“Classics”: The Machinist (2004)

The following was delivered as part of a panel discussion for the Geelong-based Cinema Paideia. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out!

Trevor Reznick can’t sleep, and is quite thin. He’s not so good at remembering, but he’s quite good at forgetting. The director of The Machinist, Brad Anderson, hopes that you’re good at forgetting too – forgetting Fight Club, forgetting Memento, forgetting Lost Highway and so on. My name’s Mitch Cunningham, and I want to talk about The Machinist as a thriller, a ‘psycho-noir’ – in fact, a very familiar kind of film. I want to talk tonight about what the film borrows, what it does right, and why the psychological thriller works the way it does.

I was going to come in here tonight and tell you that The Machinist is a crappy rehash of the kind of psychological thriller that I’ve seen too much of. Post-industrial noirs that reveal themselves to be products of a delusional mind, some kind of cathartic working-through – you know, like The Wizard of Oz. “It was all in his head” is simply a modernist variation on “It was all a dream”, and if you start seeing it too much it’ll very quickly lose its punch. I re-watched the film recently, with this snarky critique in mind, and I was kind of pleasantly surprised. Though The Machinist does borrow heavily from classic and contemporary thrillers, every so often it comes into its own with some well-done, if not entirely fresh, variations on the genre.

For viewers familiar with Fincher’s Fight Club and Memento, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, The Machinist can’t help but come off a bit cheesy, especially on a second viewing. Of course Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznick is leaving himself post-it notes. Of course those lingering shots of fish and cars and little kids are ‘clues’. Of course Reznick is forgetting something important. The pop psychology and aesthetic, which one reviewer calls “a prematurely retro exercise in mid-90s industrial goth-grunge abjection”, is like a desaturated version of Lost Highway or Fight Club.

Thankfully, the music is pure Hitchcock, all spooky bells and whistles. Just imagine The Machinist with a soundtrack that matched its aesthetic – hyper-serious industrial guitar stuff – and count yourself lucky we got to hear the film we did. If Trevor Reznick were anything closer to Trent Reznor, we wouldn’t be talking about this film, we’d be laughing at the kind of people who did.

So, what is it about the thrillers of Brad Anderson, David Fincher, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock that pack that psychological punch? Why is it kind of cool or affecting to realise, time and time again, that what we’ve been seeing is somebody’s delusion? Well, film is a highly subjective medium. Not in the “art is subjective, man” sense of the term, but in the way it taps into the idea of subjectivity – how we see, feel and know the world. As critics like Laura Mulvey and Todd McGowan point out, the appeal of Hollywood storytelling rests on being made to forget that you’re watching a film. You disappear, instead, into the film’s subjective world, as if it weren’t made for your consumption. Art film goes the other way, making damn sure to keep you out of the loop, reminding you that the whole thing is fake with a capital ‘F’.

But the best thing about psychological thrillers is that they can do both – the fact that they’re fictions is what drives their narratives. Every little thing in The Machinist works towards the construction of a delusion –trauma, repetition, re-imagination. Everything is almost mathematically plotted to refer to Reznick’s trauma – fish heads, car chases, hit and runs. Everything appears twice, everything is doubled – Reznick and Ivan, Stevie and Marie etcetera. But most importantly, in order for Reznick to work through his delusions he has to forget that they’re fictions, and to forget why. When the film pulls the ripcord on the whole “It was all in his head” thing, it suddenly resolves too quickly. But the build-up, and the tenor of Reznick’s delusional world, is worth remembering.

So The Machinist plays like Lynch without the silliness or Fincher without the savvy. The narrative, as I’ve suggest, is kind of pedestrian if you’ve seen one too many thrillers. But the cinematography and sound design are highly competent, drawing on the psycho-noir textbook to create a modern world where nasty things can happen. We get a lot of little shots that establish a very contemporary mindset  – street signs with ironic double meanings, fixations of coffee cups and glass bowls, pretentious use of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. But the film goes the full Kafka in its industrial sequences, set inside Reznick’s workplace – we get a very Lynchian sense of the danger and uncanniness that haunt machine and machinist alike.

As in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the hero finds personal salvation by imprisoning himself. As in Kafka, his world is already full of little prisons – mental, technological, cultural. We’ve seen this kind of film before. But it is fun to forget.

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Bridesmaids (2011)

The classic Judd Apatow romantic comedy formula centres on a close friendship threatened by a romantic involvement, the question of growing up and moving on from one stable relationship to another. The homoerotic subtext of this (see also: every Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film ever made) has already been handled in 2009’s I Love You Man, so Bridesmaids is free to play off this formula without leaning on knowing winks and gay jokes. The combination of the Apatow ‘80s comedy redux’ sensibility and open-ended SNL/The Office skits results in one of the cleverest comedies to come out this year.

Annie (Kristen Wiig) can’t get her shit together, something that becomes readily apparent as she struggles to function as Matron of Honour to bestie Lillian (fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph). Unhealthy relationships, a thwarted dream-business, and the threat of losing her best friend to some guy – Annie’s life is textbook romantic comedy, yet Wiig play the protagonist as both snarky and naive, unlikeable yet identifiable. The film’s best scenes stem directly from her performance, the classic neurotic who loses her train of thought, says the wrong thing and backtracks to a place far beyond the point. So much is revealed through slips of the tongue or avoided confessions that we get a tremendous sense of character in each scene, the desires and fears bubbling under the surface, that we can’t help but identify with Annie’s absurd crisis of communication.

