The seemingly inexhaustible work rate of Michael Winterbottom accompanies his versatility. The former – eighteen films in 15 years with another completed and three more in development – perhaps makes the “hit and miss” assessment understandable. The latter – genres tackled include science fiction, docudrama, unsimulated sex-cum-concert film, adaptation of uniquely literary novel, etc. – makes the film-maker very difficult to pin down or categorise; in turn, it becomes very difficult to approach any of his films with a particular aesthetic or thematic preoccupation in mind. Indeed, he might be an “anti-auteur”.
Perhaps we ought not to be looking at the works but at the artist himself. In the June issue of Sight & Sound, in an effort to find some common thread between his films, Hannah McGill notes that Winterbottom's “back catalogue suggests a compulsive attraction to projects full of practical, ethical or creative obstacles”. What draws him to a particular project might be its “practical, ethical or creative” potentiality, as opposed to finding some direct relation in its material to certain political interests or intellectual pursuits.
With this in mind, we might find a specific investment from Winterbottom in his latest feature, The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's noir novel. A first-person narrative about a small-town Texas deputy sheriff whose gentle public persona is a veil for a disturbingly murderous inner streak, the original work is noted for its particularly graphic depiction of violence. This time around, it seems, Winterbottom's practical, ethical and creative obstacle – and therefore purpose – is translating this violence to a cinematic version.
The plot: in 1950s west Texas, deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is sent by his superior Bob Maples (Tom Bower) to persuade prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) to leave town. When Ford instead becomes Joyce's lover, the pair devise a plan to hustle the town's powerful construction boss Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Meanwhile, union leader Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas) tells Ford that Conway was responsible for his brother's death years back. When Conway sends his own son with bribe money for Ford in order for the latter to get Joyce to leave town, Ford punches Joyce's face in, beating her almost to death, before killing Conway's son.
Haunted by flashbacks to both this murder and a childhood incident in which his foster brother found him raping a young girl, Ford delays suspicion by making it look – improbably – like Joyce and Conway's son killed each other. As a set of unforeseen circumstances escalates, Ford remains outwardly calm and quick-thinking to stay one step ahead of his lawmen colleagues. He proposes to his girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson); just as things begin to look rosy, however, an old face blackmails him. He agrees to pay, but at the arranged follow-up meeting, events turn murderous again.
That the story is so “dark”, so “hardboiled”, that the film itself is such a straight adaptation of a dark and hardboiled novel, seems to buy it a critical pass. The critical reception and assessment of the film seems to focus unavoidably on the controversy that has preceded its release. This controversy – on which I'll comment in a moment – is the point on which all discussion of the film hinges. As a result, bar a Cinematical review from April, no serious examination of the film seems to have noted how silly its story often is. For all its matter-of-fact miserablism and humourlessness, The Killer Inside Me rings rather hollow and quite improbable.
At the end of the film's second reel, Jessica Alba gets her face beaten to a pulp. Regardless of style or approach, it's a disturbing scene, quite horrific. While objections to the violence itself might come down to one's previous exposure to such stuff, there does seem to be a lingering exploitative nastiness at work.
While Winterbottom does well to approach the film in unassuming, straightforward visual terms – it's not overly stylised, it might even feel contemporary at times – his aesthetic maturity is let down by an unironic investment in anonymous hysteria. Where there might have been a dynamic contradiction at work here, the whole thing feels strangely flat. Perhaps this is due to how messy and clunky the narrative is; it is probably more to do with its odd lack of characterisation.
The Killer Inside Me has been described as a “character study”, as can often be fashionable with films and stories of this type. Beware: it's fast becoming – if it wasn't already – an industry shorthand for broody, introspective non-commitment.
Writing for Film4, Catherine Bray notes, “Lou is a polite, rather dull man, leading a highly conventional life, and if it weren't for that fact that he commits some atrocious crimes, there would be very little point in making a film about him. If we accept this, then his violence is what legitimises him as a subject.”
This, apparently, is what might have drawn Winterbottom to the character. But Bray is right to go on: “Violence being the thrust of the film, what does The Killer Inside Me have to say about violence? Not as much as you might hope, is the answer.” The film is vacant of any moral or personal complexity. Its despairing tone is a result more of its sheer, stubborn hopelessness than its atmospheric rendering of a period Texas. A Kiss Me Deadly-style conclusion lends the work absurdity, but not a jot of seriousness.
