The Neon Demon (2016)


“I thought that I was the greatest filmmaker of all time, that I was God’s gift to mankind. And I’ve learned that I’m not the greatest filmmaker of all time. But I’ve accepted that the kinds of films I make, I’m the absolute best at.”1

The Neon Demon (2016) is Nicolas Winding Refn’s 11th film, and the second since his breakthrough commercial success with Drive (2011). He followed that film with the self-consciously challenging Only God Forgives (2013), the fraught production of which was captured by Liv Corfixen, Refn’s wife, in the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014). To his detractors, Refn has made his reputation as a stylist principally concerned with fetishing violence, a self-conscious aesthete whose work is as pretentious as it is insubstantial. To his supporters – and himself – he and his collaborators are “the Sex Pistols of cinema”2, taking pleasure in provoking negative reactions as much as positive ones. To either side, with its promotional campaign mimicking/parodying fashion shoots, utilising familiar iconography and branding, The Neon Demon is agreed to be “about” something.

It comes trailed as Refn’s first horror (“To do a horror film about beauty is probably to do the most complex horror film, because it’s…everything.”3), and with an unusually pronounced – for Refn – feminine aspect. It’s about the fashion industry, youth, female relationships, LA, the narcissism of a generation. Above all, though, it’s about Nicolas Winding Refn, a filmmaker who refutes the side effects of his native Danish ideals of social parity and universal equality – “janteloven” – essentially that you shouldn’t aim to stand out from the crowd. In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Danny Leigh, Refn confessed, “I’m just very, very self-absorbed, when it comes to work, and if I feel the need to do something, then I have to find a way to do it.” And while acknowledging this self-absorption, he confirms that all his films are, on some level, about him. “I don’t deny my egomania,” he counters, “I don’t hide it.”4

The Neon Demon poster

Refn has somehow evolved into a filmmaking brand as much as a respected filmmaker. He lends his name to coffee table books, curated series of vinyl soundtrack re-releases and entire film seasons. These are indulgences, perks and plaudits usually awarded to established auteurs with distinct ‘brand identities’ and, perhaps more importantly, proven commercial track records, e.g. Tarantino, Scorsese, del Toro. Refn’s name sells now, and it’s not a coincidence that his bespoke NWR logo resembles that of a fashion house. Like many of his peers, he pays the bills directing adverts – a recent one for Hennessy X.O cognac features a score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, presents seven ‘chapters’ in under two minutes and is generally a maximalist ode to self-indulgence.

Raised partially in New York, he’s always been at odds with his countrymen peers – reportedly making “unkind remarks…on roughly an hourly basis”5 about Festen director Thomas Vinterberg and accusing an “over the hill”6 Lars von Trier of trying to sleep with his wife (von Trier retorted, “I’ve known him since he was a kid! Fuck him.”7). And although Vinterberg and von Trier launched their Dogme 95 manifesto before Refn made his debut with Pusher (1996), some insist the latter was more influential than either have acknowledged. According to Pusher star Mads Mikkelsen, “We did the film without any rules, without any rules of lighting or money or costumes or sound. We did it because we had no money…and I think that rock ’n’ roll energy was an inspiration, and if they don’t want to admit it, that’s fine with me.”8 At any rate, it’s difficult to imagine Refn willingly signing up to any restrictions, let alone to Vinterberg’s infamous Kyskhedsløfter (Vow of Chastity).


Notably, then, The Neon Demon was inspired, in part, by Refn’s desire to counter the unrestrained masculinity of his oeuvre. He’s explained, “it’s a film that gives women control,”9 and that inspiration came one morning, “when I woke up and was like ‘You know what? I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife is and I wonder what that would be like.'”10 In other contexts, he’s reframed that moment a little more insightfully, saying, “I woke and realised I was both surrounded and dominated by women. Strangely, a sudden urge was planted in me to make a horror film about vicious beauty.”11 The other primary inspiration for The Neon Demon came from Corfixen’s insistence his follow-up to the Thailand-shot Only God Forgives be made in California (the newer film is dedicated to her).

Refn surrounded himself with key female collaborators – debut screenwriters Polly Stenham and, later, Mary Laws, cinematographer Natasha Braier, producer Lene Børglum and a core cast consisting of several young women, led by Elle Fanning as Jesse. And yet, of course, it’s really all about Nicolas Winding Refn. The high-contrast colour palate, as is the norm in his films, is shaped by his partial colourblindness – he can’t discern midtones, so The Neon Demon obliges the viewer to literally see as he sees. Refn deliberately obscured Jesse’s past and minimized her dialogue, putting her in a lineage with Drive’s The Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Valhalla Rising’s One-Eye (Mikkelsen), so their stories are “less about their journey and more about everyone else’s interpretation of what they actually represent to them.”12 But Jesse is, at her core, “a 16-year-old-girl version of me, coming to LA, having been born beautiful.”13 The lens may refract, but of his focus, Refn remains clear. “I think that part of creativity is also falling in love with your own narcissism: accepting it, using it as an asset.”14