Rounding out the cast is a range of strong women performers, whose backgrounds in TV comedy make them perfect for the slow-burning tone of Bridesmaids. The Office’s Ellie Kemper plays the naive foil to Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey as the insufferable newlywed Becca and cynical mother-of-three Rita respectively. Their energy alone makes for some of the most hilarious vignettes that sadly disappear as the film progresses. Mike and Molly’s Melissa McCarthy plays Megan, a foul-mouthed, ridiculously self-assured character who becomes instrumental in Annie’s third act resurrection. And Australia’s own Rose Byrne is delightfully villainous as Helen, the new-best-friend/ego-Ideal who stokes the fires of Annie’s insecurities.

Bridesmaids is a film of neat and not-so-neat doublings, right down to the two male love interests. Jon Hamm seems to relish playing the handsome douchebag in everything new he does, and in this film he’s almost a femme fatale in his ridiculousness. Officer Rhodes (Irish actor Chris O’Dowd) comes off a little wet or undeveloped by comparison, yet the romantic-comedy trajectory invariably makes him likeable and makes for a tidy, happy ending.

Again, the real strength of Bridesmaids is the way in which the standard rom-com formula serves as the foundation for a series of escalating set-pieces – like all classic comedies, it’s one to be remembered not for its narrative as a whole, but for all the memorable jokes and situations that crop up inside it. Though films of this nature necessarily drag in the third act, as the comedic despair gives way to resolution and reconstitution, Bridesmaids generates enough good will and laughs slow-burning and belly to carry itself from rendezvous to ring.

90/100

Classics: The Graduate (1967)

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is a peculiar film, and four decades of pop-culture accretion hasn’t changed that. The film serves as a template for every second-rate indie coming-of-age story you’ve ever seen (including Orange County, Ghost World, and the most insidious offender, Garden State) as well as inspiring classic parodies in Wayne’s World 2, the Naked Gun series, and every single film by Wes Anderson. In fact, I move that the “protagonist gazes at the sky from the bottom of a suburban swimming pool” trope be officially and vigorously banned from all scripts, scriptwriting classes and undergraduate diaries for the next two decades.

Approaching the film in 2011, what is the film’s continuing appeal? Is it a slice of 1960’s socially-aware satire? A particularly well-crafted piece of cinema? Or a film that, by playing with classic Hollywood romance, anxieties of modernity and almost-ridiculously Oedipal energies, becomes a fascinating look at love and subjectivity?

The film is definitely the first two – as the earnest, badly-mixed strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ kick in for the first of too-many times, we can’t help but feel suspicious towards those damned adults and their orthodoxies, man. Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock resonates as a kind of disillusioned anti-hero of the sixties, despite the fact that he seems to have never heard the word ‘counterculture’ in his life. Even as ‘Scarborough Fair’ plays for the third fucking time, the film’s story of love affairs and sinister emotions is always couched in politeness, routine, pretence. There’s no such thing as a ‘free love’ in WASP-y Los Angeles. This is not a film about discovering new ways of seeing the world; it’s a film about dealing with the ways in which we already see it.

Ben’s identity crisis is rendered through a range of inventive cinematographic techniques. The idea of ‘seeing-through’ – perspective shots that move from foreground to background, often framed by fish tanks, windows or natural lighting – is highlighted in the film’s most memorable scenes. Ben Braddock behind/inside the fish tank, or staring through the surface tension of the water, or banging on plate glass at the First Presbyterian. Hoffman plays the lead with a detached, narcissistic dissociation from the world around him. But the character is likable because he’s iced in – despite wanting a connection, he can’t form one.

The most playful sequences of this type revolve around Ben’s first hotel rendezvous with MILF par excellence Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). In the hotel bar, she receives a call from Ben, who asks her to look around. As the depth of field increases, we see Ben, through a window, inside a phone box, nervously staring back as if still in his tank. Later, as Ben waits for Mrs Robinson in his hotel room, the camera pans to follow his neurotic efforts to ‘set the scene’ – opening and closing the blinds, turning on the bathroom light, brushing his teeth (with his own toothbrush!). The emotional struggles between Ben and Mrs Robinson, particularly in later bedroom scenes, continue to centre on this battle for the light switch.

In these scenes, too, we recall The Graduate’s greatest strength – an unflinchingly comedic command of dialogue. Adapted for the screen by comedian Buck Henry (co-creator of Get Smart, and Liz Lemon’s father on 30 Rock!), the script crackles today with absurdist punchlines (“Plastics!”), melancholy reveals (“Art!”) and understated social satire (“Agitators!”). The film is best during these extended conversational set-pieces, where the method performances truly pay off. In the “art” scene, for example, the emotion is wrought by an on-again/off-again lamp (half of the conversation occurs in total darkness), the two leads dressing and undressing, and about three camera angles. The dialogue is both candid and theatrical, as Ben searches for some conversational code with which to relate to his lover – whatever it is, it isn’t art. The swing between hilarious and morose is often disorienting, but that’s part of the film’s charm.

The other part, of course, is the web of Oedipal associations and correlations between the main characters. The Robinsons are a permissive, sinister double of the Braddocks, and Ben’s inability to relate to his mother, Mrs Robinson, Elaine and the world are shown to be coextensive. Mr Robinson in particular is a weird inversion of a father figure, all high-spirits and authorisation, at least until his peace and permission turns into passive aggression (emphasis on aggression). And the film’s profoundly ironic climax – in a fit of youthful defiance, Ben Braddock accomplishes exactly what his parents wanted him to do – there is less of a break from nuclear orthodoxies as a melancholy confirmation of them.

But The Graduate persists as a classic, not only because of its historical, cinematographic and psychological dimensions, but because it is still a fucking funny piece of film. Dustin Hoffman would go on to play an array of classic and comedic characters on the strength of the film’s success. Now preserved by the US National Film Registry, The Graduate’s iconic status to contemporary viewers comes from the way in which its humour seems to call out from another time, inviting us into a sixties both swinging and neurotic.