“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.


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.


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.

Source Code (2011)

From the mind of Duncan Jones (son of David Robert Jones AKA Bowie), the director of 2009’s sci-fi gem Moon, comes Source Code, another foray into quantum doublings, though experiments and downright professional storytelling. Whilst Moon played heavily on sci-fi classics to create its moody, isolated atmosphere, Source Code is an original approach to an action thriller, one that pays equal attention to its science-fiction pedigree and the emotional weight of its story. The film also avoids the storytelling pitfalls of its contemporaries (here’s looking at The Adjustment Bureau) to provide a compelling resolution, a rare commodity in films like this.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan, who finds himself reliving the last eight minutes of another man’s life aboard a train in Chicago. At the end of those eight minutes, a bomb detonates, killing everyone on board. At this abrupt terminus, Colter finds himself (as himself) in a downed chopper capsule, being debriefed by members of a nondescript military organisation. He is part of the ‘Source Code’ project, which, through some understated quantum technobabble, allows him to inhabit the last vestiges of a dead man’s brain – the final moments of a man who has died, as it happens, that morning. His task is to collect information regarding the bombing, in order to prevent an imminent second attack.

This setup, which calls to mind at least two episodes of Fringe, provides a foundation for several narrative twists (which I wouldn’t dream of ruining here), and a sustained, detailed thematic treatment of identity, memory and self-determination. Gyllenhaal inhabits his confused, reactionary character remarkably well, and it’s a pleasure to watch the different tonal shifts each time he enters the source code, armed with new information and attitudes. His actions aboard the train create new chaos-theory-style permutations, a different string of events each time. But this effect is never gimmicky, and it ties into a developing narrative – we actually care about the little changes in these doomed characters’ lives.

The little changes, and the little details that develop around the sci-fi premise, continue to reward and surprise the viewer. Effects, such as minor flickers in the source code or different takes on the same explosion, are tied effectively to emotional beats in the story. Unlike the safe, cyberpunk Matrix, the warping, nebulous source code is a site of uncanny fascination and dread. One particular effect, which relies simply on a jump between voice and text, is so laden with pathos that I found it startling. This is the result of equally strong performances by Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan as an obliviously innocent fellow passenger, Vera Farmiga as a reserved, though invested military liaison, and Jeffrey Wright as the ambitious, sinister programmer of the source code.

As the suspense builds, buoyed by the interaction of sympathetic leads, we get the sense of something crucial to sci-fi – relatable people encountering the unknown. The array of plot twists, none of which feels remotely cheap, keeps the viewer guessing alongside the protagonist. And the conclusion, which ties all of the loose ends whilst inciting the imagination with new possibilities, gives this film the mark of a high-calibre sci-fi.


Classics: Blade Runner (1982)

In a world in which memories are little more than self-structuring dreams, what is the value of a choice? This question plagues the android antagonists of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and ultimately comes to define Harrison Ford’s Deckard, who may/may not be a ‘replicant’ himself. Dreaming permeates the film, infusing the dystopian Los Angeles setting with melancholic fantasy – consider the inscrutable image of a Geisha girl selling Coca-Cola, the recurring motif of the unicorn, and the haunting score by composer Vangelis. In a world as bleak as Deckard’s, dreaming takes on a complex and crucial role – hardly surprising given the source text, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by everyone’s favourite sci-fi schizophrenic, Phillip K Dick. The dream-as-memory traps us, determines our fate, yet the dream-as-fantasy poises us to choose who and what we become.

The narrative of the film, which sees semi-retired ‘Blade Runner’ Deckard track down and ‘retire’ five rogue replicants, thematises the visual image – the opening shot of an eye reflecting the LA skyline, the flashing red eyes of the replicants, even the famous ‘Voight-Kampff’ test which depends on “involuntary dilation of the pupil”. The motif of “seeing”, or seeing-another-seeing (we are, after all, witnessing ourselves this back-and-forth), keeps us on our toes, scanning the mise-en-scene for clues that never materialise.

Because appearances don’t tell us a thing – the androids that mirror humans in appearance and childlike psychology, the sudden permeability of a photograph, even Roy Batty (Rutget Hauer) delivering his famous “Tears in Rain” speech: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” The constant recourse to the outside – off-world, outside of vision, out of the frame – contributes to our imagining of Blade Runner’s world, expansive and complex. Ridley Scott’s famous attention to detail doesn’t hurt, either. We re-watch Blade Runner more than most films, revelling in the little details, as if trying to see all that we can before our time runs out.

But how do we remember this (fictional) world? Infused with Vangelis’ electronic jazz, always soaked in sunlight or rain, with a plot in which Deckard seems to stumble upon his targets by accident? Though the narrative is in fact tightly structured, our movement between sequences is dream-like, unfashionably slow for a Hollywood picture, even unexplained (at least since Scott’s first Director’s Cut, which removed Ford’s underwhelming narration). We are given time to ponder the meaning behind each deceiving image, to consider its counterpoint in the soundtrack, to feel the dread weight of an Earth whose time has run out. The chanting, electronically-distorted voice of an Arabic woman in Vangelis’ “Tales of the Future” seems hollowed, since there are few stories left to tell.

And our tales of the past, recall, are quite possibly fake. The tie between Deckard and his replicant love interest Rachel (Sean Young) is the suddenly external nature of their memories. Rachel’s are implanted by the Tyrell Corporation, Deckard’s are somehow known by his fellow Blade Runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The impossible dream/memory of the unicorn, just like Rachel’s memory of a dead spider, are designed to “make them seem more human”, by both the fictional corporation and the director.