Sean Welsh, July 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Nicolas Winding Refn, video interview with Danny Leigh
2. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The Neon Demon: Nicolas Winding Refn Reveals Why His Cannibal Model Movie Is Autobiographical’ by Anne Thompson for IndieWire
3. Nicolas Winding Refn, video interview with Danny Leigh, ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Danny Leigh, ‘Nicolas Winding Refn: ‘I bring the singular, the narcissistic, the high art‘, The Guardian
6. Nicolas Winding Refn, as reported by Brent Lang for Variety
7. Lars von Trier, as reported by Howard Feinstein for Indiewire
8. Mads Mikkelsen, ‘Exclusive: Mads Mikkelsen and Nicolas Winding Refn chat to Euronews
9. Nicolas Winding Refn, interviewed by Danny Leigh for The Guardian
10. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The Neon Demon Director Nicolas Winding Refn on Making a Horror Film for Women’ by Trace Thurman for
11. Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon press release
12. Nicolas Winding Refn, Anatomy of a scene: The Neon Demon,
13. Nicolas Winding Refn, Anne Thompson, ibid.
14. Nicolas Winding Refn, ‘The director of Drive has a new film he hopes challenges “goddamn old-school morality”’ by Alex McCown for The AV Club

Posted in Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tale of Tales (2015)


“The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.”1

Matteo Garrone’s eighth film seems, at first glance, to be a significant departure for the director. Garrone made his breakthrough with 2002’s The Embalmer (L’imbalsamatore), cemented his reputation with breakthrough-hit Gomorrah (Gomorra, 2008), and won Cannes’ Grand Prix for his most recent film, 2012’s Reality. His films have generally been based on real events and populated with non-professional and amateur actors. For Gomorrah and Reality, Garrone cast, respectively, a genuine Camorra gang boss and a former hitman still serving life in prison for a triple murder. Such an approach inevitably seems at odds with a project based on a 17th century collection of fairy tales, one which also marks Garrone’s first English language work. For the first time, in what seems like an abrupt volte-face, he’s also working with established actors. In a sense, though, with Tale of Tales (Il Racconto dei Racconti, 2015), the director has remained faithful both to his own established concerns and the spirit of the text he’s adapted.

The text, Giambattista Basile’s Lo Cunto de li Cunti, overo Lo Trattenemiento de’ peccerille (1634-36), translated into English in 1848 as The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories: Fun for the Little Ones, contains the first literary iterations of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Puss in Boots and Rapunzel. Published posthumously and pseudonymously, it consists of 49 fairy tales and one framing story, also fantastical. The collection, despite its subtitle and fantastical subject matter, is not aimed at children, a fact periodically foregrounded in Basile’s phraseology if not in its content (in the tale entitled The Flea, for example, people flock to meet a king’s challenge from “the asshole of the earth”).


Essentially a record of an oral tradition, one of the key virtues of Basile’s work was responsible for restricting its wider reach – it’s written in baroque Neapolitan, dense of allusion and peppered with vulgarity. In the introduction to his Italian Folktales, Italo Calvino described Lo Cunto de li Cunti as “il sogno d’un deforme Shakespeare partenopeo…in cui il sublime si mischia con il volgare e il sozzo” (“the dream of a deformed, Neapolitan Shakespeare”2 …in which “the sublime mingles with the vulgar and filthy”3). Nevertheless, Lo Cunto de li Cunti was a touchstone for Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812) popularized the same tales Basile first captured on the page, some 40 years before the latter was first translated into German, while praising the richness of Basile’s work and its unadulterated quality.

It was this quality that drew Garrone to Tale of Tales, which he’s described as “a reckless, even masochistic, choice”4. Besides wanting “to get into trouble, as usual,” the director was attracted to the “fantastic environment, the fantasy genre, which is not so common in Italy. I wanted to explore this genre while keeping a very personal look.”5 Thus, Garrone explains, it’s not necessarily the dramatic departure it seems. Instead, Tale of Tales represents a simple reconfiguration of his established approach, “that blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavours.”6 While Gomorrah and Reality drew upon real life and transposed the reality “into a sort of magical context,” with Tale of Tales, “I did the exact opposite. I started from magical elements and I tried to give them as much as realism as possible.”7


Garrone’s film is split into three distinct but interwoven sections – The Queen, The Flea and The Two Old Ladies – which correspond with Basile’s La Cerva Fatata (The Enchanted Doe), La Pulce (The Flea), La Vecchia Scorticata (The Old Woman Who Was Skinned). Garrone and his writing collaborators (Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso) threaded in elements from elsewhere in Basile’s collection, but otherwise discarded 47 tales, including all the most familiar – not to mention exhaustively retold – fairy tales. Their guiding principle was to look for “something powerful, physical, shared and authentic, even in the stories in which the imagination was the most fired-up.”8

