of the modern multiplex fare in line with the mutating audience the studios are now targeting.

"E.T.! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

1. The Main Human Protagonist:  One of Spielberg’s greatest ideas when he drew up the basic shopping list for a successful popcorn movie was to include a main character that would resemble and reflect in many ways the target audience. In E.T, it was a geeky teenager because, as Hollywood found out in the late seventies, robbing the kids of their pocket money is a much more lucrative business than putting the effort into making demanding “adult” entertainment (no, I don’t mean porn). Consequently in Super 8, we get an Elliot-lite to recreate that vibe. In Transformers however, it’s up to Shia Labeouf to provide the identikit of today’s fan of giant robots and cartoon adaptations: the shouty, materialistic man-boy. Whereas Joe in Super 8 makes amateur films, paints Warhammers and builds miniature trains, Shia is all about fast and flashy cars, “big boy pants” and envying everyone else’s money. Joe lives in symbiosis with his friends while Shia is a stubborn individualist. Creative dreamers vs. consumerist pricks, 12-years-old nerds vs. computer game brainwashed adolescents [3]

2. The Alien(s): I’ve mentioned this already, the organic vs. the metal, etc, but what about the benevolence? In Transformers, the Autobots are as much allies as enemies depending on which side they picked, but either way, they look absolutely belligerent, with oversized guns and blades the size of jet planes (need to compensate for a tiny muffler, Optimus?). Labeouf’s friend Bumblebee, which conveniently doubles as showy sports car/girl-trap, is meant to be just a clumsy robot-kid, but still looks badass and cold-blooded in combat. And let’s not start on Optimus Prime, who tears off the heads of his foes with his bare robotic hands before finishing them with a giant cosmic shotgun. In Super 8, the alien is bigger and meaner than E.T ever was – more like a smaller cousin of the Godzilla-like monster in JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield. It still ends up as a potential friend to the diminutive main character and foremost a victim of the earthlings’ cruelty – just as much as the autobots are “victims” of the lies of NASA and CIA (yes, Spielberg always loved his conspiracies). Conclusion: Hollywood aliens are still our friends from outer space, but display as much emotion and human empathy as Megan Fox on a good day, doubled with a very mainstream appetite for destruction.

Transformers III: Megan Fox (on a good day)

3. The Love Interest: This one will be quick: Elle Fanning, the rebellious girl-next-door providing twinges of nostalgia for the days of asexual puppy dolls VS. the blow-up dolls (brunette in TI & II, blonde in TIII), “[tokens] of reassurance for viewers revelling in a spectacle of cosmic, brutal, heavy-metal homoeroticism” (again, the brilliant A. O. Scott in the NY Times). Or further evidence of the oversexualization of our contemporary pop culture.

4. The Setting: a small factory town in Ohio, the honest houses of suburbia in Super 8. The skyscrapers of the megalopolis (Chicago in this instance) in Transformers III. With the clear impression that real people may actually live in the Super 8 neighbourhood, given the heavy accent on community (some hints to Jaws in the sheriff’s address to his distressed fellow citizen) when landmark buildings in TIII are only empty glass entities to be sacrificed on the altar of spectacle during the final fireworks, satisfying Bay’s thirst for building-violence and global catastrophe-porn. A post 9/11 affectation or just a sign of the times (see also Chris Nolan batophobia)? Moreover, the systematic destruction of historical monuments and constant revisionism of TIII display a certain contempt for the past, the packaged nostalgia that Super 8 tries so hard to sell us.

5. Abrams & Spielberg VS. Bay & Spielberg: one is looking back, the other ahead – no present tense here but entertaiment extremism on both side. The heart in Super 8 is an illusion: like Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Death Proof, it’s a slick, virtuosic pastiche, the filmic equivalent of a sparkling clean Motown sample on a hip-hop track – nice, comforting, but in the end, devoid of real soul. J.J Abrams is box-ticking with as much perfectionism deployed by Michael Bay to destroy every single lamppost in Chicago’s town centre. Sadly, Transformers III is the cinema of the future, of the 21st century – offering a slight upgrade on video games in terms of High Definition but also a braindead idea of cinema.

In both cases Steven, you became kind of heartless but remained ruthlessly, mechanically efficient. Just like the big Hollywoodian machinery, just like Optimus, bulldozing your way through pop culture.

