One of my favourite words at the moment is ‘bonkers’ and Monos (2019) definitely comes within this category with its weird electronic music (that’s totally incongruous for the wilds of South America but perfectly expresses the dysfunctionally surreal situation of teenage soldiers waging a guerrilla war in ‘the middle of nowhere’). This could have been an unbelievably cruel and dark film (there is violence and darkness) but its empathy for the characters, its non-judgemental tone, the weird music, the beautiful setting, and the youthful joyousness of the teenage soldiers makes it incredibly human and life affirming.
Christopher Booker’s, Groupthink (2020) is based on pre-existing psychological theories of collective delusion and moral superiority, ideas developed by Irving Janis. Janis applied his theory to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, among others – bad decisions, produced by groupthink, ideas based on a flawed premise, decisions that led to disaster. Booker points to the Suez Crisis as a defining moment between old and new England and how groupthink had pervaded the political class with its fantasy of Britain being a world power.
The shock ending
While Shakespeare wasn’t averse to suddenly killing off a bunch of characters at the end of a play, the shock ending is something altogether different. It deliberately foregoes the denouement at the end of the story (which provides a breathing space for the audience to recuperate) leaving them with an unresolved trauma, an inexplicable, or disturbing scene or image.
The shock ending has its roots in the cliffhangers of serial fiction, pulp fiction, and the early Twentieth Century film serials. Episodes ended with a character in danger: Zorro about to be captured and unmasked, a damsel in distress about to be run over by an approaching steam train, Flash Gordon’s rocket ship about to explode. Reader’s or viewers had to buy the next episode to find out what happened next.
The 1960s Counter Culture produced films like Rosemary’s Baby, which inverted the assumption in traditional storytelling that good triumphs over evil. The shock ending in Rosemary’s Baby relies on a simple visual trick, which turns the familiar and ordinary into something terrifying.
Planet of the Apes has a famous shock ending when Taylor sees a statue, and realises that he is not on a random planet in space, but somewhere more recognisable. And in Seven a package delivery has never been so disturbing.
Shock endings are often visual, because they need to work instantly. There are exceptions, in Demon Seed it’s achieved through a character’s voice. It can also be achieved through a reveal or reversal, such as the camera pulling away to provide a bigger picture or showing something unexpected, such as the ending in The Village, or a scene which provides unexpected context, like the ending of the Polish science fiction film Sex Mission. Shocking reveals are often linked to unreliable narrators: Atonement, Secret Window, and Shutter Island. (Although these can be plot points that occur during the story rather than absolute shock endings).
Don’t Look Now (1973) has a sudden shock ending that undermines the audience’s expectation of what they think they are going to see. Also from 1973, The Wicker Man has one of the best and probably most famous shock endings. Once again, it subverts audience expectations that logic, reason, and good will triumph over evil and injustice. Conversely, in The Departed we are set up to believe that ‘justice’ will not be served – and then the unexpected happens.
- Outliers is really a series of essays connected by a theme. Some are more successful than others. The section that I mentioned about Bill Gates was particularly interesting. The one on mathematics was less appealing for me.
- City Slickers (1991) isn’t the kind of film you brag about watching, but when I remembered it the other day I decided to have a City Slickers and City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold mini-marathon. The comedy and story works, plus there’s the charm of the thing as a historical document.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a novel by Junot Díaz, presents the reader with violence, machismo, injustice, sexism, and tenderness. It’s packed with references to nerdy popular culture, and highbrow literature. The prose is dense with wit and puns.
- Joker is not what I’d call a fun watch but it is one of those films that you’re glad you’ve seen once you’ve seen it. It’s a visually impressive and artistically cohesive work that feels very accomplished and creatively complete. It is one of the better superhero genre films.
