Sherlock Pays Tribute to A Clockwork Orange

sherlock moriarty missme

The BBC’s massively successful Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman gave an amusing homage to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in Series 2 with Moriarty’s robbery of the British crown jewels set to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, as in the derelict casino fight and cat lady scenes in Kubrick’s film. It isn’t the only moment Andrew Scott’s performance of Jim Moriarty reminds one of Alex. Both clockwork Alexcharacters are ebullient psychopaths with a taste for music, style, and the dance of ultraviolence.

The only question I have is whether producers/writers Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss intended Andrew Scott’s BAFTA winning portrayal of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis Jim Moriarty to be a kindred spirit of Kubrick’s Alex, or if Andrew Scott brought that joyous, violent psychopathy to the role himself. Let’s hope we see Moriarty again soon….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hit Songs Squares Didn’t Realize Were About Drugs: Midnight Cowboy

midnight-cowboy-poster

Harry Dean Stanton, in the 2012 documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction:

“[singing] Everybody’s talkin at me…
–This is a heroin song, by the way. It was written by Fred Neil. It was inspired by Luke Askew, an actor.”

Luke Askew was a blues singer and actor who appeared in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), among many other credits.

Bill Paxton in an interview with AVClub.com:

“Luke was with Fred Neil one time, and they were stumbling around, they’d both shot up and were on heroin, and Fred Neil said to Luke, ‘Man, how do you feel?’ And Luke looked at him and said, ‘You know, everybody’s talkin’ at me, and I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’.” 

Fred Neil

Fred Neil

Everybody’s Talkin’, the theme song from John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), is performed by Harry Nilsson in the film. But the song was first written by Fred Neil and recorded by him in 1966. Nilsson covered the song in 1968 and the director chose it over Nilsson’s proposed theme: I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City. Nilsson’s cover of Everybody’s Talkin’ made him rich and famous. Fred Neil wasn’t interested in fame and retired from music in 1971.

 

Neil’s original version is better suited to the song: slow, sad, dreamy, and lonely:

 

Nilsson’s cover, which is the only version most people have heard, is faster and radio-friendly. It’s oddly upbeat, although that trait arguably fits opening of the film:

 

Bill Paxton on Luke Askew:

Luke Askew

Luke Askew

“[Luke Askew] had been a great actor, and he’d also been someone Bob Dylan first identified with when he went to New York and decided he wanted to play in the coffeehouses. He used to see Luke singing the blues… 

Most people think [Harry] Nilsson wrote that song, because he made a hit out of it in Midnight Cowboy, but Fred wrote that. [Sighs.] Luke Askew, man…”

 

From Easy RiderLuke Askew as Stranger on the Highway:

Billy: Where ya from man?
Stranger on the Highway: Hard to say.

Stranger on the Highway: I’m from the city… Doesn’t matter what city; all cities are alike.
Billy: Well, why’d you mention it then?
Stranger on the Highway: ‘Cause I’m from the city; a long way from the city, and that’s where I wanna be right now.

Stranger on the Highway: [giving Wyatt some LSD] When you get to the right place, with the right people, quarter this. You know, this could be the right place. The time’s running out.

Bad Cops, Good Drugs and Self Destruction: If you like FILTH, you’ll love BAD LIEUTENANT (1992)

Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a film about your average cop: a corrupt headcase with a gun who was born to be a criminal, but turned out to be a late developer. If you like James McAvoy in Filth, you’ll love Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. This cop knows how to mix his drugs. He’s also good at mixing his drug taking with a lot of stealing, drug dealing, screaming, whoring, and hard drinking. He does have some problems with gambling, though.

Ferrara is always willing to go to dark places, and in Harvey Keitel he found an actor who could go all the way. This NC-17 B-flick full of drugs, degeneracy, wild nihilism, suicidal apathy, horrific rape, and total self destruction is such a beautiful train wreck to watch that even Roger Ebert thinks it’s wonderful. But it’s not the subject matter that makes the film: it’s Harvey Keitel. The parallels to Jon S. Baird’s Filth (2013) are striking, specifically James McAvoy’s reach-out-and-choke-the-audience performance.

