Jheeze – been a while since I’ve done one of these.
Like many of you, I’ve also spent the better part of a year stuck inside, staring at the walls, desperately trying to figure out how to whittle away the seemingly-endless days and wondering why this Joe Wicks geezer is constantly nagging me to do yoga.
Anyway, with that in mind, here’s a bunch of films that concern themselves with characters who are, for one reason or another, stuck in one location.
Who said cinema is meant to be escapist?
ALFRED HITCHCOCK, REAR WINDOW – 1954
Kicking this list off is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a true cinematic classic that also unfortunately doubles as an effective training manual for aspiring peeping toms.
Rear Window is the tale of L. B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies’ (Jimmy Stewart), a daredevil photographer confined to his New York apartment after breaking his leg. To cope with the boredom of being stuck inside all the time, he uses his fancy photography equipment to spy on his neighbours, and eventually becomes convinced one of them is a nefarious murderer.
There’s been plenty of influential, ground-breaking essays written about the themes of voyeurism and scopophilia in Rear Window (and how those motifs relate to the movie-going experience as a whole), and most of ‘em feature a lot of moral-grandstanding about Jeff being a bit of a creep because of his predilection for staring in to other people’s domiciles.
Now, while I don’t condone gorping into your neighbours flat, I certainly understand the urge. When Netflix has bore the majority of its most bountiful fruit, and the cavernous depths of YouTube have ceased to reveal any treasure, the mind naturally wanders to questions about the people you live around… how they spend their time… what kind of crisps they eat… if they have any ‘Life, Laugh, Love’-esque signs in their house…
I’m being facetious of course. Please don’t spy on your neighbours unless you’re confident they’re going to murder their spouse. And then immediately call the police.
LUIS BUÑUEL, EL ÁNGEL EXTERMINADOR (THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL) – 1962
Next up, we’ve got the don dada of cinematic Surrealism Luis Buñuel and his caustic, allegorical tour de force The Exterminating Angel.
The Exterminating Angel’s plot is scant but searing – after a bunch of wealthy bigwigs dine at one of their mate’s massive mansions, they inexplicably find themselves unable to leave. After plenty of head-scratching and failed attempts to escape, the previously-civilised members of high society quickly descend into barbarism and chaos.
Never one to ruin the mystique of his films, Buñuel left deciphering the symbolism of The Exterminating Angel up to its viewers. There’s been plenty of theories put forth, ranging from the chin-strokingly smart to hair-raisingly daft, but in the humble opinion of this writer, the most convincing theory comes from world-renowned film critic Mr. Roger Ebert.
Ebert argued that the film is a sly dig at General Franco’s regime and its ruling elite. Their banquet operates as a sort-of post-Spanish Civil War blowout, with the tippity-top of Spanish society patting themselves on the back for battering the workers, only to find there’s no end in sight to their self-congratulatory floundering. “They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac” Ebert writes “Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed”.
There’s probably a strenuous link between that analysis and house-sharing during a pandemic, but I don’t think anyone reading this (and their room-mates for that matter) wants to be compared to bourgeois Francoists… do they?
RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER, DIE BITTEREN TRÄNEN DER PETRA VON KANT (THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT) – 1972
On a similar subtitled tip, we’re going over to West Germany with all-round sound lad Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his ultra-nihilistic chamber piece The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (try saying that with a mouth full of cardboard).
The film follows the titular Petra Von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a narcissistic fashion designer who spends her days lounging in her room and viciously berating her assistant (Irm Hermann). When Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful but self-obsessed model, enters her life, the two form a emotionally-violent, masochistic relationship that sends Petra spiralling into a co-dependent hole.
For lack of more eloquent sentences, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is one nasty piece of work. The all-female cast spends the film’s runtime castigating and terrorising each other in the most cruelly domestic kind-of ways, as each vies for emotionally power over the other. Even the assistant, who throughout the entire film is a silent victim, constantly taking and internalising Petra’s ceaseless abuse, is revealed at the end to be just as bad as the rest – she’s simply satisfying a sadomasochistic desire to submit to Petra. When Petra is left broken and remorseful by Karin’s hateful taunting, the assistant calmly leaves, as Petra now has nothing to offer her.
It’s a potent, deeply-cynical look at romantic relationships that only a controversial figure like Fassbinder (who himself was constantly plagued by amour fou his entire life) could pull off.
So yeah, if you’re struggling to find something to watch with your significant other, I recommend this.
SIDNEY LUMET, DOG DAY AFTERNOON – 1975
Penultimately, we’ve got Dog Day Afternoon – a ferociously funny crime drama from veteran director Sidney Lumet.
Based on the 1972 Life magazine article ‘The Boys in the Bank’, Dog Day Afternoon follows Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), a man with the hair-brained idea to rob a local bank to pay for his lover’s sex-reassignment operation. Thing quickly go awry, and poor Sonny is forced into taking hostages, accidentally creating a media storm as he negotiates his escape with the feds.
Dog Day Afternoon is particularly note-worthy for it’s staunch anti-establishment tone, a sentiment that’s being echoed louder and louder in this day and age.
The early 70s were a period of financial ruin for New York, with many believing the city would descend into crime and lawlessness after vast swathes of NYC’s wealthier residents relocated to the suburbs, taking their tax revenue with ‘em. This, coupled with the revelation that the NYPD was as dodgy as that geezer who tries to sell you discounted bacon at the pub (which was uncovered by a guy named Frank Serpico, whose exploits were dramatised in the film Serpico, also starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet), caused wide-spread distrust and discontent among NYC citizens, who came to view the powers-that-be as nothing more than a self-serving sham.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the film is mega. Watch it right now or else.
LOUIS MALLE, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE – 1981
We’ll round this off with something a little more cheerful – Louis Malle’s supremely wonderful talkie My Dinner With Andre.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple – two mates, Wally and Andre (Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing versions of themselves) meet at an upscale restaurant and ruminate on topics such as experimental theatre, humanism, spiritualism, love and everything in between for 111 minutes.
And while that doesn’t sound like the most rock ‘n’ roll plot ever put to celluloid, I can assure you the results are nothing short of outstanding.
Flitting between whimsicality and despair, their conversation is enriching, enlightening and introspective all at once. Thanks to Malle’s delicately neutral direction, each of Wally’s and Andre’s contrasting points of view get equal consideration in the film, allowing the viewer space within the confessional to really grasp the ideas discussed and formulate their own thoughts about ‘em.
Put simply, the film feels like exactly what a true conversation feels like when you’re shooting the breeze with your best mate.
Obviously you’re probably not talking about experimental theatre (if you are, kudos), but you get what I mean. It’s a truly individual slice of kino that I think everyone should watch at least once.
Right. That’s going to do it for this instalment Films and Things. Hope the November lockdown isn’t too tough on you. At least you’ve got some slick flicks to add to your watchlist though?