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My Credible Journey

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This is a digression from the usual offerings’ on Vincent’s Views. Rather than reviewing the latest film I saw, this is a review of my own professional trajectory. It may be of interest to some, especially early career researchers looking for academic employment.

They say that life begins at [insert age here]. For me it turned out to be true at the age of forty. In 2000 I set my heart on becoming a university lecturer. I remember my personal tutor at the time said that I was mad to want an academic career, and he was right, for academia requires a special kind of madness. I spent the next decade working towards a PhD, which I achieved in 2009.

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Over the next ten years I applied for over 600 academic jobs, literally all over the world. It took three years before my first interview, and over the next seven years the number of interviews increased but always resulted in ‘you have been unsuccessful on this occasion’. To make myself more employable, I published, I taught, I did outreach and engagement. But none of it seemed to make any difference, and whole years would go by with only a single interview. I became frustrated, experienced feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, was a nuisance and a burden to those around me, and eventually was diagnosed with depression. I sought advice and feedback on my applications, much of which was helpful, yet success still eluded me. Those nearest and dearest to me suggested other professions that I did explore, but all for naught, as I either failed to get into those fields altogether or did not derive the satisfaction I sought from them.

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Through all of this, I never lost sight of what I wanted, and the odd bit of hourly teaching kept me motivated. The first time I taught undergraduates it felt absolutely right, and subsequent experiences have felt much the same. Teaching is not always easy, and like any job can be frustrating and disappointing, but it never fails to raise my spirits by the sheer rightness of it. Be it seminar room or lecture theatre, the teaching environment is somewhere I always feel that I belong, despite the intermittency of my time there.

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In 2019 everything changed. I was offered what became a six-month maternity cover post. It was a very quick start and I had to hit the ground running, covering material both familiar and completely new, and with a new style of teaching. Despite that, I felt valued and useful, and that I was where I belonged. I continued the applications and later that year I was offered a twelve-month post at another institution. The longer contract and the greater opportunities of this second role allowed me to leave my day job of seventeen (!) years, which I never felt comfortable in.

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The shift was dramatic. After more than a decade of fruitless searching, suddenly I was offered two jobs in the space of six months. What changed? Rather than being a matter of ‘not what you know but who you know’, I think it came down to what I could offer. For years I taught the same few modules, offering little that stood out. Then I broadened my repertoire with courses in other areas, and what better way to develop one’s skills than by working with new material? It is through challenge that we grow, and I significantly improved my pedagogic skills by teaching new material, skills that I highlighted at the interviews in 2019.

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I feel that the key interview question was how I would teach students with a background different to my own. The answer is to find the commonalities: what are the links between film and politics, media and sociology, theory and practice? Links such as these are where teaching opportunities emerge and the soul of a teacher can shine. I developed because I spent time delivering new material and did the work necessary to engage the minds of students. A good teacher is adaptable, adaptable to different students, techniques, space and material. I know I have the power to teach and finally I can proclaim this reality to selection panels.

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This is my message to all PhD graduates and early career researchers struggling to get their foot in the door. The best things you can do is believe you will get there, and expand what you offer. It is an employer’s market, and you must offer as much as you can. If you don’t have much, search for and take further teaching experience, especially outside your comfort zone. You will get better, and you will look better.

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Much like a lead character in my favourite film, what I am is what I’m going after. For a long time, I was going after the job. Now I’m going after being the best teacher that I can be. It is not a final destination but an ongoing pursuit, so I’ll be going after it for a long time to come, and I will relish every minute of it.

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Widows

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Upon watching Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Linda LaPlante’s crime series, I was disappointed that it was not set in Boston. As noted in previous posts, Boston has a peculiar effect on filmmakers, and many of the features I saw in Widows also appeared in The Departed, Black Mass and The Equalizer. However, despite the Chicago location, Widows provided the necessary features for a gripping sociological crime thriller. Like the films mentioned above, as well as the LA set Heat and Crash, Widows features multiple characters whose lives interconnect through deals and betrayals. The domestic and the criminal intersect throughout, as an exhilarating heist sequence is intercut both with the preceding events and the aftermath. In these ripple events, we meet the titular widows, including Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon). The film then utilises the conventions of the heist thriller as Veronica brings these women together to solve their shared problems, while also following the fortunes of rival political candidates Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), both of whom have malevolent backers. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s interweaving of the social, the domestic, the criminal and the political lends the film a rich texture, the lives of all these characters detailed and nuanced. Subtexts involving race and gender receive attention as an organic part of the drama, much like McQueen’s previous work that explored sexuality, political prisoners and slavery. Where Widows fumbles slightly is that McQueen’s searing focus, exquisitely captured by regular DOP Sean Bobbitt, ideally suited to intense character studies like Shame and Hunger, is sometimes at odds with the multi-stranded narrative of Widows. The director’s trademark long takes allow for absorption into the cinematic milieu, and at times this is highly effective such as during the opening car chase. At other times, however, abrupt cuts throw the viewer out of the drama, which would be fine if at other times there was less absorption. Ultimately though, this is a minor issue, as Widows is consistently gripping, frequently distressing and thoroughly compelling.

Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Four

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Almost inevitably, listing ten important films will include one’s favourite, so anyone familiar with me or this blog will have known this was coming. It is probably the most significant film I ever saw, because it was literally life-changing although I did not know it at the time. When I first saw Heat in early 1996, it essentially x-rayed me. As the credits rolled, I felt what can best be described as a wave of energy complete its journey through my body, leaving me profoundly affected. To all intents and purposes, it was a transcendent experience. As a direct result of seeing Heat, I gained a new appreciation of what film is and what film can do, started studying it seriously and, after a few years, decided I wanted to be a film doctor. Heat drew me to Michael Mann and he was the subject of my PhD and subsequent monograph. While my interests have broadened since then, Mann in general and Heat in particular remain of great importance to me. 

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Why do I love Heat so much? Several reasons. Firstly, it works on every level – plot, character, performance, theme, setting, production design, editing, cinematography, sound, music, direction, location – all are harmonised with utter perfection. Secondly, every time I watch it I find something new, whether it is noticing a lingering shot in a room left empty, spotting a bottle on a table, even identifying a stunt performer. Thirdly, it works on multiple levels and therefore I can watch it as a crystalline piece of cinematic craftwork, or as a gripping crime story, a sociological examination of post-industrial America, a modern urban tragedy, a philosophical investigation into hyperbolic masculinity, and the film rewards all these readings and more. If that’s not reason enough to love a film, I don’t know what is. 

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Top Ten Directors – Part Four II

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In my last post, I introduced Michael Mann and why his work is important to me. While I find much to admire across his oeuvre, the Mann film that impresses me the most is The Insider, an epic rendering of subject matter that does not seem overly dramatic. Yet by focusing on intimate details and conveying a cumulative and pervasive sense of threat, bewilderment and betrayal, The Insider turns the account of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the journalist who told his story Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into a sweeping, enthralling and gripping thriller of corporate, legal and human skulduggery. The criticism of corporatism is handled deftly without being naive or didactic, and the film provides a sober meditation on life within Information Age late capitalism.

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While The Insider is Mann’s finest work, it is not the best introduction to Mann’s oeuvre nor my personal favourite. The quintessential Mann film, the one that serves as the perfect introduction to this singular body of work, is my favourite film of all time, Heat.

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Despite the iconicity of Heat‘s central pairing, the most annoying thing about responses to the film is the reductive view that it is all about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting on screen for the first time. If you ever needed proof that great actors do not equal great films, look no further than Al and Bob’s (we hang out all the time) subsequent collaboration, Righteous Kill (2008). Heat‘s majesty is elevated by the central performances, but they are two in a wide ensemble that includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Amy Brenneman and many others. The different plot lines for these characters – many of whom never encounter each other – cause Heat to resemble Los Angeles-set network narratives such as Magnolia (1999), Boogie Nights (1997) and Crash (2004), albeit with a more generic central thrust. Mann has a long-standing association with the crime genre and Heat is a major part of that association, but the film does not sit comfortably within generic confines. Rather, the film pushes against these confines and uses the tropes of a cops and robbers thriller to create an intricate, existential and sociological portrait of life in a late twentieth century metropolis. Tensions around gender, race, class and work abound, while the frequent motion of the narrative, the characters and the camera creates a sense of transience and instability, despite the imposing concrete structures of the buildings and freeways.

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Neil McCauley (De Niro) describes LA as the city of lights, but what he neglects to mention and that the film highlights is that these lights are isolated and disconnected, as are the inhabitants. Relationships fracture and fragment across the film, often due to violent action such as the opening heist, the incredible central gun battle and the final chase through LAX. But away from the bullets, personal differences also drive people apart, these differences exacerbated by this environment of disconnection and inconstancy. At least six intimate relationships are destroyed over the course of the film, largely by the actions of intractable men who neither know how nor want to do anything else. Nor does the film neglect its female characters despite their relatively brief screentime, as it is the women who recognise and lament what Justine (Diane Venora) describes as ‘the mess you leave as you pass through’. Heat is a sweeping, intricate and enveloping story, intensely detailed, stunningly visualised and thunderingly rendered, representing many concerns that run throughout Mann’s work, making it the archetypal Mann film, and one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s.

