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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Unexpected Item in Reaction Area I – Rushing to Director

As may be apparent to regular readers of this blog (nice to see you both), I am something of an auteurist. I am drawn to films by directors whose work I have previously enjoyed, and tend to credit the positives and negatives to the film director. One director whose work I have consistently enjoyed is Ron Howard, including Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009) (yes, I like Dan Brown’s work, deal with it). When Howard’s latest film, Rush, came out this year, I was interested on the basis of his involvement. Positive reviews from Total Film, Empire and the BBC strengthened my interest, and when I saw Rush I absolutely loved it. It was gripping, funny, compelling, at times horrifying and immensely visceral, which is one of the chief pleasures of cinema for me.

Rush posterIn terms of the subject matter, I should have had no interest at all, because Rush is about motor racers and I have zero interest in sport. But the interesting thing about sports films is they generally are not really about the sport at all. Is Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) about boxing, or the descent of a man plagued by self-loathing? Is Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) about boxing, or the relationships between damaged people? Is Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) about boxing, or resistance against prejudice? Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) is more about rising above the misery of the Great Depression than horse racing, The Mighty Ducks (1992, Stephen Herek) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) are about camaraderie rather than ice hockey or bobsledding, and Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) is far more interested in personal redemption than it is in running. In keeping with this tradition, Rush is about the obsession that drives its central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the relationship between them.

I’ve seen all these sports films, and enjoyed them despite the prominence of sport in their narratives. The main reason I don’t enjoy sport is that the spectator, whether in attendance at an event or watching a telecast, is at a distance from the action, and I like to be close. I do enjoy professional wrestling, but that is scripted and individual matches are part of ongoing storylines, therefore more a drama series than a sport. I have enjoyed the odd boxing match, such as Lennox Lewis VS Frank Bruno in 1993 and Bruno VS Tyson in 1996, but even these are at a distance, unlike the boxing matches of Ali, Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s own boxing biopic, Cinderella Man, which bring the viewer into the ring, on both the delivery and receiving end of the blows.

A similar technique is used in Rush, as director Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill create an intimate sense of involvement in the races. This is achieved through extreme close-ups of the pit stops, in which we see the replacement tyres and machinery used on the cars, as well as very rapid editing during the actual racing. Cameras mounted on the cars hurtling along at breakneck speed place the viewer in the position of the driver, aided by the extraordinary sound design. This is Rush’s greatest strength, allowing us to experience the thrill of high octane racing and emphasising the danger, much as a battle scene or a chase also throws the viewer into the action.

Rush raceLike Cinderella Man, Ali and Raging Bull, but unlike the other films mentioned above, Rush is a true story (as far as any film can be). As a result, the events portrayed in the film are public knowledge, especially the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, well known to fans of F1. I saw Rush with a friend who is a big fan of F1, so he knew the results of the various races and the twists and turns in the rivalry, while I did not. Despite our different levels of knowledge, we both enjoyed the film immensely, as an engaging, thrilling character drama. This was itself surprising to me. I’ve written before that character isn’t a major source of pleasure for me in cinema – I am interested in the plot and the events – what will happen next is usually the paramount question for me when watching a film. Interestingly, the one point in Rush when I lost interest was during the final race in Japan, when Lauda abandons the race because the weather conditions make it ‘too dangerous’. Hunt has been behind up until this point and Lauda’s withdrawal enables Hunt to win. I lost interest because I didn’t care who won – the drama of the film was always the rivalry between the two, and Lauda neutralised that rivalry. None of the other racers were identifiable as characters, so it was really Hunt just competing against the odds. Without the rivalry, there was less tension and therefore less drama.

Prior to the final race, however, Rush offers plenty of tension both between Lauda and Hunt and within the men themselves. The different approaches used by each man to build their racing profiles are gripping in their contrast – Hunt the playboy, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex as much as racing, with his support team essentially stroking and maintaining his ego; Lauda the calculating professional with no regard for others and a machine-like commitment to racing. When Hunt loses his sponsorship and is unable to race, his psychological disintegration is apparent, crumpled into a heap with toy cars and a whisky bottle, and his unforgivable treatment of his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), telling her to ‘Fuck off to New York, darling. I’m sure there’s an eyeliner or a face moisturiser that needs your vapid mush to flog it’. Yet Lauda is more interesting because of the humanisation that his association with others enables. Lauda tells Hunt at one point that Hunt is both responsible for injuries Lauda suffers, and for inspiring him to recover and get back into the race. Furthermore, the relationship Lauda forms with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he eventually marries, creates further tension between his calculating ambition and his emotions. Who does Lauda has the closest relationship with – Marlene, Hunt, or racing?

Hunts Laudas

All of these relationships are fractious, both in terms of Lauda and Hunt’s intense yet respectful rivalry, and the dangers of racing. This was the most impressive aspect of Rush for me, the vicarious experience of living through these intense lives, given extraordinary edge by the incredibly dangerous races. It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Rush that F1 racers are mad, as the film does not flinch from showing the mangled bodies and lost limbs that result from crash. Most compelling though, is the horrific crash in which Lauda’s car catches fire, leaving him hideously scarred and with scorched lungs. The scene in which Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed by the insertion of a metal tube down his throat (while he is conscious) is extremely uncomfortable to watch and helps convey the extraordinary commitment of these men.

