What About Sean?


Physical Impossibility presented a panel event at Glasgow Film Festival 2017 called Patsies! A Celebration of the Cinematic Loser. Craig McClure, Dr Becky Bartlett, Edward Ross, Kate Coventry, Video Namaste and Claire Biddles all presented on the theme of cinema’s worst deadbeats, duds and dweebs. I hosted and for the second year running and, despite an extra 30 mins running time this year, FFS, had to cut my own segment for time. I’ve adapted my presentation to read here but made very few changes. Not to say my delivery would’ve made it any better, but bear in mind it was never intended as an article. Enjoy!

We are all the main characters in our own stories. We are de facto the heroes in the movies of our lives. But every film has peripheral characters. You can’t have a focus without a background, right? You have heroes, you have villains, and then every film has countless nobodies.

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It’s necessary that stories have protagonists and that their stories are fleshed out with a supporting cast, who are surrounded by incidental characters who are further surrounded by inconsequential human shapes. I want to talk about human collateral damage – the side characters who are casually thrown under the bus so that the main characters can live happily ever after. This operates on a sliding scale from the individual also-rans in every romantic comedy to the tossed-off mass death of Zack Snyder films.

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So one one end, take Walter, played by Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. He was Meg Ryan’s fiance, but he was a bit square, had allergies and didn’t get at all “nervous about forever”, so she binned him for Tom Hanks, practically sight-unseen. Nobody is supposed to care what happened to this milquetoast man, but we can be sure he did not go quietly into the night. All thanks to this guy:

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But these things happen. Sucks to be you, Walter, but at least you didn’t have kids. But then consider the likes of Gordon Silberman in Roland Emmerich’s 2012.

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First of all, no offence to any Gordons out there, but if your romantic opponent is named Jackson Curtis, you’re basically on a shoogly peg. The set-up is this: Jackson is a failed author working as a chauffeur for a Russian oligarch. Gordon, a surgeon, is married to Jackson’s ex-wife Kate and is basically raising Jackson’s kids. But the *wink* fault-lines in their relationship are about to open up:

That’s Gordon there, telling his wife not to jump into a chasm. So the world is ending but Jackson inexplicably manages to swoop in and save his ex-wive and their kids, coincidentally swooping up Gordon along the way. Luckily, Gordon is also a pilot and manages to fly them all to temporary safety. Everyone appreciates Gordon’s vital role in saving their lives so clearly he has nothing to worry about:

Poor Gordon. But not to worry, once they get to the massive arcs that the 1%ers have created to save the rich, he’ll have plenty of time to reassert himself, right?

Nope, Gordon had to die so that Jackson could be reunited with his family. And after a reasonable period of mourning, and once the kids have had time to get over the horrific death of the man who raised them, maybe, just maybe they can move on:

Obviously Gordon can’t come home with them because he’s pretty fucking far from being together, having been torn asunder on the gears of the narrative. Sorry, actual gears.


Not Jackson’s fault – and remember he was dead upset.


So Gordon is another casualty of the happily ever after, but again, these things happen – they need to happen and we understand that. But some films take the piss.


Take Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones in 2011. It has kind of a complicated premise – Jones even provided this handy diagram to help make sense of it:


Captain Colter Stevens (take that, Jackson Curtis), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is part of a military experiment which repeatedly projects him back in time to the moments before a terrorist’s bomb explodes on a passenger train. Each time they send him back, he wakes up in the body of a teacher named Sean Fentress and then has just eight minutes to identify the bomber, who’s planning an even bigger attack back in the present. This is his first trip:

So it’s essentially Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap.

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Eventually, it becomes clear that Captain Colter back in the present is actually barely alive, a multiple amputee on life support, so he doesn’t have much of a future. At the same time, he becomes determined to stop the bombing and change the past, convinced his experience there is real and not just a projection. He’s aided in this by Sean’s colleague and potential love interest, Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan.

