Category Archives: movies

#realnineties – Blue Jay and No More ‘I Love You’s

A couple of years ago, Mel and I watched a movie from 2016 called Blue Jay. It stars Mark Duplass and the always-excellent Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, high-school sweethearts who run into each other after 20 years. It’s basically just a two-hander, following the characters for 24 hours, during which they get drunk at Jim’s mother’s house and relive their past together, while the unresolved issues between them force their way to the surface.

During the evening, they go through Jim’s collection of mementoes from their relationship. At one point, he puts on an Annie Lennox CD and they dance to No More ‘I Love You’s. At the start, they’re just goofing around, singing along in falsetto, but while the song does its Proustian work on them, they begin to share meaningful eye and bodily contact. As the song ends, the camera lingers for a second on the ring on Amanda’s finger.

It’s a great scene, but it absolutely works as well as it does because of the astute choice of song on the part of whoever was supervising the music (could have been Duplass; he wrote and produced the film, so it’s really his baby).

It would have been easy for the music supervisor to prove their hipster cred by putting something obscure and cool on the soundtrack and have Jim and Amanda dance to that. But that wouldn’t have been true to their characters. Jim and Amanda were evidently not the coolest kids in their school. On the evidence of the skits they recorded together on a cassette player as teenagers, they were probably theatre kids. No More ‘I Love You’s is exactly the kind of thing they would have had as their song: a little arty, a little camp and a little dramatic, but still ultimately a mainstream pop song.

Most importantly, the song pulls off a delicate high-wire act. The falsetto backing vocals and the grandiosity of the arrangement are knowingly (almost provocatively) absurd, but the emotions underpinning Lennox’s performance feel real, and even earnest; she sounds properly committed to the material. The song’s emotional state is complicated, and keeps shifting. This emotional instability is reflected in Jim and Amanda’s move from awkwardness at the beginning of the scene (which they attempt to disguise with humour) to vulnerability and connection at the end, undercut by the knowledge that they can’t recapture who they were as teenagers; the ring on Amanda’s is just one visible sign of this impossibility.

Before watching Blue Jay, I’d have told you I didn’t like No More ‘I Love You’s.

In explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that, in the UK, the song, and its singer, code a little differently than they do in the US. As far as I can tell from its chart positions, it was a middling hit in America, bigger on the dance and AC charts than on the Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it reached number two on the singles chart and was absolutely played to death on commercial radio. It felt inescapable. It’s not a stretch to say that, along with people like Simply Red and Geoge Michael, Lennox was one of the artists who defined commercial radio in the first half in the nineties – Why and Walking on Broken Glass had been just as huge in 1992-3. By the time Essex FM and Capital Radio were done with No More ‘I Love You’s, I never wanted to hear it again.

Its use in Blue Jay, though, hit me hard enough to make me re-evaluate it, and go back to investigate the original recording by one-time Eurythmics support act The Lover Speaks. It’s pretty clear to me now that I got it wrong, and my judgement of the song was affected by its ubiquity on radio. It is, I hear now, a great song – off-kilter and idiosyncratic, but thoroughly pop in how those idiosyncrasies are manifested. The song’s greatness is absolutely present in the original recording, too, despite its rather ponderous rhythm track. David Freeman’s vocal has even more lunatic goth theatricality than Lennox’s, and it’s definitely worth hearing that version if you don’t know it.

So now, despite basically loathing the Eurythmics and my indifference to most of what I’ve heard of Lennox’s solo work, I’ve turned around on No More ‘I Love You’s. And honestly, that’s great. Sometimes it takes a piece of art to show you how you’d got another piece of art wrong.

Blue Jay, incidentally, is well worth seeing. I didn’t really care for the revelation in the final act, but the relationship between the two leads all the way up to that moment felt very real and true. And as I said, it’s the work of people who understand the era in which the characters grew up and how it shaped them.

The Kindergarten Teacher

Many, many spoilers follow. Trigger warnings also: this movie deals with a teacher’s emotionally abusive relationship with a very young student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Kindergarten Teacher since Mel and I went to see it on Wednesday evening.

There’s much that it does well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lisa, the eponymous teacher at a Staten Island kindergarten. There was never a second where I didn’t buy Lisa’s relationship with her family, or with Jimmy, the child she becomes obsessed with after hearing him recite seemingly improvised poetry one day after school. I was similarly convinced by her quiet disappointment in her own creative efforts, dismissed as derivative by the fellow students in her poetry class, and how this feeds into her unhealthy later behaviour.

The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy – her steps incrementally further over the line past mere teacherly interest in his gifts; his bafflement at the lessons she wants to teach him, and keeps pulling him out of class for – is similarly sharply drawn. It intends to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. Two people walked out of the screening we attended, and about half of the audience kept laughing nervously as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly hard to defend: taking Jimmy into the bathroom during the other children’s nap times to give him a private lesson on subjects like seeing the world from your own unique perspective; giving him her phone number so he can call her if he writes another poem.