The fact that these men are racers is somewhat beside the point, as both are motivated by something not necessarily tangible. Hunt does mention the appeal of living on the edge, the emotional high of risking everything for the sake of an electrifying win. Lauda is less explicit – the most we get is a sense of differentiating himself from his family. Both Lauda and Hunt mention the other careers they rejected in favour of racing, and the film explores the consequences of their mutual choice. Howard’s film therefore conveys both the adrenalin rush of F1 racing, and its devastating price.

Rush crash

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Coming/Cumming Soon

In honour of academics I admire, I’ve decided to write about a trailer, rather than a movie. I’ve watched the trailer for the upcoming film Don Jon several times and intend to see the film when it comes out, but the trailer itself is a fascinating assembly of concepts, sounds and images that tells its own narrative and forms its own (unique?) association with the viewer.

PosterStudies of trailers have demonstrated that they have their own structure, narrative and meaning, while industry logic dictates that a trailer must highlight the main selling points of the film. Don Jon’s trailer establishes the (presumably eponymous) protagonist, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the equilibrium of his life, the disruption to this equilibrium and the likely resolution. In doing so, the trailer suggests the narrative of the film, which the viewer can anticipate due to the tropes and conventions of the genre, a genre also suggested by the trailer.

The genre and narrative of Don Jon are inextricably linked, to that familiar and much derided body of films, the romantic comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he appears in the trailer, plays a young man who works out, loves his family and community, picks up girls and enjoys pornography. Indeed, the pillars that constitute the equilibrium of Gordon-Levitt’s life are emphasised, his voiceover listing what he cares about: ‘My body; my pad; my ride; my family; my church; my boys; my girls; my porn’. It is interesting that these priorities do not include a job, which helps to frame Gordon-Levitt’s character as a funseeker, doing what he likes. Whatever his job may be, it is not something he cares deeply about. The trailer’s emphasis of his pleasures suggest a target audience of similar funseekers, or those who want the escapist pleasures of cinema, which is important to the narrative of the trailer as well (more on this later). The voiceover is repeated three times over a montage of Gordon-Levitt working out, cleaning his apartment, driving, associating with his family, going to church, meeting his friends, kissing girls and viewing pornography on his laptop. Each time the montage and voiceover is faster, conveying the pumping rhythm of Gordon-Levitt’s life and the ease and pleasure he derives from it. What more could anyone ask for?

In a romantic comedy, of course, a romantic partner, or else where would we be? Such a figure enters the trailer during the third reiteration in the form of Scarlett Johansson, looking unbelievably sexy (and doesn’t she always?).

ScarlettIf you watch the trailer repeatedly, her character’s name becomes visible, but for the purposes of the trailer her name isn’t important – she’s Scarlett, she’s sexy, and she literally stops Gordon-Levitt’s world in the third reiteration of his priorities. She is the disturbance to his established world, and the rest of the trailer demonstrates the disruption that she causes.

What is most striking about the trailer is its knowingness towards its audience, as this movie trailer refers to other movies, Johansson’s character asking Gordon-Levitt if he likes movies. This is followed by a brief sequence of them going to the cinema, complete with shots of popcorn being scooped, and then watching a romantic film featuring (I think) Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover cynically derides the romance, ‘the pretty boy, the pretty girl, the romantic ending’, which contrasts with Johansson’s enraptured face. Cut to the cinema lobby, after the film, and Johansson gushes about how much she loves ‘movies like that’. Gordon-Levitt agrees, and they share a romantic kiss straight out of a movie. So the trailer suggests an interest in people’s responses to movies, including those who are watching this trailer itself.

KissResponses to movies form the drama of the trailer, as Johansson is appalled at Gordon-Levitt watching porn, to which he retorts that the movies she likes are ‘stupid’. Johansson protests that romantic films and porn are different, citing as a reason: ‘they give awards for movies’; but as Gordon-Levitt points out, ‘they give awards for porn too’ (which is true). With this conflict-which-is-tension-which-is-drama set up, the stage is set for this couple to quarrel, probably break up, and probably get back together, based on the conventions of the genre. The trailer also indicates the likely development of Gordon-Levitt’s character, as Julianne Moore advises him of the value of change, and his voiceover also considers changing. The viewer familiar with romantic movies can assume that Gordon-Levitt will fall in love with Johansson, change his ways, and become a better person as a result of this romantic union. Whether this is how the film actually plays out remains to be seen – while it is full of interesting details, it does not go so far as to spoil the film. But the trailer does play upon the viewer’s understanding of the romantic genre, and demonstrates its own understanding of both the genre and the resultant audience expectations.

The trailer also emphasises the talent, highlighting that this is THE FIRST FILM WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT. Interestingly, it does not list him as the star, although the names SCARLETT JOHANSSON and JULIANNE MOORE do appear. Nonetheless, the star-writer/director is very prominent, suggesting a further acknowledgement that the viewer will either know who Gordon-Levitt is, or associate his name with the cut to his face after his name as writer-director. So across its duration, the trailer forms an association with its audience, in terms of the shared knowledge both of its talent and its genre.

JGLA completely different association may be formed between the viewer and the film itself, which may not emphasise its genre as much as the trailer does. Indeed, reports indicated fears that, when submitted to the MPPA, the film would be rated NC-17, a rating that tends to harm box office performance (reports also mention that the film was recut, but not whether this cutting was to secure an R rating). Perhaps the film as a whole will be more concerned with sex-based pratfalls and a portrayal of family and community than highlighting the similarities between romantic movies and pornography and whether its protagonist wants to live in one or the other. I’ll find out when I see it, but as a text in its own right, Don Jon’s trailer invites an interesting and very knowing engagement with its viewer.