In an introduction to her 2007 translation of Lo Cunto de li Cunti, Nancy Canepa describes how Basile’s “pervasive punning and wordplay” and “urbane manipulation of Baroque conceit … may constitute a simulation of the need, on the part of the oral storyteller, to use every means at his disposition – and the showier the better – to keep his audience’s ears perked.”9 Garrone and his collaborators, meanwhile, intended to honour the spirit of Basile’s work, if not its specificity, “and the language in which we wanted to transpose it was above all the cinematographic language – a language which can have its own specific richness, like that which we find in Basile’s work.”10 The resulting trio of tales, not coincidentally all female-focused, startled the writers with their capacity to capture contemporary obsessions, including “a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery, four centuries ahead of his time.”11

Italo Calvino asserted that the value of a tale “consists in what is woven and rewoven into it”, and thought of himself “as a link in the anonymous chain without end by which folktales are handed down, links that are never merely instruments or passive transmitters, but…it’s real ‘authors.'”12 And anyway, as Garrone himself insists, “you can never be faithful to a tale: each time you tell it to a child so they go off to sleep, something changes.”13

Sean Welsh, June 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Old Tuscan proverb, quoted, with a nod to Gherardo Nerucci, by Italo Calvino in his introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxxi
2. Sometimes translated, more benignly, as “odd, Mediterranean Shakespeare”.
3. Italo Calvino, introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxv
4. Matteo Garrone, as quoted in ‘Cannes: How Game of Thrones Influenced Tale of Tales
5. Matteo Garrone, ‘Cannes 2015: Five Questions for Tale of Tales Director Matteo Garrone’ by Ariston Anderson
6. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes
7. Matteo Garrone, ‘Cannes 2015: Five Questions for Tale of Tales Director Matteo Garrone’ by Ariston Anderson
8. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes, ibid.
9. Nancy Canepa, introduction to The Tale of Tales (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2007) pplviii-lix
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Italo Calvino, introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxxi
13. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes, ibid.

Posted in Cinema, Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mustang (2015)


“I wanted to portray these girls like a five-headed monster. They were like supernatural, otherworldly creatures for me with their long hair, which was reminiscent of a horse’s mane.”1
Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Mustang is the debut feature of writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Most frequently/lazily compared to another debut, The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2000), Ergüven’s film revolves around five sisters (all but one played by non-professional actors), from eldest Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), to the football-loving youngest, Lale (Günes Sensoy). Beyond that, the comparison isn’t particularly instructive, since Coppola’s film is concerned with languor, torpor and primarily the fuzzy myopia of the male gaze. In its form and content, in the story of its production and its lasting impact, Mustang is intrinsically a film of feminine agency, the very existence of which is a provocation. Ergüven synthesises autobiography, social commentary and a kind of cathartic wish fulfillment into a fable of female empowerment.

Ergüven shares co-writing credit on Mustang with Alice Winocour, writer-director of Disorder (2015). The two met while taking part in Cannes’ Cinéfondation Workshop, where they found themselves the lone female participants. Winocour encouraged Ergüven to abandon one project (Kings, about the LA riots) that was struggling to gain traction in order to develop Mustang. The choice to veer towards more personal territory was, according to Ergüven, “a deliberate choice of me saying, ‘OK, I’m not going to freak people out any more. I’m going to do something with girls who look like me and speak like me and everyone will easily understand it.'”2 Ergüven has spoken of writing Mustang, with Winocour’s encouragement, “in a trance…beating the shit out of my keyboard,”3 in just a few weeks’ worth of 20-hour days. The original treatment and subsequent hard graft was Ergüven’s, with Winocour “more like a boxing coach… she would help channel all my energy and make sense of certain things, refine characters, etc.”4


The Turkish-born Ergüven, raised between France and Turkey, drew upon her own experiences to produce Mustang’s script. “For example,” the director told Vogue, “the little scandal the girls trigger when they sit on the shoulders of the boys is something that me and the girls of my family had done.”5 From the point at which the girls rebel, mocking the sexualisation of their innocent activities by smashing chairs that have been in equally close proximity to their asses as any boys’ shoulders, Mustang diverges from real life. “We didn’t say anything. The characters in the film voiced the courage that we wished we had.”6

From then, Ergüven has explained, “it’s a film told as a fairytale and it’s quite condensed. Nobody can say it is the exact life of this person. There are reflections with real-life characters and a lot of real events, but it’s fragmentary. Being emotionally truthful is very important to me.”7 The director also drew from the experiences of family, friends, “and I tried to discover what lies under the surface by asking people I knew were knowledgeable about these matters,”8 which led her to the testimony of hospital workers who had witnessed scenes similar to those depicted in the film. Despite her focus on Turkish social realities, for the director, “knowing how it was to be a woman in other places” was “constitutive to the way I articulated the question in the film.”9


Having completed the script and carefully assembled her cast around professional actor Elit İşcan (Ece), Ergüven’s original producer almost derailed the production, having departed the project after allegedly botching the budget. According to Ergüven, to make matters worse, the female producer then “wrote letters to the other producers saying things, among which, ‘Deniz is pregnant.’ She listed all these reasons the film was impossible to make.”10 Those producers then began cancelling carefully cultivated location shoots, leading to the near collapse of the entire project. Luckily, new producers stepped in to save the day. Today, Ergüven is admirably philosophical about the sabotage she experienced. “It’s like me, when I see a woman pilot, I’m ashamed for myself. We are just a product of our time.”11