The hint of memory, the idea that it shapes the characters we see, is another of Ridley Scott’s self-reflexive techniques – we become so invested in whether Deckard is real or fake that we overlook his status as fictional. Just as the privileging of sight and detail is undermined by indeterminacy, the status of memory is made impossibly problematic. If Deckard’s memories are fictions (they are) they explain his motivations as the protagonist – they make him a killing machine. We assume so much of his history as Blade Runner, as he does, that it structures our understanding of the plot – a plot built around five executions. Just as the replicants are ‘shaped’ by their mortality and relationship to memory, Deckard as protagonist is defined by the dream-as-memory.

His relationship –and ours – to imagined ‘past’ and ‘future’ becomes the driving force behind the film’s conclusion. Gaff remarks: “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?” referring to Rachel, with whom Deckard leaves LA in the final shot. The cryptic nature of the comment suggests that Gaff knows what Deckard will do next – if he knows about Deckard’s ‘past’, then perhaps he can predict Deckard’s course of action in the future. But the film (at least, since the first Director’s cut, which removes the “happy ending” wherein Deckard and Rachel elope to the Overlook Hotel) leaves us hanging as to what happens next. Perhaps the Earth of 2019 is a closed system, where psychology and narrative are predetermined. But then, Scott suggests, perhaps not.

The Social Network (2010)

Despite everything I’d heard, read or seen on it, I didn’t know what to expect from David Fincher’s The Social Network going in. The acclaimed director of Fight Club and Benjamin Button helming Aaron Sorkin’s (TV’s The West Wing) adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, detailing the inception and resulting chaos surrounding Facebook – already a lot to anticipate, sure, but how on earth would it translate to film? Fortunately, both Fincher and Sorkin play to their strengths and, thanks to excellent performances throughout, The Social Network can be chalked up as another reason to be excited about film in 2010. The film is both perfectly-executed and thematically dense, without losing sight of the manic, ambitious characters involved.

Jesse Eisenberg (the thinking man’s Michael Cera) is Mark Zuckerberg, played here as a brilliant sociopath and magnificent bastard, whose social awkwardness begets perhaps the most pervasive phenomenon of the 21st century. With the help and funding of best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the thinking man’s Daniel Radcliffe?), Zuckerberg’s “the Facebook” spreads to hundreds of college campuses across the US, and the two enjoy an unprecedented, peculiar kind of rock-star popularity. There are two major problems, though, and they drive the film’s narrative – first, the Facebook was allegedly commissioned by a trio of high-profile Harvard players (Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, and Max Minghella) who feel cheated enough to sue. Secondly, following the introduction of Napster creator, the fluid Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, the thinking man’s… fuck it, Nick Carter?), co-creator Saverin finds himself screwed out of his cut, and sues.

Thus the story is revealed as a retrospective/legal proceeding, which builds the tension in ways you might not expect. We see the battered egos of the young men involved (women are tellingly absent, playing ciphers to the psyches of Zuckerberg and company) as the series of alleged betrayals and doubletalk build to crisis point. Eisenberg and Garfield play a perfect bromance-gone-wrong, eclipsing the Winklevoss case in the film’s third act. Meanwhile, Timberlake is perfectly cast as a kind-of-empty, altogether different kind of sociopath, playing foil to Zuckerberg’s dreams of, well, stardom. Sean Parker is played here as a paranoiac, ultimately unreliable partner, but there’s enough of a sense that he, too, is caught in this game of faces and spaces.

This is the meat of The Social Network’s narrative – the idea that the representation (ie, Facebook) can overtake the reality (ie, real life) and the fallout that results when this goes too far. In an early sequence, we are treated to a montage that twins computer coding and web browsing with its real-world referent, in this case a swinging fraternity party. So the insidious question becomes: can the virtual replace (or, very importantly, repair) the reality of half-glances, tequila shooters and general self-confidence? I’ll leave that one to the real sociopaths.

Instead of being a case study of business-gone-right, The Social Network becomes an allegory for some great work of art, and like Freud always said, all the greatest works of art can be traced to a perhaps-impressed girl somewhere. Thus Zuckerberg’s emotional malaise (brilliantly disguised behind ambition and Machiavellian douchebaggery) is rather neatly bookended by the brief performances of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, the one who got away, and Rashida Jones (from The US Office) as the stranger who says the right thing. In the film’s closing there is the hint, perhaps the prayer, that this Facebook thing (calling it public domain is an understatement – Facebook became the public domain) can offer some hope to its creator, some kind of reconciliation. F5, F5, F5…

Behind this well-crafted story are two distinct authors. Sorkin’s command of hyperactive dialogue is less Kevin Smith and more Woody Allen, that is, natural, stylised and sometimes surprisingly funny. Fincher, meanwhile, crafts a series of vivid, colourful impressions, utilising a sophisticated composition of shots and never failing to keep our attention without resorting to gimmickry. From the bleak, austere shots of Harvard, to the crispness of Palo Alto, with a range of high and low-end partying in between, everything coheres. Even the period is captured – the opening credits ring to The White Stripes lesser-known ‘Ball and Biscuit’, and damn it if 2010 hasn’t been the year for rediscovering White Stripes songs (see also, ‘Icky Thump’ in The Other Guys)… A final mention to Trent Reznor, whose work on the post-industrial score is never out of place.

So, having had no definite expectations, I emerge declaring The Social Network to be another top film of this year, another piece that captures the zeitgeist of this decade past. What this amounts to, considering also the adrenaline/whimsy of Scott Pilgrim, is a closer inspection of irony, detachment, representation – all the things we inherited from the postmodern 90s – and a movement towards whatever comes after. The potential for human connection and expression survives, not just in the hearts of the middle-aged men behind The Social Network, but in the generation that traverses that kind of network every day, without losing or escaping their identity.