Judgement Day

Trainspotting 2 (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Back in the day there was a Panic, nay, a Right To Do, over Trainspotting the movie. Irvine Welsh was the Scottish flavour of the month for cult writer, but the film version led to Peter Bottomley and other Tory MPs to condemn it as it would turn everyone into junkies, which is an unlikely experience for anyone who actually saw the movie, as indeed Bottomley hadn’t. Will Self called it drugs porn, whatever that meant, presumably because it didn’t match his flavour of smugness.

Cool Britannia was heading for its height — the Oasis vs. Blur conundrum exercising everyone who hadn’t heard Pulp, Mr Tony was already doing his Tory PM in waiting grin and John Major was still the grey man. Family values and all that? Don’t eat the eggs.

Trainspotting was a breath of fresh air as I recall, being neither the chocolate box heritage adaptation nor the mockney gangster, Danny Boyle (and Ewan MacGregor) was hot from Shallow Grave and Robert Carlyle was emerging as a great character actor (Hamish Macbeth? The Full Monty was on its way). John Hodge weaved a series of vignettes into a linear but heavily narrated movie, the stories of junky Renton (MacGregor) and his friends in Edinburgh. The editing and mise en scène was sharp, the pacing assured, transcending various moments of MTV video. A hundred moments stand out — a freeze frame of Renton leaning on a car bonnet, Renton licking his cut finger, Renton wincing at a needle, Spud (Ewan Bremnor) gabbling his way through a job interview, a toilet dream fugue…

Carlyle and MacGregor went onto greater things — the latter fell out with Boyle when he wasn’t cast in The Beach and did Star Wars instead — Bremnor would appear from time to time, Jonny Lee Miller (Sickboy) never quite made star status and seems to have had more success on TV. And Boyle never quite repeated himself, so a return to Trainspotting seemed unlikely even though Welsh had written a sequel Porno.

But the creative team reassembled twenty years on — double the interval of the first two Linklater/Delpy/Hawkes Before movies — and found space for a sequel. Oddly, I had the same sense of fanboy stomach lurch when I saw the trailer for T2 as I did for The Force Awakens, which puts Carlyle somewhat in the Harrison Ford position and suggests that he may well have an emo kid who will be the death of him.

T2 is a darker film, both visually and thematically, even as Edinburgh itself has thrived. Renton, last seen heading for Amsterdam with a hold all full of money, has had a dull career and failed marriage, Spud used the money left for him on more drugs, Sickboy has moved into pimping and blackmail and Begbie (Carlyle) has been in and out of prison. Renton returns to Edinburgh, partly to rebuild his life and to make amends, but not everyone is pleased to see him. Revenge is on the cards.

Of course, we want to see the old team together again, whether it’s the three junkies and Begbie or the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but we know it can’t be the same again. Boyle cleverly plays with the desire from reunion, whilst quoting the earlier film in a parallel way to Abrams with Lucas. Sometimes it’s a matter of music cues — although in different recordings — sometimes it’s equivalent scenes such as chases, fights and Sean Connery impressions. We get the odd filmic flashback, lifting Trainspotting footage, sometimes we get newly shot versions. We even get, finally, the vignette that explains both the film’s title and Begbie’s behaviour, just in case we don’t realise the danger his son faces.

The junky lifestyle seems to be about history repeating itself, always as tragedy, certainly as fuck up, and the four leads always circulate around the possibility of falling back into old ways. There is the Big Scheme, one last scam, that will help them all escape, but you know they are doomed. Judgement Day awaits.

If Trainspotting was Renton’s film, then this is Spud’s, with a curious arc of redemption that almost makes the film eat its own tail. Certainly he is the focus of the stand out visual set pieces. He steals the scenes as Begbie chews and punches and kicks the scenery; Sickboy meanwhile is a minor villain and Renton largely an enabler.

If you remember the original posters for Trainspotting there were five figures in black and white surrounded by orange. The fifth, the only female, was Diane, Renton’s underage conquest, although in a sense he was the one who was conquered in a rather dubious sequence. Diane is back, in cameo, but relegated from poster duties. Two decades of sexual politics leads to a film about four men; the women here are mothers and ex-wives or girlfriends, the common sense of a normal life when the boys have stopped playing.

Danny Boyle would be eighty if we checked in again in twenty years. Is it a cheap metaphor to wonder if we would like another fix? Do we want to see the characters as the old men in the bar, nursing pints and chasers as young men fight each other? I suspect it is. I suspect we do.

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.

The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

I ATEN’T DED

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (Julien Temple, 2015)

It’s a long time since Earthgirls are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988), a valley girl sf satire with roles for Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum and (a heavily-furred) Jim Carrey that is great fun in memory and yet sank at the time. This was Temple’s penance for sinking the British film industry with Absolute Beginners (1986). And he is is, doing television documentaries that get a cinema release.

Of course, that’s misleading. His heart’s clearly always been in documentary — The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1988) as one take on the Sex Pistols and The Filth and the Fury (2000) as another. His films Ray Davies: Imaginary Man (2010) and Rio 50 Degrees: Carry on CaRIOca! (2014) were part of Botney’s Imag!ne strand on the BBC, and The Ecstasy has a producer credit for Alan Yentob. (And, music aside, Requiem for Detroit? (2008) was a great piece of work.)