Mustang was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. Since it screened in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes last year, it’s been a magnet for awards nominations, and a fair few wins too, including the 2015 Lux Prize. And yet, fundamental to the success of the film for the director was how the very performance of it impacted on the lives of her cast. “For them, being courageous, fighting for your rights, being a bit insular when you need to be – all those things – have become normal. They become more and more like the characters.”12

Mustang doesn’t simply represent catharsis, or at worst the wishful rewriting of the director’s past. Its lines are a little more indelible, its influence a little less ephemeral than fashion spread aesthetics. As Ergüven has explained, “what was essential for me was to be able to film those girls in different poses, so to show that we could also look at them without associating their bodies with sexuality.”13 Therefore the simple act of watching is subtly transformative: “When you look at the world through the eyes of women, cinema is an extremely powerful meta-language…even people who hate the film, who feel antagonized by it, even they, for an hour and a half, have seen the world through Lale’s eyes.”14

Sean Welsh, May 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, interviewed by Yonca Talu
2. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, interviewed by Despina Ladi, ‘Wild At Heart’, Sight & Sound, June 2016 Volume 26 Issue 6 p29
3. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, ‘Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Her Stunning New Movie, Mustang‘ by Julia Felsenthal
4. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, ‘Interview with Mustang director Deniz Gamze Ergüven
5. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Felsenthal, ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
8. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Talu, Ibid.
9. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
10. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Felsenthal, Ibid.
11. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Talu, Ibid.
14. Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Ladi, Ibid.

Posted in Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dheepan (2015)


By all accounts, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) is a curious film. On one hand, it’s a story of immigration, of Sri Lankan refugees seeking escape to the west, told in an almost documentary-style form. On the other, it’s a slow-burning descent into bloody violence that started life as a Peckinpah remake. Its nuanced, carefully measured character study gives way eventually to an explosive climax, and beyond to a deceptively subtle coda. Nevertheless, perhaps in spite, perhaps because of its peculiarity, it won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, beating the hotly-tipped Carol, Sight & Sound poll-topper The Assassin and future Oscar-winner Son of Saul to the prize.

Curious audiences drawn to this emotionally complex, award-winning tale may be tacken aback by its denouement, but the tension in Dheepan between social-realism and a kind of Hollywood classicism is increasingly a hallmark of Audiard’s work. Most recently, Rust And Bone (2012), which starred Marion Cotillard as a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident, “almost felt more like an effects movie than a purportedly intimate drama set on the fringes of society.”1 Audiard also told The Observer recently of his nostalgia for the heyday of the Hollywood Western, when “cinema dealt in pure truth”2.


It’s perhaps not surprising then, given Audiard has never been reluctant to pay tribute to his Hollywood inspirations (The Beat That My Heart Skipped was a remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978); A Prophet’s lead, Malik, was reportedly inspired by The Godfather’s Michael Corleone) that he should consider producing a remake of Straw Dogs (Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1971). “Initially,” Audiard has explained, “we had the idea of using genre as a Trojan horse… But using genre gave us a ‘vigilante’ film, a rather stupid and reactionary genre.”3 From Straw Dogs, Audiard, with his writing collaborators Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain, took “the idea of an outsider, somebody who comes from another place”4 and began to glean that the film they wanted to make “was a love story, that this man would do anything for his family out of love.”5

Audiard’s work has long concerned itself with the struggle of inchoate voices to find form (2001’s Read My Lips), the struggle for self-actualisation (1996’s A Self Made Hero), and the struggle to create one’s self, to forge one’s own destiny (2009’s A Prophet). The director’s intention, however, is not simply to give voice to the voiceless or a platform to underrepresented minorities, but to discover and engage with “people that are totally different from me, my social milieu, and my culture.”6 This impetus, away from French culture, domestic and colonial, drove Audiard in this case inevitably towards Sri Lanka and the civil war, “that I had totally ignored, and that was not at all represented or covered by the French press.”7


Essaying the conflict itself, though, is less important to Audiard than showing how that past tells upon his characters as they attempt to start new lives, under assumed identities, in a Parisian housing estate. The director looked to the Tamil community in Paris to cast his film, and there found his Dheepan in writer and ex-Tamil Tiger Antonythasan Jesuthasan. Jesuthasan, who has lived in France for 23 years, reportedly auditioned for a minor part, but was promoted to lead when Audiard discovered how closely his life story matched the script. Radicalised by the events of Sri Lanka’s Black July in 1983, a 17-year-old Jesuthasan joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting with them for seven years until his group was all but wiped out. With fake documents, he eventually made it to France, where he worked a series of odd jobs and embarked on a new career as a writer of Tamil fiction.8

Audiard, however, is keen to point out the similarities are merely serindipitous and Dheepan is not Jesuthasan, as should really be clear by the film’s conclusion. That’s because Dheepan switches into a new gear close to the end, dispensing with what has been an almost documentary style in favour of kinetic action – gunfire, explosions and “macho heroics à la Sylvester Stallone”9. Some have attributed its “abrupt” narrative turns to an unfinished edit, assembled for Cannes and fixed forever once it won the Palme d’Or10. Indeed, the elision that swoops a bloody Dheepan from the ninth floor of an embattled apartment block to behind the wheel of a London taxi is clearly jarring.