Source Code becomes a film about multiple alternative realities, and yes, in most of the others depicted, Sean Fentress dies with everyone else on the train. But in the end, in the reality we’re supposed to care about, Colter Stevens stops the bomber and gets a chance at happily ever after when he breaks the loop and time moves on with him still snogging off with Christina.

Everything’s going to be OK. There’s just one pesky question:


We’re supposed to believe it takes just eight minutes for Stephens to woo Christina Warren – remember, we follow six of Colter’s eight-minute cracks at solving the mystery before the train blows up, but he takes at least eight, maybe nine total swings at it. So he gets like an hour total to get to know her and fall for her – it helps that she’s “beautiful, kind and painfully honest”, I guess. And Christina’s obviously impressed with this new Sean. “Who are you and what did you do to Sean Fentress?”, she asks.

BUT from the start, we’ve seen she was already kind of into Sean, who’s her work colleague and has been coaching towards a career move and through a recent break-up. If she wasn’t, it’d be much more difficult for Colter to take care of business. But Colter essentially swoops in at the last minute, eight minutes, I guess, and cashes in on what is possibly years of groundwork by poor Mr Fentress. But I know what you’re thinking – Fentress is dead, right? He would be, anyway, if it wasn’t for Colter. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. And Colter deserves his new lease on life. This is the very end of Source Code:

Emphasis added. Let’s not talk about Fentress’ family, or how Colter’s going to figure out where he lives, or his cash card pin code, and whether he should reapply for his Disclosure before he returns to work. And let’s just hope that Sean isn’t trapped inside his own mind, watching helpless as Captain Colter pilots the ship, Being John Malkovich-style.


What is the takeaway, then? That the next time the hero wins the day, maybe we should spare a thought for the Seans? Maybe not – maybe the real message here is if you like someone, don’t wait to tell them. Don’t leave the door open for the Captain Colters, be the hero of your own story or someone else will. Don’t be a patsy, like Sean. Sean Fentress.


Sean Welsh

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PATSIES! A Celebration of the Cinematic Loser


While Glasgow Film Festival celebrates Dangerous Dames, Glasgow’s cult movie zine Physical Impossibility considers the other side of the equation – cinema’s worst Deadbeats, Duds and Dweebs. Expect insight, wit and expert PowerPoint wrangling, as a roster of special guests scour the history of cinema to present to you a toast to the yellow bellies, the thwarted schemers and the straight-up losers. Whether they make good marks or just failed to make a mark, this is their time to shine!

Guests include:

Dr Becky Bartlett (University of Glasgow)
Claire Biddles (FWYL, Sad Girl Cinema)
Kate Coventry (LightShow Film Club)
Morvern Cunningham (VHS Trash Fest)
Craig McClure (Physical Impossibility)
Edward Ross (Filmish – A Graphic Journey Through Film)
Video Namaste
Sean Welsh (Physical Impossibility)

PATSIES! follows Physical Impossibility‘s sold out BAD ROMANCE event at GFF16.


NB This is a free but ticketed show. Free tickets will only be available on the day from the venue where the event is taking place, when the box office opens. First come, first served (maximum 2 tickets per person).

More info at the Facebook event page here and the GFF page here.


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Toni Erdmann Programme Note for GFT


Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann opens at GFT today and runs till Thursday 15th February. My specially commissioned programme note will be available at screenings, but you can also read it online here. GFT’s new website archives all their programme notes from mid-2016 here – reading them will make you smarter and more attractive.

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Silence Programme Note for GFT


Martin Scorsese’s Silence opens at GFT Monday 2nd January and runs till Thursday 19th. My specially commissioned programme note will be available at screenings, but you can also read it online here. GFT’s new website archives all their programme notes from mid-2016 here – reading them will make you smarter and more attractive.



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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 BloodyDisgusting.com
11. Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon press release
12. Nicolas Winding Refn, Anatomy of a scene: The Neon Demon, Nytimes.com
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

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