- I don’t usually discover much ‘new’ music, so when I do it’s a rare delight… A friend recently recommended some early Brian Eno where I happened on ‘Sky Saw’. I stayed away from this phase in Eno’s career when I was into ‘ambient’. I suppose the 70s vocals frightened me off. ‘Music for films’ and ‘Cluster and Eno’ are old favourites. But ‘Sky Saw’ (on ‘Another Green World’) is something. Genius even. ‘Burning Airlines Give you so Much More’ (on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy’) is great too (the comic tone and sound is reminiscent of Half Man Half Biscuit). And, of course, there’s ‘Another Green World’, the track itself (or the BBC Arena intro music as most people know it). Oh to be in an ‘art band’, noodling stuff like this live, Jazz performance style. Wouldn’t that be great?
- I’ve just discovered Meg Hewitt’s photography. You can go in two directions as a photographer... you can up-the-quality or go with the low-fi aesthetic. Meg Hewitt’s photography plays up the the grainy high contrast black and white look, like the work of Josef Koudelka (‘Exiles’) and Trent Parke (‘Minutes to Midnight’).
- Coronavirus (Covid-19) is like something out of a low budget sci-fi film. A mysterious virus killing an anxious population, huge areas in quarantine, citizens wearing surgical masks, and medics in hazmat suits. A scenario like this needs a few high-tech or new-speak terms… ‘Covid-19’ and ‘self-isolation’. Forced into isolation, people begin to react in different ways… introspection, claustrophobia, depression, signing opera from balconies and rooftops, some even acquiring a newfound spirituality. The scenario becomes a metaphor for a people (re)discovering their humanity. Or, at least, the protagonist discovering his/her humanity (hopefully). There will almost certainly be a government cover-up, and possibly even an ambitious politician keen to use the moment to seize control for him/herself and begin a new dictatorship (maybe with the help of a mad general and a shady corporation headed by a megalomaniac business tycoon). Can I get in any more clichés? Probably not. But the weird thing is that all of it is true, except for this paragraph. What happens when real life turns into science fiction?
- The Book of Eli (2010) is a weird mishmash, a kind of waterless Waterworld for the Twenty First Century. I don’t want to be disparaging because I did enjoy watching this film. It ticks a lot of boxes, post-apocalyptic (tick), the lone hero (tick) wandering through a desert landscape (tick) with tones of Mad Max (tick), quiet but powerful hero (tick)… but what really struck me is the film’s visual look and its colourisation. The images have been digitally desaturated and treated in a heavily stylised way by upping the contrast. While it’s not as harsh an effect as Sin City it’s still quite oppressive. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) also played around with a high contrast effect (deep blacks and impenetrable shadows) a kind of classic Kodachrome look. I wonder if this film would have been better if it had looked more ‘natural’… or if it would have made the whole thing feel too ordinary?
- Housesitter (1992) is one of those you’ve got to watch it as an artefact from the past kind of films, a document of its time. The plot is the usual ‘light comedy’ Hollywood love triangle, a romantic mix up of identities that’s straight out of an Oscar Wilde play. This time it’s Newton Davis the uptight architect (Steve Martin... what a run of Hollywood success he had) and Gwen Duncle (Goldie Hawn being Goldie Hawn... the adorably sassy and cute-but-annoying love interest). Here she’s pretending to be Newton’s wife after they have a one night stand. She leaves the city and stages a takeover of his country house and impresses herself on his family and ex-girlfriend, persuading them that Newton is madly in love with her and that they have had a shotgun marriage (a kind of Holly Golightly in reverse). The moral of the story is: living a life of crazy bullshit is better than not feeling alive. Thematically it’s a kind of Cinderella story where Gwen’s bullshit replaces the fairy godmother’s magic. There’s reality and illusion, a class divide (middle class architect meets working class waitress who is also an orphan), the American dream, and Howard’s inability to get over his ex. The American dream is attainable through a magical discovery process that Gwen initiates through her fantastic stories. They can have the dream and become transformed in the process, each one making the other a better and a more complete person. Success is its own kind of alchemy and bluster will win the day for anyone audacious enough to try it. Cut to shot of Howard and Gwen kissing and loud uplifting music.