However, whether a visual pun is intended or not, the image certainly recalls another film in which a psychologically troubled outsider descends into vigilantism towards certain death, only to find himself miraculously granted something approaching a fairy tale ending.11 Roger Ebert wrote of the much debated final scenes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that, “the end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level.”12 If that comparison is instructive at all, it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not it contradicts or complements Audiard’s own view of his dramatic conceit: “the history of love constructed in front of our eyes. In the beginning it is a lie, a fiction, but we go from a lie they pretend to something that becomes real.”13

Sean Welsh, April 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. David Jenkins, ‘Dheepan – first look review’ Little White Lies
2. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Jonathan Romney, The Observer, Sunday 3rd April, 2016
3. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Fabien Lemercier
4. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Katie Kilkenny, LA Review of Books, 10/12/15
5. Jacques Audiard, interviewed by Kenneth Turan
6. Jacques Audiard, Kilkenny, ibid.
7. Jacques Audiard, Kilkenny, ibid.
8. ‘Dheepan’s Antonythasan Jesuthasan: from Tamil Tiger to star of a Palme d’Or winner’ in The Guardian, Thursday 31st March, 2016
9. Ginette Vincendeau, Dheepan review, Sight & Sound, May 2016, Volume 26 Issue 5, p61
10. Ibid.
11. In their recent interview with Antonythasan Jesuthasan, The Guardian curiously notes the ‘Taxi Driver-like poster in the foyer’.
12. Roger Ebert, Taxi Driver review, 2004
13. Jacques Audiard, Turan, ibid.

Posted in Cinema, Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hail, Caesar! (2016)


It somehow makes sense that in making a movie about movie making, Joel and Ethan Coen would find the ultimate realisation of their recurring themes, one of which is circular, ouroboric self-reflexivity itself (think of a man chasing his own hat, as in Miller’s Crossing (1990), in lieu of a tail). As many of their films are, Hail, Caesar! (2016) is as allusive as it is elusive. How, then, to unpack a film that seems to draw equally from real life, the films of classic Hollywood and the Coen brothers’ own films, while itself blurring the formal lines between cinematic “reality” and movie magic? And is it necessary to have this information to hand to appreciate the film?

The release of a new Coen brothers film rarely fails to provoke a slew of articles identifying tropes familiar from elsewhere in their oeuvre. You won’t find all of them in every Coen brothers film, but this obsessive categorisation is an attempt to make sense of a genre-hopping back catalogue at once recognisably authorial yet tantalisingly and frustratingly opaque. Nevertheless, their films are linked in all kinds of overt ways – e.g. Hudsucker industries features in both Raising Arizona (1987) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), just as the fictional Capitol Pictures connects Hail, Caesar! to Barton Fink (1991).


Hail, Caesar! also continues a longstanding Coen tradition of basing fictional characters, however loosely, on real people. Barton Fink features characters inspired by playwright Clifford Odets (John Turturro’s eponymous protagonist), William Faulkner (John Mahoney’s WP Mayhew) and a composite character (Michael Learner’s Jack Lipnick) based on studio heads Louis B Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner. The Big Lebowski (1998), built around Jeff Bridges’ Dude, has its foundations in a Coens acquaintance named Jeff Dowd. Most recently, the titular singer-songwriter of Inside Llewyn Davis (2014) was ‘inspired by’ folk singer Dave Van Ronk.

Hail, Caesar!’s Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, shares a name, more or less, with a real-life Hollywood fixer. Like his Coen counterpart, the original Eddie Mannix was Catholic and had “a confirmed or suspected hand in covering up everyday misdemeanors like car wrecks and pregnancies”1. On the other hand, unlike Brolin’s character, the real-world Mannix had no children, was named Edgar rather than Edward and allegedly had a hand in covering up “some of the most horrible scandals in the history of Hollywood,” reportedly including rape and murder. Brolin’s Mannix is really a composite character, also based on Howard Strickling2, Mannix’s contemporary and cohort. “A dapper former journalist who controlled how the press reported on MGM’s stars and film,”3 as MGM’s head of publicity, Strickling’s spin tactics complimented Mannix’s more hands-on approach.

Hail Caesar!

Similarly, Thora & Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are an amalgam of both legendary gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and identical twin sister columnists Eppie Lederer (AKA Ann Landers) and Pauline Phillips (AKA Abigail Van Buren). Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) corresponds with Robert Taylor, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, actors in such epics as Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur (which also lends the tagline ‘a tale of the Christ’) and Spartacus. Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing Burt Gurney is modeled on Gene Kelly, but also aesthetically on Troy Donahue and Tyrone Power.