No human – even one who kills “without motive” – is removed from material life. Winterbottom's protagonist (though Winterbottom would no doubt prefer us to say Thompson's protagonist) is confusingly portrayed, not because he kills apparently without motive, but because there's no real interest in the world he lives in. The central conflict between his public persona and hidden, internal persona is superficial, mannerist.
Casey Affleck utilises the same physical movements and facial expressions as he did so effectively in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in that film there was a careful examination of and investment in character. Here, Lou Ford remains a deliberate enigma – brief flashbacks to his childhood border on the ridiculous, banal; more often they are simply odd and distracting, as ultimately gratuitous as the shot of Jessica Alba's obliterated face.
In her Sight & Sound piece, Hannah McGill sparks up an interesting political element in the film. “The clash between Ford's public and private selves,” she writes, “could be read as a metaphor – say, for a nation state that smiles while covertly committing atrocities... Winterbottom acknowledges that if it had come together earlier, its sociopathic faux-bumpkin might have been read as a George W. Bush avatar.” That the film is set, however unwittingly (though that doesn't matter), at a time in history and a part of the world in which the former US president grew up enhances this reading.
But if Winterbottom acknowledges this interpretation, he ultimately denies it. For him, the “book and the film are about how fucked up people are everywhere and how people mess up and destroy their lives.” What a fine assessment of life! That he has no interest in accounting for Lou Ford's atrocious acts of violence is telling of this artist's preoccupations. Also, of his severe limits.
Apparently, then, the assumption that Winterbottom moves from project to project on the basis of its “practical, ethical or creative” obstacles, could be a correct one. This modus operandi does not mean the film-maker is incapable of creating interesting, even compelling work, but it does account for his inconsistency, and certainly places much pressure on the material itself.
The problem here is that Winterbottom approaches Thompson's material literally, apparently losing the nuances of its unreliable first-person narration by way of a confused directorial method. I want to quote Virginie Sélavy here, writing for Electric Sheep. Her assessment is spot on, so I quote her at length: “Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film. He is most probably not misogynistic, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as The Killer Inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines (could literalness be one of Winterbottom’s defining directorial traits? Real migrants in In This World, real sex in 9 Songs…). Crucially, the film fails to coherently convey the fact that Lou is an unreliable narrator and that what he tells us might not be true, something that would help explain the characterisation of the women and distance the film from his view of them.”
This gets to the crux of the matter. But then, given Winterbottom's key interests in this material and also his view on film-making in general, we shouldn't be surprised. In a recent interview with Time Out, when asked if he considered himself a “moral director”, he replied: “Well, I don’t like films that are made to teach you lessons. It's a difficult area because you can start talking a lot of pretentious nonsense if you are not careful. I think you should make films and you shouldn’t talk about films afterwards. It’s about being honest. Finding a way of being truthful.”
What are we supposed to make of such comments? Especially, now, in light of a film whose one driving force and talking point is not only the presence of violence, but the explicitness with which it is shown? Though it would be ridiculous to suggest that the kind of domestic violence portrayed in The Killer Inside Me does not exist in real life, its portrayal within the film and the stance taken on it by the artist behind it, is incoherent to say the least.
The comments about not discussing a film once it has been made isn't a particularly unique one. There's a certain intellectual trend at present that seeks to strip the artist of all responsibility for their work. Frankly, it's more often than not a sign of confusion on the artist's part: there is little consciousness or thought being put into their work. And honesty...?
Winterbottom says that it would be “immoral to show violence that wasn't shocking, violence that seemed enjoyable or fun or attractive or simple or easy”. This is true, and there are certainly a great number of examples in a great number of films, old and new, that paint violence in an enjoyable, fun, attractive or simple way. Winterbottom's comments here, though, feel like misguided defences. If as an artist he has a serious interest in exploring violence on film, he might wish next time to adapt either more promising material, or have a fundamental re-think as to how he views life and its violent absurdities.
But one suspects this won't be the case.
Dir: Michael Winterbottom | Year: 2010 | Country: USA / UK / Sweden / France
Running Time: 109 mins approx. | With: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas
Dennis Hopper died last Saturday due to complications from prostate cancer. He was 74. Born in 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, the American film-maker, actor, artist, sculptor and photographer made his film debut in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 and starred in over 100 films.
