Give me a whiff of sulphur rather than Mogadon movies

Image of Nigel Andrews

Bad is good

Perhaps it’s because we’re close to Halloween. Perhaps it’s because there’s an “R” in the month (open season on protected animals and belief systems). Or perhaps it’s because Wall Street 2 is everywhere that I want to come before you today, as if I were the film critics’ Gordon Gekko, and say: “Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Bad’ is ‘good’.”

It has been a movie truth for decades, perhaps the greatest of all. But, like every truth, it needs regular re-stating. More fully explained? Films with an adverse or contrary agenda – films that smuggle or flaunt their hostility to prevailing ideals or consensus morality – are often the ones we end up loving, cherishing, placing in pantheons. Films with their “hearts in the right place” (and their minds on auto-pilot) are the ones we often end up, rightly, despising.

At the recent Venice Film Festival I was numbed to a point of despair – we all were – by Julian Schnabel’s Miral (featuring Yasmine Elmasi), a platitude pentathlon about Israel/Palestine that dotted already-dotted Is, crossed redundant Ts and long-distance-jogged through the axiomatic (we want peace and togetherness) for two stupefying hours. After the movie I mentally composed a historical/paradigmatic scorecard. It went like this:

Miral: good intentions plus stilted direction, bumper-sticker dialogue, sentimental special pleading. Zero out of 100. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: bad intentions – indeed downright evil – plus imaginative mise-en-scène, provocative imagery and a durable documenting of the power of political rhetoric. A terrible masterpiece: 100 out of 100.

Cinema, like all art, must challenge and confront. It must gainsay, excite, provoke, if necessary, outrage. The great works all did this, one way or another, one time or another. Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin, La Règle du Jeu, Citizen Kane ... Most of these films proved right-hearted after a distance of time, dramas that batted for enduring values. Or – with Eisenstein’s and Riefenstahl’s films – they put up a show for the “wrong side” so powerful and defining, they have lasting value as a focus of study for the right side.

In the opposite corner of the prizefight arena, that of the Mogadon movies, I add to Miral films such as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Invictus. Works whose function is to polish our complacence, to caress today’s received ideas by letting us applaud the overthrow of yesterday’s received ideas. The response solicited is: “Everything’s all right then.” Or: “We were all heroes once, or can recognise them now.” The world sheds tears of triumphalism, then hands out the Oscars.

This is why we should value the devils and antichrists, Wall Street and Wall Street 2, with their whiff of sulphur, their dark wit and the love-hate ambiguities draped over Mephistophelean money men. We should love them above the idealistic air-punchings of the films (Born on the Fourth of July) that made Oliver Stone’s name. We know we’re watching bad behaviour. We know we’re watching naughty ideas. And we realise: this filmmaker is letting us think for ourselves.

A farewell to arm

On the topic of identity theft in cinema (“good” stealing “bad’s” identity and vice versa), let me ask you this. How many hours have you spent in front of films you can barely watch? How many “bad trips” – horror films, anguishing suspense thrillers – have you sought out and paid money for?

Now playing in London is Frozen, the ski-lift thriller (isolation, frostbite, wolves) that several fellow critics watched through their fingers. This week Ryan Reynolds gets buried alive in Buried. It can get so bad, this all-risking audience masochism, that people have to be carried from cinemas. The newest Schadenfreude orgy is 127 Hours, a truth-based thriller from Danny Slumdog Millionaire Boyle. It’s the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), who was hiking in the Utah canyons when a rockfall trapped his arm.

Self-amputation followed. At some of the US screenings, amid swoonings and nausea fits, medics have been in regular attendance.

Filmgoers are incorrigible. We can never get enough of too much. Millions flocked to Reservoir Dogs; more than a few flocked out during the ear-slicing scene. Celebrity walk-outs included filmmaker Wes Craven. Even Mr Nightmare on Elm Street could not take Mr Blonde wielding that razor.

Why do we do it? Because we’re mad. I’ve run out of other theories, but they might include Aristotelian catharsis and ghoulish voyeurism. Maddest of all are those who, as a friend did, tell me their aversion to scary films such as Frozen and then insist on my relating the whole plot. Having avidly taken in the ice, blood and splattered corpse parts, the friend said: “Oh I’d never go and see that.”

Forward to the past

A funny thing happened to me 26 years ago in Hollywood. (This is a topical story.) I had arranged to interview the production designer Lawrence Paull of Blade Runner. As the new kid on the genius block, two years after his work on Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi brainstorm, he was in big demand: he told me to meet him on the backlot of his new film at Universal.

Vague directions brought me to the square of a mocked-up small town. Twee 1950s-style houses; a café-diner; a cinema with an old-fashioned marquee announcing Cattle Queen of Montana starring Ronald Reagan.

I was on the set of Back to the Future! No one knew, in that summer of 1984, that it was a box-office phenomenon in embryo. My first thought was, it must be a zombie movie. Weird 1950s-ish people walked by. Extras ambulated on to the set fresh from make-up.

In a way, Back to the Future (now enjoying a 25th birthday re-release) is a zombie movie, a story eerily defying time and mortality. Paull, when we met in the diner, theorised that the best movie designs all have this tingling combination of different time-zones and Zeitgeists. Blade Runner is set in a future that feels like the past (Chinese, Egyptian, art deco). Back to the Future’s past feels like some cryogenically replicating present. And Fritz Lang’s incomparable Metropolis, we learn again from the restored version now playing, makes its future ominously atavistic: all those skyscrapers like overgrown dolmens re-drawn by a burgeoning modernism.

And finally

I rashly offered up a quiz question last month. First name out of the e-mail bag was Bob Buhr. Congratulations. Forbidden Planet (1956) was the answer, starring Leslie Nielsen.

Quizzes will not feature in every future column. But as the initial poser in an occasional new cycle, please answer this:

What is the connection between Albert Einstein, a credit card and Universal Studios?

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