An abrupt conclusion, perhaps, but this – like Michael Bay’s career – could potentially go on forever. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat post” some might say…


[1] …which consists of two acts of an hour each: Act I being the exposition of the main “characters” preparing for the forthcoming battle/Armageddon/space invasion, and Act II being a solid hour of mass destruction and explosions occurring during aforementioned battle/Armageddon/space invasion. Plain and simple. No twist, no development, nothing. Now enjoy the noise.

[2] Everything has been said about it in this sarcastically masterful NY Times review, where the key sentence is “I’m not judging, just describing.”

[3]  Another interesting sociological insight: Shia Labeouf, despite having saved the world twice, struggles to find A BLOODY INTERNSHIP. That’s how bad this recession thing is, man.

Park Circus Film Noir Blogathon #1 – Smoking Femmes Fatales

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

A couple of months ago, I contributed to the Guardian’s Clip Joint feature, suggesting five moments of nicotine-based greatness and remarking that smoking femmes fatales (yes plural, because this is French) were such a prominent trope that they deserved their own clip joint. Luckily, along comes the Park Circus Film Noir Blogathon as the perfect excuse for me to fulfil that promise and recycle my early notes.

Vamps and cigarettes are the sublime combination of two indispensable ingredients of any self-respecting noir, and if the number of YouTube videos dedicated to sensual legends of Hollywood’s golden age lighting up is anything to go by, this is already quite a common film deviance.

Without further ado, let’s brace ourselves for some fetishistic viewing, from classic noir to neo-noir via L.A Noir, proto-noir, kind-of-noirish and any other shade of black you care to think of.

Lauren Bacall 

Let’s kick things off with this slick POV shot of the best of them all, Lauren Bacall, inhaling suggestively while eyeballing the camera. Sorry – what was she saying again? (also, if someone can name the film from which this excerpt has been taken that’ll be great. There’s a metaphorical cinephile cookie to win.)

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)

Yes, I know, Shanghai Express is not in the strictest sense a film noir, and Marlene Dietrich’s character is not technically a femme fatale – but the seeds of the genre are here; it’s the birth of a filmic cliche.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)

Gilda smokes too much because she’s one of these “frustatred, lonely people”. Yeah right.

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974)

I could not omit the brilliant Chinatown from this list, with its smorgasboard of holders, unfiltered cigarettes and post-coital fags.

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1991)

Admittedly it’s not the smoking that stayed in the public’s mind after watching this notorious scene from Verhoeven’s sleazy take on LA Noir, but rather Stone’s invisible knickers. Still, it works as a postmodern reinterpretation of the iconic tobacco-fuelled innuendo (“what you gonna do, charge me with smoking” she asks) reaching back in time to the flappers of the Roaring Twenties using smoking as the ultimate gender/sexual transgression. Or something like that.

Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino’s career defining turn (for the best and the worst really, as this sort of doomed her career): Wendy Kroy is the most sex-crazed, nicotine-addicted, machiavellian femme fatale, bar none. Like a sultry version of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, Fiorentino amped it up to 11 on all levels in John Dahl’s cult neo-noir…

Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club (1999)

In his nihilist post-noir cult classic, David Fincher introduces the women at the centre of Edward Norton’s inner menage a trois with an ominous slo-mo on Marla Singer lighting up then slowly releasing the thick smoke off her lungs dressed as the archetypal black widow. Can’t really do darker than that.

Renee French in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Jim Jarmush plays with the visual codes and conventions of the genre in this sketch showcasing the beauty and charisma of comic book artist Renee French: an empty New York cafe with checked sheets on the tables, a mysterious women sitting alone, sporting a beehive that’ll make Amy Winehouse jealous whilst holding a fag, having a coffee and browsing a guns’ catalogue – pitch perfect.

Scarlet Johansson in Match Point (2005)

Scarlet Johansson’s pinacle? “Who’s my next victim?” she asks, though she’s only talking about ping-pong, before taking one of the most dangerously sensual inhalations immortalised on film. If her character only knew what she walked into at that precise moment. Ah, sweet tragic irony.

Eva Mendes in We Own The Night (2007)

Last but not least, and possibly my favourite of them all, the most striking three-second insert of recent cinema. The Clash in the background, the dangling fag, Eve Mendes’s effortless swaggering strut, the chriasoscuro, the frame-within-the-frame provided by the narrow corridor: a glimpse of absolute film greatness in a sadly flawed thriller, courtesy of James Gray, who indeed has his moments, as is the case here.

Guillaume Gendron runs the culture and music blog Le Double G and can be followed on Twitter @ggendron20.