And it continues – Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Williams is analogous with competitive-swimmer-turned-actress Esther Williams, though the ruse she proposes mirrors one undergone by actress Loretta Young. Carlota Valdez, who Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) asks, “Is it hard to dance with all them bananas on your head?”, is a relatively transparent pastiche of Carmen Miranda, famous for her hats piled with exotic fruits. Her name is also a subtle amendment from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which prominently features a “Carlotta Valdes”. As Nick Pinkerton recently wrote, “significant, or just a red herring to tempt film nerds?”4

It’s debatable in all cases how useful this kind of information is going in. That is to say, those nodding in response to the brothers’ cleverness may realise the two were simply nodding towards their own influences, rather than the audience. Their Miller’s Crossing, for example, is on one level a straightforward homage to the works of Dashiell Hammett (particularly his novel Red Harvest). The Big Lebowski has a less overt relationship to the works of Raymond Chandler. Though their inspirations are cheerfully acknowledged, awareness of them is not required to enjoy the films.

Hail, Casar!

However, the thing that really could make Hail, Caesar! the definitive Coen brothers film is that, as is now traditional, they have basically refuted everything above. “Is Scarlett Johansson Esther Williams?” Ethan wondered aloud recently. “Not really. We don’t know anything about Esther Williams.”5 In case that wasn’t definitive enough, Joel added, “We’re not big on research.”6 Likewise, faced with the proposition that, like Hail, Caesar!, many of their films (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo) feature a kidnapping, Joel clarified, “I’m not sure why. They are all very different. We should probably give that a rest.”7

So do you need to “get the reference” in order to enjoy the film? Yes and no. It may help to know the supposed historical context, to know about the studio system, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Spartacus (that is to say, if you’ve seen Trumbo (dir. Jay Roach, 2015), you will be at a certain advantage). It may help digest what is a typically dense confection, but you’ll likely as not get egg on your face if you decide to hold forth on what exactly the Coens mean by all this. And you’ll get no help at all from the brothers, since they tend to dispense with concrete logic or reliable orienting details (dates are fudged, temporal references contradictory). Never mind that every time they’re called upon to comment upon the “meaning” of their work, or to confirm or deny a fan theory or academic proposal, they demur.

They seem to side with Werner Herzog, who famously scorned “the pedantic branch of academia”, the ones “ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there.” Perhaps the Coens are simply more polite than Herzog, who concluded, “Go for it, losers.”8 But it’s not too hard to imagine them saying the same thing – Joel, after all, has described bating overzealous critics with Barton Fink, “like teasing animals at the zoo”9 – even if it is with a typically enigmatic smile.

Sean Welsh, March 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Karina Longworth, ‘The Fixer: MGM’s Eddie Mannix and the lives he ruined
2. Hail, Caesar! production notes
3. Longworth, ibid.
4. Nick Pinkerton, ‘True Hollywood Story
5. ‘How the Coen Brothers Survived Hollywood and Lived to Make Hail, Caesar!’ by Ramin Setoodeh, Variety, February 3rd, 2016.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Werner Herzog, ‘Interview: Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
9. Joel Coen in Allen, William Rodney, ed. The Coen Brothers: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006

Posted in Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pasolini (2014)


“He was an artist who was engaged in his work and the world, a political and personal activist, constantly rethinking and re-examining his position, and always living in the moment.”
Abel Ferrara on Pier Paolo Pasolini1

“The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini2

Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (2014) debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year, 50 years to the day since his subject first presented The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) at the same festival. Ferrara’s film depicts the final day of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, as he prepares to release what will become his most controversial film (the notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), while preparing to begin a new project.

Those three films come to GFT this month*, and they, along with the insight Ferrara’s film gives to that ultimately unrealised final project, Porno-Teo-Kolossal (Porn-Theo-Colossal), leave the indelible impression of an effervescent intellect. As deliberate and poised as Pasolini’s films are, it’s difficult to imagine a less staid or complacent filmmaker. And yet, over the decades since his death, his films have accrued a canonical arthouse respectability that often belies how provocative they first were and why.


If the austere and poetic beauty of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is undimmed by 50 subsequent years of filmic rending and rendering of the life of Jesus, the impression made by its debut is perhaps a little obscured. The openly gay, anti-clerical atheist Pasolini had first skirted around the subject of Jesus’ life with La Ricotta, his short contribution to RoGoPaG (1963). Based around a typically lavish film production of the Passion, it focuses on the travails of an impoverished bit-player, due to play the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus, as he struggles to sate his hunger on set.