This is one bad lieutenant

Harvey Keitel plays the titular and unnamed Bad Lieutenant, the baddest of bad cops, who makes McAvoy’s Filth corruption seem like schoolboy pranks. Keitel pulls the entire film up from its b-movie vibe. The cinematography is so bad it makes shot/reverse shot look nouvelle vague. But it doesn’t make any difference at all while you’re watching it. The visceral shock of Keitel’s acting makes everything else peripheral. See the stills? They don’t come close to matching the intensity of the performance at 24 frames per second. Rogert Ebert wrote, “Harvey Keitel plays this man with such uncompromised honesty that the performance can only be called courageous…” That’s a delicate way to put it. It’s better described as a performance of beautiful insanity.

Gambling his life away, lying, conning, thieving, stealing evidence, selling drugs, robbing criminals, sexually assaulting teenagers, snorting cocaine, smoking crack, smoking heroin, shooting heroin, shooting at people, shooting at car radios, and drinking to oblivion in a naked stupor while whoring with bondage hookers: this Bad Lieutenant is far too busy tearing his world apart to photocopy an image of his phallus just to pull the department secretary.

BAD.LIEUTENANT-(NC-17.RATING).avi_snapshot_01.30.07_[2014.05.13_04.56.38]Now, if you’re here for the existential nihilism like me, I have to warn you: it’s not really the elusive nihilist film you’ve been searching for, because like most screen nihilists, this Bad Lieutenant comes with a twist. Unlike most filmmakers who deal with nihilistic characters, however, Ferrara’s lens never really makes judgments. The camera just watches. And this is one hell of a spectacle.

If you want to see a more phillosophical brand of nihilism in action, check out Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), whose lens is somewhat judgmental but leaves things open to interpretation. Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971) glorifies Michael Caine’s nihilist antihero. Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) is closer to the philosophical mark, and David Thewlis is as mesmerizing as Keitel. Finally, another worthy Ferrara film is King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken as gangster antihero.

Ferrara is currently filming Pasolini starring Willem Dafoe as the infamous Italian poet, critic and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in a portrayal of his final days leading up to his mysterious murder. Let’s hope that film gets released because if there ever was a great cinephile biopic in the making, it’s a story about Pasolini.

Love, Death and Suicidal Blood Junkies: Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a great drug film. Atmospheric, romantic,
doomed. Really, it’s the allegory of a tortured artist, but the drug metaphors are constant and in keeping with that theme. Imagine what being a vampire would really be like. Lonely and sad, you watch ordinary human beings (the zombies) destroy themselves and their world, making the same mistakes century after century. So you isolate yourself. only lovers left aliveThe world falls apart around you, while you sit like a junky Buddha, filled to the overflowing by thousands of years of knowledge, creativity, and dead heroes. Unlike real-life Zen philosopher Nan-in, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) can’t empty his cup. The misery spills everywhere. So he stays still, composing music he wants as few people to hear as possible but is compelled to record. He’s surrounded by the ephemera and detritus of a thousand past lives and his walls are covered in portraits of his dead heroes. He explains his artistic depression and isolation to his vampire wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton): “It’s the zombies I’m sick of. And the fear… of their own fucking imaginations.”

But scoring clean, pure blood in the 21st century doesn’t make for a fun life, either. You have to get the good stuff – medical grade type O negative, available only from crooked doctors. “Now they’ve succeeded in contaminating their own fucking blood. Nevermind the water.” Like junkies, they drift through the night, trying to score, passing the alley onlyloversleftalivebloodjunkyshadows of Tangier dealers who have nothing to offer them, and in the midnight midst of the empty ruins of post-apocalyptic Detroit. Travelling anywhere is a nightmare of organizational set-up to maintain blood supply and avoid the daylight. The blood drinking scenes are performed with junky ritual. The euphoria hits and their faces are shown in close-up, falling back into oblivion in that trademark shot that has come to represent the hit. And, of course, as with junkies, the zombies wouldn’t want them even if they knew they were there.

This is Jarmusch, so there’s no three act plot. But the film is so atmospheric, you can smell the guitars, antique electronics, the antique clothes. The soundtrack is fantastic. It will grow on you after you leave the theater. So will the film. I didn’t like it at first. The intellectual references are a bit forced. You have to settle into what the film is trying to do. I thought there might be something missing apart from plot, but the film grows on you after you feel it. Like heroin.

Colonel Kurtz as existentialist philosopher in Apocalypse Now

Colonel Kurtz

An existential philosopher with a spider on his head

Colonel Kurtz is not insane. He’s an existentialist philosopher. A Nietzschean superman. Some of his speeches could just as easily be spliced into the works of Camus, Nietzsche, Sartre.