My disappointment with the film, to the extent you could call it that when I do think it successful on the whole, lies in the second half of the movie, and particularly the last act.

Lisa having sex with her poetry teacher, Simon (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes attracted to her after she begins to pass off Jimmy’s poetry as her own, is an unnecessary plot point. His later disappointment in her after she takes Jimmy to a poetry recital and he sees that she’s been up to would have been no less acute if their relationship had stayed purely that of a teacher and student.

Throughout the movie, we are shown Lisa’s teaching assistant, Meghan (later revealed by Jimmy to have been the inspiration behind his poem “Anna”; you can see the strings inside Lisa break as he says this. It’s the most psychologically acute moment in the film), noticing what Lisa is doing and watching her. Yet, she never says anything to her or to anyone in authority at the school. After Lisa defies Jimmy’s father and takes Jimmy to the poetry recital at a Manhattan bar, he removes Jimmy from the kindergarten, but he doesn’t call the police or report her beahviour to anyone at Jimmy’s school. Her husband asks her where she’d been on the night of the poetry recital, but didn’t notice on the previous evening when she’d taken Jimmy to an art gallery to show him some, frankly disturbing, paintings.

It’s hard, ultimately, to believe that things could get to the point they reach in the final act without someone stepping in to save Jimmy from what had long since become abusive behaviour from his teacher. As striking as the scenes by the lake are, and as poignant as it is that no one is there to hear Jimmy’s poem at the end of the movie as he sits alone in a police car, the film is at least slightly undermined by Lisa having so little oversight at the school that she is able to carry on this way without anyone calling her to account.

That I began thinking in these terms while watching the third act is, though, a testament to how successfully writer/director Sara Collangelo (who adapted the story from an Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid) created the world of the movie in the first place. When the world and the relationships in it are this real-world credible, the more heightened elements of the plot necessarily stick out more.

Collangelo builds a wholly believable set of motivations for Lisa that remain consistent throughout the film and are revealed to us as much through Pepe Avila del Pino’s camerawork as her dialogue. His use of medium shots – repeatedly showing us Gyllenhaal towering over the children in her class – remind us constantly of her place in their lives as protector and educator, and the corruption of that in her relationship with Jimmy. The use of contrasting close-ups, showing us Gyllenhaal’s reactions to disappointment, or her increasingly discomforting physicality with Jimmy (touching his back, fondling his hair, whispering in his ear), become all the more claustrophobic and creepy.

Not a masterpiece, then, but thoughtful and provocative.

 

Scream for Me Sarajevo

The other day I went to see Scream for Me Sarajevo, a feature-length documentary about a 1994 gig the then-former Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson played in the Bosnian capital during the siege.

Directed by Tarik Hodzic, the film is fascinating not merely, or even mainly, for the story of the concert, but for the long section at the start of the documentary where we meet a selection of attendees, metalheads now in their thirties and forties, who talk compellingly and movingly of life during the siege (which lasted almost four years and claimed nearly 14,000 lives). Interviewed separately, they all stressed their passion for music and how important it was in their lives. One man spoke of how in the brief interludes when the electricity supply in his family’s home was working he would dedicate all the time he could to playing his guitar, not knowing when he’d get the chance again.

The concert was arranged by Martin Morris, a British army major attached to the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, who took it upon himself to try to give the youth of Sarajevo an escape from the horror of their lives in the city, even if only for one evening. Although the documentary doesn’t say how he did it or whether he had any connections to call on, he eventually got hold of Dickinson and asked him to come and play a gig there. Dickinson, to his eternal credit, agreed – and then told his band that they were going to play a show in a war zone (that bit may be slightly less to his credit).

Morris publicised the show via an underground radio station, persuaded his seniors that they shouldn’t cancel it despite the enormous security risks (they didn’t get wind of what he was up to till the wheels were in motion), then flew Dickinson and the band in and tried to get safe passage for them into the city. This turned out to be harder than planned. The UN refused to fly them from Split to Sarajevo, quite understandably given the heavy shelling that day. Improvising, Morris and his street-smart colleague Trevor Gibson bundled the band and their gear into vans driven by British aid organisation the Serious Road Trip, hoping like hell none of the vehicles would be blown up.

Another filmmaker – a British filmmaker maybe – would have made this story about Bruce Dickinson riding into town on his white horse and making everything better for everyone. Tarik Hodzic is telling a different story, though. Dickinson is an important part of it, and I think it’s clear from the film that Hodzic and everyone interviewed who was at the gig have a lot of respect for Dickinson for putting himself in very real danger when he could have much more easily just stayed at home. But this is the story of a city and its people living through the most desperate of times, and of the power of music to give hope and comfort in even the most terrible situation.

Threads

Today we’re going to discuss a 1984 BBC movie called Threads, about nuclear war. It’s strong stuff, so please do take that as a warning. Spoilers follow.