In April this year, the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch, announced that his first exhibition would be the Julian Schnabel-curated “Art is Life”, a multi-media exhibition of Hopper's creative work.
The endless flurry of obituaries written and printed since last weekend have focused on numerous aspects of his career, from broad overviews to appreciations of particular works. As said on aintitcool.com last week, “Where do you start with a man like Dennis Hopper?”
It seems too late to offer anything particularly new at this point, and yet a serious examination of this prolific, versatile artist – one which accounts for his merits and achievements as well as his creative faults and misfires by looking at the social conditions and industrial pressures that any artist encounters – seems long overdue. So I'll try to be brief...
When I heard of Hopper's death, three of his films came to mind. One of these was The Last Movie, which he directed in 1970, a year after the release of Easy Rider. That film's impact was massive; its casual road-movie spontaneity and obscure editorial strokes evoked a frustration with and need to break from mainstream American productions, and its success gave voice to a growing trend among many contemporaries and helped catalyse a certain period of challenging works from Hollywood.
The Last Movie, though, didn't maintain Hopper's momentum as a director to be reckoned with, despite winning the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Shot in Peru on a budget of $1million, the film and its director had the full backing of a Universal Pictures eager to make the most of Easy Rider's success.
I first read of it in Mark Cousins's insightful book The Story of Film, whose mere mention of the work piqued my interest. Cousins returned to it briefly last Sunday when he wrote in The Observer that The Last Movie is “a brilliant, impenetrable piece of work about how filming messes with people's heads”. I still haven't even seen the film, and my wish to has been diluted over the years, but its images still remind me of Jodorowsky's work, and its reported messiness and ambition alone seem worthwhile.
Another film that came to mind upon hearing of the artist's death was Hoosiers, David Anspaugh's 1986 film about a high school basketball team, in which Hopper plays an alcoholic who must overcome his habit in order to return to health and aid basketball coach Gene Hackman's side to victory.
From memory – I've only seen it once – the film is a rather sentimental work, marred seemingly by weaknesses innate to the genre: the triumph-over-adversity sports film. But something might merit a revisit, not least of all Hopper's performance, for which he received his only Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Hopper noted his reluctance to appear in the film, due not only to its financial prospects but also to his character being an alcoholic; he himself had recently stopped drinking. No doubt borrowing from this experience, though, and driven by a cast and crew with personal affiliations to the material, Hopper gives a committed performance with a strong, dramatic urgency absent in many roles of its kind.
Made in the same year as Hoosiers, the last film that came immediately to mind – David Lynch's Blue Velvet – might be an obvious choice. Lynch's masterful re-working of film noir grounds its small-town middle-America voyeurism-gone-wrong narrative in a nightmarish – perhaps literally nightmarish – period setting, the same period in fact in which Hopper first appeared as a nameless, wordless goon hounding James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Here, though, as if that film was in some way a stepping stone, the goon has become a ferocious, monstrous, ether-inhaling maniac, a sadistic rapist whose childish awe at someone miming Roy Orbison's “In Dreams” one minute is followed up by an obscene dismissal of imported beer the next (“Heineken!? Fuck that shit!?”).
As Frank Booth, Hopper is a genuinely scary presence, a ridiculous, hysterical crook whose nastiness is somehow magnified by odd slips of humanity – when he allows Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy to see her son, whom he has kidnapped for ransom – and an outraged loss for words, as when Kyle Maclachlan's Jeffrey punches him in the face.
In light of Lynch's recent forays into outright surreal associative textures, Blue Velvet remains refreshingly linear, its power as both a mystery-thriller and even a horror film lying in its placement of a dangerous, morally disturbed layer into a more innocent whole. It incorporates Ray and then some.
When he first read the script for the film, Hopper famously said he needed to play Frank Booth because he was him. Since the fiction is such a brutal ogre, we might assume the actor meant his words figuratively. There is, however, something very immediate about the performance; perhaps Hopper saw in Booth the opportunity for an on-all-cylinders commitment, a character whose absence from a scene makes one worried and whose presence simply brings the screen to life.
Posted Thursday, June 03, 2010