Like this speech, with its touches of Albert Camus’ The Plague and its darkened Nietzschean undertones:

“We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp…and this old man came running after us…they had hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And, I remember, I, I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out…and I want to remember it, I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond. A diamond bullet, right through my forehead. And I thought, my God, the genius of that. The genius. The will, to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. Then I realized they were stronger than we. … It’s judgement that defeats us.”

Or this existential nihilist sentiment that almost sounds like a post-modern Zarathustra:

“…what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly. Quickly. Awake. Looking at it. … I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid, lying morality. And so I am beyond caring.”

 

And that, by the way, is what junk withdrawal is like. Pure, existential horror.

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Sex, Drugs and Self Destruction: FILTH (2013)

Jon S. Baird’s film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth is finally out in the U$A, on demand as filth patrol kevin kellyof today, and getting what looks like a very limited theatrical release on May 30. It’s pathetic that this award winning film isn’t getting a wider release in America, and that it took so long to find a distributor in the first place.

For what it lacks in visual style and cinematography (despite all the Kubrick references and some Trainspotting style), the film makes up for in chaos and characterization. It isn’t as extreme as the novel. It isn’t “ghastly and unpleasant” as one reviewer put it. It isn’t as willing to take risks as the novel. But the script does make some wild and intelligent choices in adaptation.

James McAvoy is the real engine of the film. He has the suffering intensity of Michael Fassbender in Hunger combined with the gleeful insanity of Malcolm McDowell in Caligula. He looks like he put his soul into the performance and maybe even taken some years off his life in the process.

The script is better than the direction. Baird parses it down and makes the right decisions. He embraceFilths the chaotic self-destruction but tames it down and stylizes it. It’s not a bad approach. He just doesn’t go far enough. The climactic ending, however, is beautifully twisted and worth the price of admission alone.

Filth was considered unfilmable. It’s one of the few novels I have ever stopped reading mid-way through. The protagonist is totally unredeemable and Welsh’s talent at eliciting disgust is in high gear in this story. The novel actually made me feel dirty—a pretty impressive feat in my case. In other words, it’s pretty good. If you think the film is extreme, though, try the novel.

The greatest drug films: MORE (1969)

More, 1969, Barbet Schroeder — heroin chic

More, 1969, directed by Barbet Schroeder, cinematography by Nestor Almendros, Soundtrack by Pink Floyd

Isn’t this film exactly what heroin is like? Like washing up on a magical island in 1969 and living in a villa on the sea where you have group sex with hot European models on smack, drop LSD, and listen to the some of the best music Pink Floyd ever made, then lay out in the sun like a lizard and embrace the beautiful nihilism of a fantasy world where it’s better to set the controls for the heart of the sun than to fade away?

Well, in my head, at least, that’s exactly what heroin is like. I think this may be my favorite More_(film)drug film. More is the only film I can think of that simultaneously portrays the romanticism of heroin as a drug, and the opiate allure of actual romance—on heroin. The film is a play on the Icarus myth, and Schroeder uses female lead Estelle (played by heroin chic Mimsy Farmer) as a representation of the sun. Falling into heroin is like falling in love, and doing them both at the same time is life changing, life shattering, and usually does play out like a Greek tragedy.

Almendros’ cinematography here is dreamy, mythic, and alluring. He started out working with Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut. His direct shots of the sun in More are iconic and would have made Akira Kurosawa proud.

Unfortunately, Ibiza seems to have degenerated into a Eurotrash techno haven for drunken tourists and rich speculators who grabbed up all the Spanish villas as investments in the late 2000s. You can watch the decline on film, actually. From More (1969) to F For Fake (1975) to Ma Mere (2004).

This is a very cult film and, supposedly, junkies still make the pilgrimage to one of the key locations near the castle tunnel. I guess it’s better than heading to Leith.

Really, you should check this site out. Read about the film and see some more great stills: http://www.barbetschroeder.com/movies/more-1969/

The French trailer with subtitles: http://www.videodetective.com/movies/more/179856

more11_900_covershot

more27_900_fixmore13_900_welcometothe1960s

Meet Mark Renton, Junk Philosopher

Mark Renton

Mark Renton, Junk Philosopher

“…ma concept ay success and failure only operates on an individual rather than an individual and societal level. Due tae this failure tae recognise societal reward, success (and failure) can only ever be fleeting experiences for me, as that experience cannae be sustained by the socially–supported condoning of wealth, power, status, etc., nor, in the case ay failure, by stigma or reproach.

…Why should ah reject the world, see masel as better than it? Because ah do, that’s why. Because ah fuckin am, and that’s that… Basically, aw ah ask is that cunts mind their ain business and ah’ll dae the same. Why is it that because ye use hard drugs every cunt feels that they have a right tae dissect and analyse ye? Once ye accept that they huv that

Irvine Welsh, Junk Philosopher

Irvine Welsh, Junk Philosopher

right, ye’ll join them in the search fir this holy grail, this thing that makes ye tick. Ye’ll then defer tae them, allowin yersel tae be conned intae believin any biscuit–ersed theory ay behaviour they choose tae attach tae ye. Then yir theirs, no yir ain; the dependency shifts from the drug to them. Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ay sound mind etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir am failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind–numbing and spirit–crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked–up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.

Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem.” — Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, 1993

Philosophy of the Drug Film: Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within

Le Feu FolletThe philosophical drug film is a modern invention. Its literary equivalent dates at least to de Quincey. Most of these stories are biography, and whether or not you agree with the implication that there can be thoughtful purpose to addiction, even the medical community presupposes (in scientific answers) the philosophical question: “Why?” Unlike Trainspotting, with its emphasis on character, sensation and style (not unlike its source material)—or more didactic/exploitative predecessors such as The Man With the Golden Arm, Trash, The Panic in Needle Park, Christiane F. (ad infinitum/ad nauseam)—this rare breed of drug film distinguishes itself from its cousins by having something to say beyond didactics, grit, shock; even beyond characterisation and style. As of yet, most are literary adaptations; but film is a young medium.

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 (2011) might be called a film about social isolation (Trier has highlighted this theme in interviews) and self-reflection, but it is also that most curious kind of film: a philosophical film about addiction. Like Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), it is a contemporized adaptation of the 1931 French novella Le Feu Follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (published in English as Will o’ the Wisp). The novella is based on the life of Dadaist/Surrealist poet/dandy Jacques Rigaut, who promised in his twenties to commit suicide at 30, and was as good as his word. I have long loved Malle’s film, and would like to have updated the story again myself. So it was much to my surprise when, by chance, I came across Oslo, August 31, and scene by scene, noted the story it was based on, as well as the fact that there might not be much point in filming it again for a while in light of Trier’s excellent work. Thankfully, Trier abandons Malle’s outdated moral façade of alcoholism and returns to the source with heroin as the protagonist’s drug of choice. The literary tradition of these stories powerfully suggests there is no more philosophical drug user than the intellectual opiate addict, whose drug does not stupefy the mind, and whose lifestyle presents both a rejection of and by society that surpasses many plights of poverty and prison, let alone the plight of the common drunk.

The Fire Within

“We drunks are poor cousins, and we know it. Anyway, we fade away fast.”

Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet, in his best performance), is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to leave the comfort of his apartment at a luxury rehab clinic. He has made a conscious decision to end his life on July 21. In the meantime, he visits his friends one by one, taking a last chance to look for reasons to live. Sometimes he makes his visitations with the composure of a resurrected messiah, and at other times—when his emotions rise to the fore with alcohol, bonhomie (or lack thereof), or sexual attraction—he loses composure altogether. It is precisely these emotional experiences that present Alain with the opportunity to reconsider.

In a parallel life, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a heroin addict two weeks away from completing rehab, journeys to Oslo for a job interview. His is the converse of Alain’s journey. Anders comes to Oslo with reasons to live, after a sudden attempted suicide in the opening of the film, whereas Alain is giving life one last chance to convince him not to leave it. By this logic, Alain is seeking unconvincing and Anders convincing that he should try again. This departure in point of view is the defining difference of the film.

While Alain starts his journey with composure before encountering emotional experiences, Anders starts his journey with a baptism of sorts. He emerges soaking wet and in tears from a sudden attempt to drown himself. It’s this rebirth that shapes his journey to Oslo, in which he becomes the metaphorical ghost of the past making visitations upon his friends and his world. But Anders journey is really an internal one; more so than Alain’s. Anders’ rationality grows and his emotions subside on his journey in Oslo. He responds like a man tempted by trials, with increasing calmness and conviction. Were it not for the trip to Oslo, Anders may have simply made another miserable attempt to walk into the lake. Instead, his journey provides a quest on which he confronts his fears with realities. Whether the conviction he draws from the experience is morally justifiable is irrelevant. Life offers no simple answers. In a sense, these are coming-of-age stories where maturity is reached in the contemplation of suicide, which is to say contemplation of the meaning of life.

Anders and Thomas

Anders rejects the muddled arguments of the complacent intellectual.

Alain questions the purpose of the academic’s life

Anders exists in a world with more faults than he can accept. But he also refuses to absolve himself of blame, or to accept platitudes as substitutes for the honest appraisal of the world that he demands. His first visitation is upon his friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a university lecturer. Thomas, who looks as if he’s being haunted by a ghost, patronizes Anders with irrelevant quotations. He offers him stale platitudes and an invitation to complacency. Thomas offers an empty defense of life and the world. His head is “bursting with trivialities,” as his lecture culminates in a finale in which he explains how trivial his own existence is. When Thomas says, “Be a loser, if that’s what you want,” he means it literally and without sarcasm, and goes on to explain the boredom of his life, which is only interrupted by intermittent moments of little consequence. “I got a Playstation. We sit and play video games,” he admits, somewhat depressed. For all his ability to quote Proust with little or no point, it is Thomas who is the loser, and he suggests as much with his own total complacency. “Happy is probably an exaggeration, but it’s okay. You can get there if you want to.” To which Anders replies, “It’s not as if I want to live your life… It seems meaningless to me.” From Anders’ point of view, it is Thomas who is the ghost.

“I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?”

“I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.”

Anders assesses himself and the world with growing clarity on his journey. He calls himself stupid and unable to write, yet proves he is capable and intelligent in his job interview at the newspaper. He doesn’t avoid the interview: he takes the reasonable steps society might expect of him. But in the confines of the editor’s office, Anders can’t help but find more fault with more evidence of a vacuous world. At the editor’s invitation to comment, he criticizes the newspaper’s articles about HBO series and video games. The editor’s inane response: “People want something light.”

It is when the world seems unreasonable that Anders refuses to compromise. He won’t lie about his past, and is thus confronted by the editor’s palpable unease when the man finds he’s interviewing a heroin addict. But it’s Anders who rejects the editor, not the other way around. Emotional self-defense notwithstanding, Anders appraises the world with increasing rationality as the journey wears on. Rational appraisal gradually outweighs emotion and ultimately strengthens his convictions. Anders can’t accept a world where his arguably irrelevant past addiction would prevent him from being hired. He won’t even tell a harmless lie to compromise with such a world. He may set too high standards, but his pessimism and self-deprecation isn’t necessarily an emotional weakness. Anders is an intellectual, not an escapist. He reaches nihilism as a matter of logic. It’s hard to imagine Anders voice when Alain says to the object of his dislike, “I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.” Alain is the escapist who wishes he could go through the motions. Anders refuses on principle to try.

Alone in the crowd.

In a memorable scene, Anders sits in a restaurant observing the lives and conversations of those around him. At a nearby table a girl discusses a bucket list of things she would like to do in life: go skinny dipping, get a good job, make useful every day items—little things among the obligatory desires for fame and fortune. Anders will be confronted with some of these same experiences on his journey, and he will reject them all outright. To Anders they sound like ripples on the surface of time. He is looking for something more meaningful and real, but no one has it on offer.

So he ventures into the pretty, sunlit streets, where is alone with his thoughts among the bustling crowds. He recounts to himself what he learned from his parents. It is another inventory of delicate minutia, the small things in life that Thomas and the girl in the restaurant find worth living for. These memories, too, offer no real answers. Like the past, the future has little to offer him either. Children are a metaphor for this future in the film, and children consistently interrupt his journey, but Anders’ world-weariness never shows any cracks. To put off the search for meaning into the next generation is to simply spin a wheel back to the starting point.

The arc of the journey: emotion to reason, coming-of-age as coming-of-death

Anders is relatively self-assured about his ability to restrain himself from relapse if he chooses life. He simply doesn’t make that choice. His visit to the heroin dealer is a means to an end, not a thrill. He stands there bored, with contempt for the aimless life of the dealer who, like Thomas, has nothing to speak of but video games, aside from his depressing accumulation of electronics and shoes. Anders, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed. Perhaps he has a better fix on the meaning of life than those who have lived safer lives, and gone through less tragedy. What doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but it certainly opens your eyes.

As Anders says to Thomas, “It’s not about the heroin. Not really.”

Joachim Trier’s  Oslo, August 31 is available on DVD and Hulu Plus.

Louis Malle’s The Fire Within is available on Criterion DVD and Hulu Plus.