Threads never leaves you. No film has ever affected me as deeply, or for anything like as long. I remember vividly the first time I watched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days later, I still felt depressed by what I’d seen. This was about six or seven years ago, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and an event like this stopped seeming inevitable.

I’m 34, so I can remember the last years of the Cold War, but I was only two when Threads was made, and it’s only been seen on British TV rarely since. I saw it first on YouTube or Vimeo (I forget), its impact dulled only slightly by the grainy image. And frankly, there were times in the firestorm scenes where I was grateful for not being able to see the images of charred corpses in total clarity.

Let’s back up. Threads was written by Barry Hinds, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave (which Ken Loach made into Kes), and was co-produced by the BBC, Australia’s Channel Nine and Western-World TV. Its director was Mick Jackson, who’d go on to make, of all things, The Bodyguard.

It’s essentially a docudrama, showing the effects of a nuclear exchange on the UK city of Sheffield, a target for its steel and mining industries, as well as for having a nearby US air base. It’s a small miracle of film-making. It was produced on a budget of about a quarter of a million pounds (far less than its US counterpart, The Day After), yet tells an ambitious story over a roughly 10-year period. It shows an entirely city being destroyed, and the pathetic attempts of civilisation to reassert itself during the resultant nuclear winter. By the time it’s finished, every character we see at the beginning of the film is dead.

The bombs don’t start falling until 45 minutes in, yet the early scenes are full of foreboding. Ruth and Jimmy are a young couple. She’s pregnant, and the pair decide to get married and move in together. Scenes of their families meeting, and of Ruth and Jimmy working on their new house, play out as TVs and radios in the background give updates on an escalating crisis situation in the Middle East, with Russia refusing to acknowledge US ultimatums. Eventually missiles are exchanged over the North Sea, and Sheffield is destroyed.

The film is unsparing in its depiction of what happens next. Jimmy is at work when it happens and he never sees Ruth again. We last see him running through the streets to try to get to her, 51 minutes into the 2-hour film. His fate is left unknown to us. (As a viewer in 2016, this is even more surprising as Reece Dinsdale, the actor who played Jimmy, is the most familiar face on screen – he’d go on to star in ITV sitcom Home to Roost with John Thaw, and was in Coronation Street for a couple of years, too.)

Ruth, meanwhile, survives the blast, in the cellar of her parents’ house. But days after the attack, she leaves the house to look for Jimmy. Later she returns, and her parents are dead in the cellar. We don’t see them, merely hearing the flies and scuttling of rats as she opens the door down to the cellar. Threads is, as I say, unsparing.

Ruth survives 10 years of nuclear winter, long enough to have her daughter, Jane, and to grow blind (cataracts) and prematurely aged from radiation poisoning. Jane grows up near mute (there is no system of education so language decays to a bare minimum of words needed to facilitate survival; order is maintained by the essentially totalitarian government witholding food from those unwilling to work) and the film ends with Jane screaming at the sight of her own stillborn baby.

This rough outline of the plot doesn’t come close to capturing the full horror. It’s the sheer relentlessness of Threads that’s so harrowing. Throughout the film, we frequently cut away to title cards giving updates on plot elements that happen off-screen or that give some indication of the nationwide picture. One such particularly brutal cut comes during the firestorm scene. After seeing several shots of buildings (shops, offices and terraced houses) destroyed by the blast wave, a title card tells us that two-thirds of houses in Britain are in the possible fire zone. We cut back to a shot of a whole city on fire, with everything that wasn’t already flattened burning.

That’s what remains so shocking about Threads. It’s not one individual thing. It’s not the burning bodies, the corpses in the wreckage, the scenes of survivors eating rats, or radioactive sheep; it’s not the soldiers gunning down looters, the council’s disaster response team all dying of suffocation in their shelter before they can be dug out, or the stillborn babies. It’s everything. It’s the total lack of pretense from Hinds and Jackson that an event like this could be survivable and anything like life as we know it could continue after. Some on the right have decried the film as propaganda, but Jackson was hired because he’d worked on the BBC’s QED programme A Guide to Armageddon, and Hinds and Jackson spent a week in a Home Office training centre for “official” survivors who’d need to help with the reconstruction effort.Hinds used sources such as Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, an article that Carl Sagan and James Pollack wrote for Scientist to determine realistic scenarios. From the vantage point of 2016, it’s amazing that it was ever broadcast. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, sent a letter of congratulations to Hinds. Ronald Reagan reportedly requested a screening of it.

I’m not ashamed to say Threads changed my stance on nuclear disarmament, pushing me far further towards unilateral disarmament that I’d been before. The idea that we’d spend another penny on weapons that can do this rather than education and welfare makes me boilingly angry. I honestly couldn’t recommend you watch Threads – it really is tremendously disturbing, it’s in no way enjoyable, and if you do watch it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to forget what you see. But I’m glad that I have seen it, however uncomfortable it was to watch.