So, Wilko Johnson is a … rhythm and blues guitarist, in 1971 a founder member of Dr. Feelgood and associated with a range of musicians from or near Canvey Island, Essex. I will have heard his stuff, although not knowingly and I frankly cannot name a single track by the band. I’m either too old or too young and prog-rock of the Yes/Floyd ilk is what I listen to from that period.

I have no musical taste. But it’s my no musical taste. Get over it.

So any way, he was still going and still playing and in January 2013 he was diagnosed with inoperable, late stage pancreatic cancer and opted not to go through chemotherapy. The diagnosis was the making of him — there’s that classic interview between Dennis Potter and Lord Bragg of South Bank where the former discusses the blossom outside his window and the world and senses come alive. Wilko is saturated in Romantic poetry (and Shakespeare and Icelandic sagas and … studied a degree in English Literature and taught for a year) and has clearly had a Blakean epiphany. At one point he mentions LSD trips — but this clearly felt more vivid.

Temple had already interviewed him for Oil City Confidential (2009), a documentary on Dr Feelgood, so it seemed natural to go back. There was a great interview between Wilko and John Wilson — for Kaleidoscope Front Row? — and so he had proven he could talk feelingly about his own life, and not be maudlin or angry or depressing. Pretty well the only other voice here is Roger Daltrey, whom Wilko made an album with when he thought he was too ill to tour — oh, and a clip or two from Wilson and BBC news presenters.

It would make a great radio interview.

But this is a film — and I guess there aren’t enough bits of footage or archive photographs to eek out the talking head. The conceit of him playing chess against Death is appropriate — and Temple intercuts bits of Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)) to help us. His taste for Shakespeare mean he can quote Hamlet (and Temple can intercut footage of a film of the play — I *think* Richard Burton’s), although it’s less clear if he knows that famous soliloquy is about suicide not just death. Then there’s A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946), a classic film about an airman’s near-death experience, which obvious offers a chance for A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944) for a rather more Kentish (and Canterbury Sound) take on neo-romantic landscape. Oh, and Nosferatu and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)) and … Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). And something Italian with books and chickens.

Temple’s own footage, when he’s not content to film Wilko in a landscape is ploddinly literal — growing/decaying plants, sands in a timer, stars rotating around sky, time-lapsed.

EVERY THING ENDS.

Although, of course, spoilers.

A photographer and oncologist Charlie Chan saw Wilko and though, that doesn’t look like that kind of tumour. You need a second opinion.

So now we have a Wilko very much in recovery — but frankly more depressed than when he thought he was going to die.

Don’t go to this expecting to get a sense of what Dr Feelgood was — I guess you need the other film for that — but try and edit out the frankly sub-Jarman visuals in favour of one of those great English musical characters who is still very much alive.

Point and Break

Queen and Country (John Boorman, 2014)

And way back in 1987, John Boorman directed an autobiographical film which was a loving portrayal about living through the Second World War, Hope and Glory. I remember rich reds and oranges and sunsets and barrage ballons and the occasional bombsite. Nearly thirty years on, we see the celebration of the child at his schools having been bombed, before cutting to a decade later and life on an idyllic island on the Thames as a prelude to being conscripted into the British army.

It is 1952 and the British are fighting Korea (as part of the communism vs capitalism war) and the old king, who never wanted to be a king, is dying; Elizabeth is going to be crowned and the new Elizabethan Age is dawning. Alter ego Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) meets new BFF Percy (Caleb Landry Jones, who I think gets top billing) and both get put in charge of the typing school and briefing the new recruits. Life is made unbearable by stickler Bradley (David Thewlis) and bearable by shirker Redmond (Pat Shortt) – and the whole film is made bearable by Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Is that damning enough?

And there’s girls, glimpsed at a cinema, nurses, and the One, Orphelia (Tamsin Egerton), whom Rohan falls head over heels with despite the large warning light over her head (and the fact that she does get to talk sense about how men treat women in the period whilst still being damaged goods).

I guess this is all very mythic and there’s that whole generation of writers and directors too young for the (Second World) war who did national service and had Sensibilities Formed; some went to to private school, others failed the eleven plus, they’re all eighty or above now, if they’re still alive. If asked, I think I might have assumed that Boorman had died at some point.

The film’s conflicted; on the one hand grandfather despairs about the shame that Rohan has brought on the family, on the other I seem to recall it’s him who gets to dismiss the first Elizabeth. And Rohan is a cipher – neither communist nor capitalist, neither really betraying or supporting others, not quite seduced by his sister, not quite clear what he believes in (besides what he reads in The Times). He is, I fear, the least interesting character in the film. You wonder how Korea itself is going to be handled – an early sequence is not promising – and you slowly realise that virtually everyone over 25 has some kind of PTSD. But there’s just enough gentle comedy not to despair.

I doubt there will be a quarter century gap before this is turned into a trilogy – but I’m assuming a third film about joining the movie industry is envisaged, Pearl and Dean, say. Fun with the Dave Clarke Five. Dealing with Lee Marvin. Buggery in the woods. And Sean Connery in leather shorts.