Having long since set a pattern of provocation and litigation, Pasolini was prosecuted and convicted for “insulting the religion of the state”. Though the conviction was overturned on appeal, the director struggled to persuade authorities or audiences of his good intent, and the ironic, self-reflexive speech he had given the director (Orson Welles), who also reads from Pasolini’s own book, didn’t help:

“[Italy has] the most illiterate masses and the most ignorant bourgeoisie in Europe…. [The average man] is a monster. A dangerous criminal. Conformist, colonialist, racist, slave trader, a mediocrity!”3

In this context, the apparent reverence displayed in The Gospel… was as shocking as its spare aesthetic. The film, as director Derek Cianfrance once claimed, “is essentially a documentary about Jesus.”4 Pasolini’s third film, it built upon the practice the director had established in his first two, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), of recruiting untrained, locally-sourced actors. More particularly, Pasolini favoured non-professionals for whom his film would often be their sole acting work. The script is drawn directly from the Gospel of Matthew, with no original dialogue. The film was received so rapturously by the Catholic Church that both right and left wing were appalled. Pasolini, for his part, insisted he was a non-believer “telling the story through the eyes of a believer”5.


10 typically tumultuous years later, Pasolini had enjoyed a period of critical and commercial success with a trilogy of opulent, bright, fantastical films. His next would represent his last and most violent convulsion from the status quo. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is based on the Marquis de Sade’s infamous book 120 Days of Sodom, written during his incarceration in the Bastille. Pasolini transposes the action of Sade’s novel, set between the end of Louis XIV’s reign and the beginning of the Régence, to the similarly turbulent period immediately following the downfall of Mussolini and his Salò Republic. Pasolini’s film, like Sade’s book, retains its elemental power to shock and provoke.

Pasolini’s aim, however, was not the thin, frivolous controversy more recently seen over the likes of The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film, but instead a careful and considered dismantling of fascism, overtly, and, more subtly, consumerism. Salò is partly a corrective, partly a clarification of themes developed in his acclaimed Trilogy of Life, themes that Pasolini felt had been either misconstrued, diluted or corrupted by the slew of soft-porn imitators they inspired. Those films, The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), despite or because of their transgressions, had been extremely popular.


Pasolini explained, “I made [the Trilogy of Life] in order to oppose the consumerist present to a very recent past where the human body and human relations were still real, although archaic…and these films opposed this reality to the non-reality of consumer civilisation.”6 Just days before his death, the director explained how he had modified his thinking. “In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power. I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did.”7

At the time of that statement, the director was preparing to shoot the long-gestating, apocalyptic Porno-Teo-Kolossal, another biblically-inspired tale, of an elderly magus compelled to travel to the birthplace of Jesus. Ultimately, Epifanio and his companion find that “Paradise doesn’t exist…the end doesn’t exist.”8 In Ferrara’s film, Willem Dafoe’s Pasolini reads from the finale of his own script:

“Epifanio is taking a piss and then he turns back and looks at Planet Earth. Sounds are coming from there, faintly, far away. Music, voices, pop songs, advertising. Revolutionary songs. He looks back at Earth and he says, ‘In the end, I’m happy that I followed that star, because it gave me the opportunity to know better the planet that I love so much.'”9

It’s tempting to consider Porno-Teo-Kolossal, as described and partially depicted in Pasolini, to be as close to a conclusive statement likely to come from the director; likely or indeed possible. That’s because it’s difficult to imagine a final position from an artist who wasn’t so much mercurial as atomically inscrutable, always in flux and, as Ferrara suggests, constantly questioning, alive to the world.

Sean Welsh, September 2015
*This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Abel Ferrara, ‘Framing Pasolini: An Interview with Abel Ferrara’ by Nico Marzano
2. Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘One Man’s God, Another Man’s Devil’ by Guy Flatley, The New York Times (April 20th, 1969) D15
3. RoGoPaG: La Ricotta (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963)
4. Derek Cianfrance, ‘The film that changed my life
5. Pasolini, Pasolini On Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969) p86
6. Pasolini, as quoted in Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life by Patrick Rumble (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996)
7. Pasolini, The Lost Pasolini Interview, roundtable recording translated by Celluloid Liberation Front
8. Pasolini (dir. Abel Ferrara, 2014)
9. Ibid.

Posted in Cinema, Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going Clear (2015)


“The public has been hampered in the knowledge of Scientology by the fact that so far as I can establish, on every occasion that the organisation has been named by a newspaper, that newspaper has been served with a writ of libel.”
Peter Hordern MP, Parliamentary debate, 6th March, 19671

Alex Gibney’s adaptation of Jeffrey Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief, on the rise of the most notorious of new religions, reaches us – by the skin of its teeth, seemingly – through a predictable fugue of potential lawsuits. Indeed, the Church of Scientology’s reliably dogged insistence on making the film’s journey to GFT or any other screens as difficult as possible is probably better publicity than a shipping container full of dinosaurs abandoned in Waterloo Station. If anyone is in any doubt about the relevance of Gibney’s documentary to British audiences, they need only refer to the vehemence of the Church’s opposition.

This is behaviour the general public has come to expect of the Church and while it certainly evokes the Streisand Effect more than a little bit, it is also worryingly effective. In fact, Wright’s book, widely credited with doing its level best to give L Ron Hubbard and Scientology a fair shake, still hasn’t been published in the UK. That’s because historically in the UK (well, England and Wales) the burden of proof in defamation cases has rested upon the defendant. That means UK publishers have been especially vulnerable when faced with the aggression, persistence and sheer means of the deep-pocketed religion.