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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

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My Views of 2013 at the Movies

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

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enders_game_ver15_xxlg Eleven desolations

Smaug Ten victor tributes

Catching Fire

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IM3 1Eight men of steel

MOS

Seven rushing racers

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Six piney places

The Place Beyond the PinesMIS-TER BANKS

BanksFour astronauts

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LincolnTwo hijackings

Phillips PosterAnd Osama Bin Laden.

ZDTThat was my top twelve of 2013, but I’m just getting started, as my post for Twelfth Night is my review of 2013, from my limited viewing record. I thought it would be fun to rank and rate every theatrical release of 2013 that I saw, with divisions within them.

Top Twelve 

Zero Dark Thirty

A known story that nonetheless pulls you in, taught direction that turns a cold gaze on shadowy events, and a final hour that had my shoulders clenched throughout.

Captain Phillips

Gripping, frightening, believable and moving. The first film to move me to tears!

Lincoln

Political history comes to life through measured direction that allows stunning performances to dazzle and delight.

Gravity

The experience of cinema has rarely been so terrifying, gut-clenching and astounding.

Saving Mr. Banks

Touching, moving, charming, funny and a wonderful companion piece to Mary Poppins.

The Place Beyond the Pines

The blue-collar equivalent of gangster epics like Heat and The Departed, fresh and surprising in its narrative structure.

Rush

Fabulous charisma meets steely calculation in visceral, terrifying races.

Man of Steel

One of the best representations of super powers I’ve seen, combining the fear, exhilaration and plausibility of extraordinary abilities and the choices of those who possess them.

Iron Man Three

A brilliant portrayal of PTSD as part of a new exploration of heroism.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

From children’s games to a growing rebellion, things get darker, deadlier and better.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

A further development of Middle Earth with possibly the greatest dragon ever committed to film.

Ender’s Game

Wonderfully realised science fiction that convincingly goes to strange dark places.

Honourable mentions

Star Trek Into Darkness

Abrams repackages The Wrath of Khan for a new audience, delighting them while seriously hacking off the original fans. Must have done something right.

Only God Forgives

A hypnotic, mesmerising vision of a mad, bad world.

Trance

Fast, smart and with more twists than a corkscrew, Danny Boyle puts the fractured mind on screen.

To The Wonder

Gorgeous, lyrical, sober and moving. Malick does it again.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller makes himself and the world around him beautiful and mysterious all at once.

Thor: The Dark World

One of the year’s funniest films, which balances its laughs with thrills and spills aplenty.

Pacific Rim

Guillermo Del Toro demonstrates again why he is a master of the fantastic.

Could have been better

Prisoners

Atmospheric, gruelling, thought-provoking. A disappointing final act detracts but does not completely negate two hours of superb intensity.

Django Unchained

Majestic, sprawling, grand, indulgent. When Tarantino reins it in he delivers genius. If only he would do that more often.

Les Misérables

The music was great! The film, wasn’t. So many great elements, but perhaps too much reverence for the source material.

Perfectly serviceable

Jack the Giant Slayer

A furiously fun fairy tale.

About Time

A touching if twee tale of time travel.

Oblivion

Sleek and bleak sci-fi.

Much Ado About Nothing

A decent comedy of misunderstandings. What else has the writer done?

Olympus Has Fallen

Hopelessly cheesy but in an enjoyable way.

Worst

The World’s End

A rather damp squib ending to an uproarious trilogy.

The Wolverine

When the best part of the film is the foreshadowing of the next one, you know something’s gone badly wrong.

Kick-Ass 2

A reminder that sometimes you really don’t need a sequel.

Side Effects

Lives fall apart! And no one gets excited. Mental health is a serious issue! And we’re going to cheapen it. Drug companies and medical ethics are really complicated! But more importantly, lesbians are really dangerous to patriarchy! Oh, go away.

The Hangover Part III

Not focused, not funny, not worth it.

Turkey of the Year

After Earth

So many interesting ideas; a complete lack of exploration. An unconvincing future world and no discernible tension.

2013 Omissions Part One – To The Wonder of Piney Places

2013 is almost over and, like so many a critic (which is, of course, everyone), I’m compiling my top films of the year. In the process, I realised that I neglected to post on some of the films that impressed me the most, so I’m rectifying that omission now.

Two arthouse offerings that I saw early in the year made my long list for films of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines featured in my top five of 0.5 halfway through the year, and its remarkable power has not diminished since. Derek Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, lovers, sons and sins balanced the epic and the intimate in a touching yet mournful way, and performed a quite remarkable narrative feat. At 2 hours 15 minutes long, and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, along with Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta, I expected intertwining stories of criminals, cops and the people around them, perhaps a blue collar version of Heat. What I got instead was a trilogy of equal length, largely self-contained stories that are only loosely connected to each other. The first 45 minutes focus on Luke Glanton (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who moonlights as an armed robber. The next 45 minutes were concerned with Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop who crosses paths with Luke once, and then continues his story, encountering police corruption en route to fulfilling his political ambitions. The final 45 minutes are concerned with the sons of these two men, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), who, by a coincidence that only happens in the movies, find each other and create a whole new drama.

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Based on its synopsis, The Place Beyond the Pines should not work. Three distinct stories that could easily stand by themselves? Three loosely connected stories placed in sequential order so that we effectively abandon the earlier protagonists? An epic saga of intergenerational sin shot with the claustrophobic intimacy of Cianfrance’s debut, Blue Valentine? How can this work? Commitment is the answer, as Cianfrance never wavers in his piercing glare into the hearts of his characters and, more broadly, the community in which they live. While the sequential stories are different from Michael Mann’s multi-stranded narrative, The Place Beyond the Pinesdoes feel like a blue collar Heat, replacing the freeways and concrete canyons of Los Angeles with small town upstate New York. The interconnections between the different characters are both familial and sociological, such as Luke’s criminal association with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who utters the film’s best line: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’, as well as Romina (Mendes), the mother of his child, who lives with her current boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Romina and her family later encounter Avery and corrupt officers led by Peter Deluca (Liotta), prompting Avery to seek advice from his father Al (Harris Yulin) and forge an alliance with District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood). Fifteen years later, the connections between these characters continue to haunt Avery as well as his son AJ.

The epic scope of the film echoes classic crime dramas like Heat, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time in America and, yes, even The Godfather, but unlike those films, Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit present something much more down to earth, largely eschewing long shots of grand vistas in favour of extreme close-ups that bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters. There are stylistic flourishes as well, especially the opening long take that lasts several minutes as Luke walks towards the cage where he performs his stunts, but the seemingly perpetual handheld footage gives an amateurish slant to the visuals, rather than the slick, polished look of Mann or Scorsese. This is not a criticism, however, as Cianfrance’s style suits his characters and even his genre. Down to earth, gritty and unsteady cinematography blends superbly with the different social levels explored in the film, while the scope of the narrative demonstrates that, with the right treatment, everyone’s story is epic.

A very different film style, like none other, is found in another arthouse offer from 2013: Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I’ve been a huge fan of Malick since his metaphysical war film The Thin Red Line (1998), and found The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to be entrancing developments of his poetic filmmaking. To The Wonder continues this conceit, as its simple story of characters musing over their relationships and lives is beautiful and beguiling, but never straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck) is almost silent apart from his voiceover, an environmental inspector who is almost literally of the earth, trying to choose between the free-spirited Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the more practical Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) also muses on the weights of his mind, wrestling with the difficulties of counselling others while struggling with his own faith.

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Malick’s free association approach to editing largely excludes continuous narrative, as cuts are often motivated by a word or a look from a character, the film then presenting another image with a purely conceptual link. Cuts are also motivated by purely visual matches between skylines and landscapes, or indeed contrasts between the rolling fields of Oklahoma and the dramatic coastline of Normandy. People stand both in isolation and unity within these landscapes, their lives uncertain in the film’s beguiling yet beautiful ambiguity.

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Like The Place Beyond The Pines, To The Wonder brings the viewer close to the action, but is more concerned with philosophical than sociological connections. What binds people together? What are our connections to the land, the sea, the sky? Malick’s film, like all his work, is a visual monument to the wonder of creation, most explicitly in The Tree of Life, but found here as well. To The Wonder does a fine job of placing Malick’s philosophical filmmaking in the contemporary context, as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all historical, while The Tree of Life encompasses the timespan of the Earth (as you do). While To The Wonder is not the easiest film to engage with and is likely to frustrate some sensibilities, for me it was a beautiful and provocative piece of work. Furthermore, it was different, distinctive and, frankly, unique amongst the films I saw this year.