The movies that make you think

I said to someone recently that I’d prefer to discuss Bergman films than the footy scores. That’s a bit of an exaggeration – I live and die by the scores – but I’m done after about 20 minutes, which is when I like to engage in more meaningful conversation, such as Ingmar Bergman movies. This was always the case more or less, just that now I’ve got much less patience for the sort of superficial discussion that passes as conversation so often.

All that is by way of preamble to a discussion on some classic movies I’ve watched recently.

I watched Last Year at Marienbad last month and was intrigued, to say the least. There’s something hypnotic about the story, and how it’s told, but at the end of it I no more knew the truth of it than anyone else.

A couple of weeks ago I actually watched a Bergman movie, Winter Light. It’s a bleakish tale about a minister who has pretty well lost faith. There’s a troubled parishioner he utterly fails to help (and who consequently shoots himself), and a woman who loves him. It’s despairing in many ways, but fascinating, crisply made, beautifully acted, and with a thought provoking script. This is what I like about Bergman movies, and others like him, they get beneath the skin. There aren’t superficial effects here, rather he addresses human nature, human frailty, and first causes. He makes movies like I want to write books. There’s truth in his vision and authenticity you recognise.

In this case, it ends on a slight upswing as the minister, muddled and depressed, is given insight into true faith by a devout follower wanting to discuss something he had pondered.

In the coming weeks, I plan to watch a few more classic Bergman movies – The Seventh Seal, Persona, and – my favourite of his – Wild Strawberries.

Then last week I watched again a crackerjack American classic from the fifties, The Sweet Smell of Success.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favourite actors of the era. He had presence on screen, and was an intelligent, thoughtful man off it. In this, he’s typically great as the toxic J.J. Hunsacker. Tony Curtis is fantastic also as Sydney Falco. In a lot of ways, this is an utterly depressing movie that highlights much of the worst of human nature. It’s about cynical people who exploit and play upon human frailty from greed or ambition or misguided love. The action takes place over the course of a couple of nights in NYC and rushes along as the Falco character tries to do the dirty work for Hunsacker and get in his good graces. Lives are damaged, relationships destroyed, and at the end of it the tyrant Hunsacker is abandoned, and Falco is beaten up, all his contrivances come to naught.

One of the things that occurred to me watching is how contemporary it seemed. This is a movie that could be made today with very little change. It just goes to show too that while we think things are bad now, they’ve always been bad one way or another.

In Hunsacker we have a virtual populist fascist. Back then he was a gossip columnist – today he’s a politician. He thinks he does holy work, has zero self-awareness, he upholds the integrity of the American people, and is casually, brutally violent. There is no compassion in him, no compromise, no insight into other perspectives or any allowance for it. He sees himself as a noble crusader when in fact he epitomises a kind of tyranny.

Falco is the classic opportunist, willing to trade anything if it means he gets ahead. His conscience might squeak from time to time, but it’s easily bought off. There are no ideals, no integrity, no beliefs in a man such as that, he stands for nothing but himself.

It’s a great but merciless movie. If you want to see a similarly cynical movie from the same era check out Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole.

We live in bleak, cynical times, but hard to find two more cynical films than those two from the fifties. They’re great movies but they don’t make you feel any better about humankind.


Hard and ruthless

I watched the first episode of a new TV series last night. Succession seems loosely based on the Murdoch family – and aging patriarch and media mogul, a brood of clever and ambitious children, and the wrestle for power. Only episode one but it was very good.

As I was watching, I had a nagging sense of recognition watching the patriarch, played by Brian Cox. Something in him reminded me of my father, I wasn’t sure what. Perhaps it was the sense of quiet but undeniable authority, wrapped though in a declining body. The will still strong, the body becoming frail – though the last time I saw dad he couldn’t be described as frail.

It wasn’t just my father I saw in him though, but who the other is I’ve yet to identify.

While I watched, I reflected on something that had happened earlier in the day. For context, as I have explained previously, one of the projects I’m running is to upgrade a chatbot. It’s quite frustrating often as I get very little support, have no resources, no budget, and most seem indifferent to it. There’s a dotted line to a senior manager who has no real practical involvement, but who seems to be conducting a guerrilla operation promoting the upgrade – I feel almost surreptitious in my role.

I’m dealing with vendors who are well intentioned but must be micro-managed – I can’t presume they’ll know to dot the i and cross the t, I must be explicit in instructing them. This is time-consuming and very often frustrating. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get anyone interested in what I once believed to be basic project management principles and tools. And I’m doing this while trying to carry on with my usual role, which is particularly busy right now.

Because I’m practically solo the design is almost 100% mine. To get to that point has required a lot of analysis and consideration and – wherever possible – consultation. I think it’s pretty good, but my aim is to make it great. Always is.

It’s getting towards the pointy end and I’m reviewing what’s been done and making refinements. Problem is that I’m too close to it to be truly objective now. I asked my offsider to go through it and he made some useful observations but still, he knows the business too well. So I popped upstairs to speak to the manager.

I wanted to discuss with him the option of getting some focus group testing. He’s ex-marketing and I made the assumption that they do that as a matter of course and he would be know how we go about it.

What happened instead is that after I asked him he called me into a room. You’re coming to me with problems instead of solutions, he said. I’m telling you this for your own good, he went on. He went on a bit, all on the same theme, while I remained silent. In truth I was bemused. I watched carefully, leaning forward, fascinated by what he had to say. Gradually I got pissed off – I have a low tolerance for bullshit these days. At the end of it, I told him the solution was that he should tell me who I needed to speak to to make it happen.

By now I was quietly seething. I could have said a lot, but didn’t. I’d have happily punched him in the face for his patronising manner, but didn’t do that either. Fact is – as I could have told him – is that I’m dealing with problems all the time and finding a way to solve them. I’m on the phone to the vendors 2-3 times a day, and probably by email another couple, fixing things up and resetting direction. The whole bloody solution we propose has come out of my head. I’m not someone who runs for help, I find it myself. If I come to him seeking assistance then it’s legit.

By now we’re out of the room and he has given me the answer he should have given me five minutes before – speak to so-and-so. Now I’m discussing another issue with him and it’s clear that he has no real idea and sees me bringing up such things as obstructive. True, they’re pointless as I realise, as he knows too little to be of help – but the things I raise are legitimate and must be sorted out and require someone at a management level to intervene. By now I have become very steely. I cut him off. I take it up to him. In front of his staff, I’m now dictating the conversation. Are we on the same page? I ask in conclusion. Yes, we’re on the same page he answers.

I walk away and think, what was that? And I’m almost a little concerned at my manner. I can’t really disagree with much I said – I was restrained – what I worry about is how absolutely implacable I was. He couldn’t touch me. I listened, I watched, and I was absolutely clinical. In the end, it was the force of my being that had him back-tracking.

Is this the man I’ve become? It seems incongruous given my recent efforts to be home and honest and vulnerable. It seems strange when I think how delicate I was on the weekend with someone who wanted to share with me, and generally how affable I am at work, how kind and compassionate I can be. Yet, it seems, I can be all these things.

I also watched an episode of Ray Donovan last night. There were times when I was struggling when I would watch Ray and relate to him somehow, even while wishing I could adopt his direct manner to deal with some of the issues in my life. This season’s Ray is more vulnerable than before, more inclined to gentleness, and as he heads that way I become more as he was – at least in certain aspects.

I’ve always said I treat everyone the same. What happens after that depends on the other. It’s useful perhaps to be so ruthless sometimes, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.

Movies and life

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve watched two films that meant a lot to me when I first watched them back in the nineties. They remain favourite movies and the very act of viewing them again is a form of nostalgia.
I enjoyed the movies for the very same reasons as I enjoyed them the first time. I was caught up again, provoked and enlarged and moved once more. I went away admiring the art the movies represent, the combination between words and images put together by an expert eye and performed by actors who grasp the very truth of the story.

The act of nostalgia also, briefly, cast me back to the era I watched them in. It was a very different time to now.

It’s a funny act to be so transported. It’s like visiting a museum of your prior life. You look at the exhibits with a combination of bemusement and wonder. Things long forgotten are recalled to you. You briefly enter into the spirit of those times, casting about and seeing around you the things as they were then. It’s a full, rounded thing, made richer in hindsight with the knowledge of where things went.

My experience on both occasions was that in the middle of this nostalgic remembrance I felt some very small thing that was dark and sad. I thought about that. My first take was that the movies were evoking a time of life that was happier for me, and the contrast depressing. It was a time of life when movies such as these – The Age of Innocence and Three Colours: Blue – had added meaning because the themes, I thought, would become increasingly relevant to me in the years ahead, if not already. I imagined I would be living a life as dramatically rich and meaningful as I saw on screen (and I did!). They felt relevant to me as a person in the middle of my life.

The sadness I felt was because I knew that time was past, that stage of my life was gone, or so I thought. It was a melancholy reflection.

I continued to reflect on it though in the background, and a day or two later I had a different take on the situation. It was true that by comparison my life is uneventful now, and emotionally much less exciting. It’s not past though, I thought. It’s not the end of a stage I mourn, but rather the situation I’m in – and situations can change.

That’s my hope and belief. Hopefully in a year from now if I watch a movie like this I’ll know all about it because my life is just as rich and brilliant.

Off the Dead

Yeah, I’ve gone off The Walking Dead. For years I was a devoted viewer. I was drawn to the challenges of surviving in a devastated society. I was fascinated by the ingenuity required to survive another day. It was a tale of fortitude and resourcefulness, interspersed with moments of tragedy and loss. Then it changed a couple of seasons ago. It became more about confrontation than survival. There had always been episodes and story-lines that featured confrontation, and legitimately so, but now it was all about the battle between one faction and another, the threat of zombies largely sidelined, and the logistic struggle to survive altogether missing.

I found it drawn out and tedious, and often overwrought. It felt like a violent soap opera being fought out in some barren, dystopian future, the writing varying between sentimental cloy and laughable ‘tough’ talk.

I’ve lost a lot of interest in recent years, watching out of habit and in the vain hope that this story line might be wrapped up and a new story begun. Throughout I’ve felt often discomfited by what I’ve felt to be a tendency towards the more fascist.

I know there’s a lot of people who feel similarly to me. With the last season just wrapping up I held hopes that it might take a new direction next season, but that seems unlikely. More confrontation was foreshadowed. The writing, which has deteriorated greatly, veered between clichéd contradictions, words undercut by actions. And some of those actions continue to be pretty ugly.

I’ll watch the first episode next season to see where it’s going. In general I’m much more interested in Fear The Walking Dead, but who’s to say it won’t go down a similar path?

Breaking Away

Home late on Saturday night I settled in on the couch, browsed through my movie directory, then found the perfect late, home from being out movie: Breaking Away.

I guess this is now an older movie, though I remember sort of roughly when it came out – around 1980? I reckon I’ve watched it 3-4 times over the years, and responded to it every time. It’s a very well made coming of age story about a cycling obsessed teenager and his mates. It has all the usual elements, a bit of romance, a town in transition and conflict between the two sides of the track, and finally the triumphant ending. It’s probably because it’s so familiar, and ‘known’, that I find myself responding to it so well. It’s a well-worn trope, but it’s a trope that most of us in western democracies have lived some variation of. You watch such a movie with a combination of nostalgia and sentimentality, if not a mild sense of regret that such days of carefree innocence, when the beckoning promised to unfold before you and nothing was impossible, are gone, a part of the past. If only we’d known better at the time.

In this case it’s a particularly well done piece of film making. Peter Yates was the director. He was the director of one of my favourite ever movies, Bullitt, but other accomplished works like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Eyewitness. He has a sure hand, but the movie belongs to the writer, Steve Tesich.

Years ago I read one of the few novels he wrote, Summer Crossing, about a boy living on the wrong side of the tracks meeting up with a mysterious and alluring newcomer to town. It’s sweet and romantic in places, but ultimately tragic. I read it soon enough after living through that stage of my life that it felt particularly real. I knew what it was like to fall hard for a girl. I knew the sense of budding adulthood and straining at the leash. I knew the feeling of being safe in the family home but rebelling against the strictures of it. I knew what it was like to be a part of a close knit group of friends sharing every moment. And I knew the feeling on unbounding curiosity, as if I couldn’t get enough of life and experience.

It seems likely to me that Steve Tesich wrote from rich experience. Though they have different stories, the themes of Breaking Away and Summer Crossing are not dissimilar.

I half expected on Saturday to grow bored halfway through, as if I might have outgrown the movie. Sadly, it happens. Old favourites, books as well as movies, seem often pale imitations of what I knew and experienced of them when they made their formative impression. I think that’s a great example of how your impression of things is informed by your circumstances. Things that resonated me back then because I could relate, could feel, lose their lustre over time when I have moved on to a different plane of existence.

Fortunately I watched to the end on Saturday, lured on by memory and genuine entertainment. This is a quality movie that everyone should watch. A classic, dare I say.

Altered thinking

A random choice last night led me to watch an old movie from about 1980, Altered States.

It’s a bit of a freaky movie, about drug taking in the search for the ‘first man’ – the primordial self – and there’s a bit of it which looks and feels like an acid trip.

There’s a Harvard university professor, William Hurt, who is certain that we can regress with the help of drugs to earlier states of being. He locks himself up in an isolation tank, and with the help of some choice Mexican brews undergoes a series of transformations. In one he comes out of the tank as a Neanderthal man, causes all sorts of confusion and mayhem, chews on a zoo animal, where he wakes up naked back as his normal self. He’s proved there is something in it, but ever the passionate scientist he wants to take it further. Against the protestations of his wife he goes back into the tank and this time regresses to a state way beyond that of Neanderthal. It destroys the lab, and he is something now less than human – a writhing, tortured energy with a flickering existence. He is only saved by the devotion of his wife reaching through the vortex to pull him out.

He is left shocked. There is nothing, he concludes, there is nothing at the beginning. Then, spontaneously, he begins to transform again – and I’ll leave it there.

It’s a flawed but entertaining movie. Ken Russell directed it, and though it has its extreme moments it’s not as out there as some of his other stuff. I’m not sure if I’m left with a lot to ponder, though I’m tempted – as I have been for years – to try LSD one day (I’m not inclined to drugs in general. I’ve had ecstasy, and of course grass, but that’s it).

The funny thing as I’m watching last night there comes to mind a couple of things I’ve been reading lately about human consciousness and psychology.

Many years ago I read Wilhelm Reich’s The Passion of Youth, and enjoyed it. He was a fascinating, if controversial figure, but this was basically an autobiography of his formative years, and touched upon the other great figures of the day, particularly Freud. I went through a phase when I read a lot of popular psychology and biography, and still have an interest.

Alfred Adler was one I knew of, but hadn’t really investigated until recently. Having delved into some of his teachings recently I find to my surprise that I have been living by basic Adlerian principles for many years. If I were to summarise very simply it is to take responsibility for your actions, and to disregard the approval of others. In a large sense what I read seems also to validate my recent decision to open up and let go of the things I had let hold me back.

Separately I read somewhere else about serotonin, about confidence and self-belief. Those who have those qualities are flushed with serotonin, which reinforces the sense. Those who fail successively, or who are generally without confidence, don’t experience that, and instead are subject to negative influences.

What was interesting to me was that I was once one of the first group, and know well the sensation of being infused with certainty. Then I became someone who lost it all, and was subject to repeated defeats. In that situation we go into our shell apparently, unwilling to dare and reluctant to hope. It becomes a circular process.

I experienced that. As I read I knew exactly what was described. But then I recognised that I was fortunate to retain something – I know not what it is – that allowed me to ultimately disregard that perception and try again and again. Perhaps it was a store of serotonin left in me which made for a hard core of self-belief. Whatever it was I’m grateful for it.

Human nature is a fascinating thing and you can’t go wrong learning all you can about the intricacies of it.


I watched the movie version of Annihilation last night. I read the book a few years back and thought it was great. The book – by Jeff Vandermeer – was eerie, strange and haunting, and the movie had pretty much exactly the same qualities.

It’s an intriguing world he created in the book, and persuasively rendered on screen. Watching I was reminded somewhat of Stalker, the movie by Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the book Roadside Picnic, which oddly enough I finished reading the other day).

Stalker is a strange tale of a wasteland left after an alien incursion. It’s a forbidden zone full of peril, but people – Stalkers – still enter it illegally to collect the detritus left by the aliens to sell on the black market.

Likewise in Annihilation, something has infected a zone of land by the cost and enveloped it in a shimmering haze. None of the expeditions into the zone have made it back, but for one damaged survivor. No-one knows what happened to cause this, or what has happened on the far side of the barrier, but as in Stalker, it’s a zone of weird happenings and lurking death. And in both movies, it leads to a moment of profound discovery, though other-worldly.

This is a departure from the book for the movie of Annihilation. In the book mystery was piled upon mystery, clues left without resolution. The book was the first of three, and though I wouldn’t rule it out, the movie of it doesn’t demand a follow-up – there is enough revealed to explain the riddle that in the book leads on to the next chapter.

I enjoyed the movie. I thought the world they created was great, and unusual in my experience married up pretty well to my own imagining of it. There’s a baroque exuberance in the flourishing, impossible vegetation and the strange creatures mutated into something other. It’s very otherworldly and different as if it might be a million miles from what we know as civilisation. And yet remaining are the remnants of crumbling settlement, lop-sided, overrun and corrupted by galloping mutation.

It’s a sci-fi adventure cum horror movie, but it has an intelligence to it. It’s not just about the thrills. It’s provocative, philosophical even, as was the book, as was Stalker too for what it matters. It asks questions, the answers to which are nuanced. We tend too easily, these days especially, to see things in either a positive or negative light, in terms of good and evil, when of course there are all sorts of things in between and different perspectives as well. And sometimes it’s just different, neither one thing or another and just itself – foreign to our way of thinking and our expectations.

The movie, in the end, is not about creatures or aliens looking to subvert our world, but about transformation and imitation, it’s about change.

I think I’ll be sitting on this movie for a few days more letting it settle in me. I like those sort of movies. This one is very well done.