Likewise, while the 2013 Defamation Act amended UK law so that plaintiffs must demonstrate “serious harm” has been done to them, there are currently no confirmed plans to broadcast Gibney’s film, produced and broadcast by HBO in the US, in the UK. Reportedly that’s because Sky Atlantic, who control the UK rights, can’t differentiate its signal between regions, meaning a UK broadcast would necessarily include Northern Ireland, where the 2013 Act has not been made law (nor has it in Scotland, though reporting on the issue has mostly focused on Ireland, where the DUP have been vocal in their opposition to reform).

Scientology has almost always had a fractious, defensive relationship with the media. Almost, but not quite, as evidenced by some of the most remarkable footage in Going Clear, drawn from two episodes of Granada’s World In Action series – ‘Scientology For Sale’ (August 1967) and ‘The Shrinking World of L Ron Hubbard’ (August 1968) – as well as “off-the-record”2 outtakes from the second programme. The casual access allowed to the church’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, would not be repeated.

The footage also reminds us that although modern fascination with Scientology, morbid or otherwise, is mostly focused on the distant antics of Tom Cruise, or folded into the “only in America” compartment of our collective unconscious, the Church actually has a long history in Britain, as demonstrated in the opening quote above, from a Parliamentary discussion on Scientology in 1967.

In Britain too, the following year, the magazine Queen (later Harper’s & Queen, now Harper’s Bazaar) published ‘The Scandal of Scientology’, one of the first exposés of the church. The author, American journalist Paulette Cooper, soon expanded her article into a book of the same name (just as Wright developed his controversial New Yorker profile of director Paul Haggis into Going Clear) and soon became the focus of successive covert campaigns (Operations Daniel, Dynamite and Freakout) aimed at discrediting her. She explains:

“I ended up falsely arrested and facing 15 years in jail, had 19 lawsuits filed against me all over the world by Scientology, was the almost victim of a near murder, was the subject of five disgusting anonymous smear letters sent to my family and neighbors about me, and endured constant and continual harassment for almost 15 years.”3

Scientology, as I’ve suggested, were never going to take Going Clear lying down. Earlier this year, they took out a full-page advert in the New York Times, criticizing both Gibney and HBO executive Sheila Nevins, comparing the documentary to the controversial, discredited Rolling Stone report on campus rape at the University of Virginia with an enormous headline reading, “Is Alex Gibney’s Upcoming HBO ‘Documentary’ a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux?”


While Gibney countered that a full-page ad is the “chosen device of a business protecting market share, not [a] church protecting belief,”4 it’s still ironic (or apposite, depending on your mood) that Scientology’s legal threat has reportedly “curtailed”, marketing plans for the film’s UK screenings, while the distributors and exhibitors involved asked not to be named in recent reporting.5 Nevins, meanwhile, is unrepentant. “[Documentaries] don’t get full-page ads,” she said recently, “and when they do, they do really well…Scientology did their own commercial for us.”6

Scientology have also set up propaganda (or counterpropaganda, depending on your mood) websites and invested heavily in promoting them. Google “Alex Gibney” and you’ll find the top hit for the Oscar-winning filmmaker is a sponsored link to a Scientology website dedicated to attacking him and his collaborators. Each merits a dedicated page and bespoke video dismantling their characters, undermining their testimony but not directly countering their accusations. Gibney asserts in return that, “a careful investigation of the church’s claims will reveal that most of the misdeeds by critics… were committed on behalf of the Church of Scientology… These people are now repenting and the Church of Scientology wants to punish them.”7

The version of Going Clear we’re getting has reportedly been edited from the original US broadcast, although there are suggestions this may extend simply to on-screen legal disclaimers. Despite that, there are suggestions the Church are even now trying to block Going Clear’s cinema release entirely, meaning I might be wasting my time writing this. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll avoid the fate of the US film reviewers who received the following email:

“The above article concerning Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s film, was posted without contacting the Church for comment. As a result, your article reflects the film which is filled with bald faced lies. I ask that you include a statement from the Church in your article. There is another side to the story which has to be told. Do not be the mouthpiece for Alex Gibney’s propaganda.”8

Sean Welsh, June 2015
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Hansard, 6th March, 1967
2. Alex Gibney, ‘Alex Gibney on Going Clear’s Archival Scientology Footage, Using Drones, and Why More People Need to Speak Out Against the Church’ by John Horn
3. Paulette Cooper, ‘The Scandal of The Scandal of Scientology
4. Alex Gibney, Twitter, 16th January, 2015
5. ‘Scientology doc to get UK release despite pressure’ by Andreas Wiseman
6. Sheila Nevins, ‘Here’s the moment HBO knew its Scientology doc ‘Going Clear’ would be a huge hit’ by Jason Guerrasio
7. Alex Gibney, ‘Church of Scientology targets film critics over Going Clear documentary’ by Ben Beaumont-Thomas
8. Ibid.

Posted in Film, GFT, Glasgow, Movies, Programme Note | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment