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Along with madness and sincerity, drunkenness is one of the most difficult states for an actor to accurately emulate. The particular physicalities of being drunk – slurred words, uneven balance, rough spatial estimates – in reality always amount to more than the sum of their parts. Attitude beats action in this regard. It’s not enough to trip over the chair because you’re stumbling; a drunk person will take a second try, or make the fall worth it, or at least make sure that the chair isn’t upset. A bad drunken scene can undermine an otherwise excellent performance, just as a good one can elevate a shambles. There are a few actors worth mentioning for their different approaches to the art.
The grandfather of onscreen comedy drunkenness is Chaplin, who made his name acting drunk on stage and then developed his craft in cinema. The Little Tramp’s already eccentric mannerisms take on a wild opulence when under the influence, and Chaplin spares no opportunity to showcase them. One AM is particularly memorable, where a plastered playboy desperately tries to get to his bed but is confounded by his elaborate furniture and decoration.
Chaplin’s biggest modern disciple is Jackie Chan, whose early hit Drunken Master portrayed cultural hero Wong Fei-Hung as a student of drunken boxing whose fighting ability improves with every beverage consumed. Drunken Master 2 takes this brilliant conceit to towering heights, where an inverse ratio of skill and cognizance turn Chan into a slobbering maelstrom of blind precision. His climactic takedown of the villain – involving industrial-strength alcohol – is the peak of martial arts comedy performance.
Dominic West and Wendell Pierce stand out for their drinking-buddy turn as McNulty and Bunk in The Wire. They both manage a wilful irresponsibility that perfectly complements the world of policing; despite the hangover, they’ll just never stop. Another notable drunken duo is Elliot and ET from E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, with a scene that would frankly be great drunk acting for an adult, let alone a child and a puppet. Jaoquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are respectively unstable and arrogant drunks in The Master, a film so soaked in dodgy homebrew that it glistens.
This year’s The World’s End tracks an apocalyptic pub crawl from Simon Pegg and co., but the film’s smugness and self-reflection can’t rival the drunken antics of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are at their best there; the hilarious drunken electro scene captures the bold and pathetic nature of the post-pub hour. An honourable mention should go to the entire cast of The Saddest Music in the World, many of whom plunge into a gigantic vat of beer at some point or another.
Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining is drunken rage stripped of imprecision and imbalance. What’s left is the resentment, bitterness and liberty of the solitary alcoholic. A smaller but exceptionally moving lonely drunken scene appears in HBO’s Deadwood,where Brad Dourif, as the town’s doctor, roars a sad, whisky-fuelled lament to God. In a show where most of the characters are drunk most of the time, Dourif’s unrestrained anger over the Civil War forms one of the truest moments of inebriation.
The crown of acting drunk, though, has to go to Freddie Frinton. Frinton is known for one performance only – the eighteen-minute single-take 1963 TV sketch Dinner for One, which remains unknown in many countries but has bizarrely become a New Year’s tradition in others. Frinton plays James, ageing butler to the even more ageing Miss Sophie, who insists on having her 90th dinner party despite all the guests having died some time ago. It’s thus up to James to raise and drink each of their toasts, and he gets progressively more intoxicated with each course. Frinton’s performance, clearly influence by Chaplin, is a tour-de-force of physical comedy. He captures the various degrees of drunkenness – the more incapable he is of doing the job, the harder he works to do it. He proceeds with roundabout logic and doomed determination in a performance that is only successful because it is so recognisable to anyone who’s been under the influence.
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As a result of saying it can show anything, cinema has abandoned its power over the imagination. And, like cinema, this century is perhaps starting to pay a high price for this betrayal of the imagination – or, more precisely, those who still have an imagination, albeit a poor one, are being made to pay that price.
Weimar Germany was a period of huge contradiction. The ‘shock of modernity’ that thrust the country into rapid technological progress also delivered unforeseen economic crises. The machinery of rationalization was celebrated by many, including Hannes Meyer, who in 1926 wrote that ‘the straight lines of mechanical and scientific provenance’ were offering ‘palpable proof of the victory of human consciousness over amorphous nature.’i Progress was facilitated by scientific knowledge and mastery, offering routes to an ordered and liberal democracy. The advances of modernity, however, were received with ambivalence by some (it was this very democracy, after all, which saw the Nazis to power). Freud, whose theories typified much of the attitude of scientific ‘knowability,’ in 1931 called the treatment of German prisoners ‘a necessary expression of the brutality and the lack of judgement that govern our civilization today.’ii Though there was a significant upheaval of the conservatism of the Imperial era, the conflicts of Weimar Germany can’t be simplified as unfettered progress. The period has been described as one of sexual liberation; Richard McCormick, in particular, has argued for its emancipatory sexual politics.iii Of course, this idea is complicated by Foucault’s analysis of sexuality, which argues against a discourse of repression and that the frameworks of ‘repression’ in fact ‘installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy.’iv
Romauld Karmakar’s Der Totmacher (1995) depicts the conversations between serial killer Fritz Haarmann and Professor Ernst Schultze, which formed the basis of the state decision to execute Haarmann. These conversations engage with the contradictions of crime and sexuality in the Weimar era; Jay McRoy has given a compelling Foucauldian reading of the ways in which the film ‘links the socio-political mechanics of power with the creation of the deviant and, by extension, normalizing subjectivities.’v Here I will examine the film’s depiction of the processes of sexual subject-positioning, and its relation to crime and sexuality in the Weimar Republic. As a film structured around the collision between two figures apparently on opposite sides of legal, mental, and sexual spectrums, the film is concerned with precisely how those boundaries are established or transgressed. Olaf Möller has argued that the film’s basic set-up, in which these two men bond despite the discrepancy in their roles of power, depicts ‘civilization as essentially contradictory.’vi These contradictions, however, are part of the apparatus of power; it was figures such as Schultze, representative of the ‘medico-sexual regime,’ who sustained the viability of what Foucault calls the ‘truth of subject in the other who knows.’vii
Z is for Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
The outrageously prolific Tsui Hark has been keeping Hong Kong cinema popular and bankable for the past three decades, producing technically innovative action films with international appeal. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is one of his earlier films, and still perhaps his most striking. A fantastical Imperial China is the setting for this colourful, frenetic quest to defeat evil and bring peace to the land. Slapstick martial arts are combined with magnificent special effects to do justice to the bizarre stories fuelling Chinese mythology. It’s like a comic book brought to life; every costume, movement and set is bursting with imagination. Amidst it all is the effortlessly cool Brigitte Lin, giving grace and style to the enigmatic Ice Queen. Zu is a dreamlike, dizzying and constantly entertaining martial arts classic.
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Y is for Yi Yi
Veteran Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s final film seems to ask a question relevant to himself, his audience and his characters: what is the purpose of a camera? This intimate, unhurried epic then distills the question to simply what is the purpose? At least that’s what the members of the Taipei family at the centre of the film are constantly asking themselves as they navigate the quiet crises of everyday life. Composition and pacing haven’t been this precise since Ozu, giving an achingly poignant portrait of family life. Yang seems to be insisting on the value of art and observation – cinema can engender empathy and understanding, literally showing us what we have no way of seeing otherwise. This is elegantly illustrated by the eight-year-old boy who despairs that no one can see the backs of their heads, so goes about photographing them. Yi Yi approaches life gently but with a deadly serious sense of purpose and testament
Further viewing for Y: Yeelen
X is for Xala
The upheavals of colonial handovers in Africa created potential for a new wave of bold African cinema, though this promise was not always supported with the necessary resources. The most famous film to come from the post-colonial period is Ousmane Sembéne’s Xala. Opening with the expulsion of a foreign government, the film then shows the inability of a Senegalese elite to overcome corruption and European dependence – manifest in the main character’s literal impotence with his third wife. Xala is playful, and very funny, yet straightforwardly articulate in its outrage. Figures of authority are ridiculed by juxtaposition with the deftness of those they betray. It’s an important film because it manages to translate anger into an accessible story representative of common struggles, anxieties and passions.
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W is for Wings of Desire
Ageless angels watch over Berlin. Their is job to testify to human experience, but from a higher plane they can’t really understand how it feels to exist in corporeal form. Wim Wenders’ classic film is about urban networks of desire, knowledge and the desire for knowledge. The city’s inhabitants are made whole in their loneliness, defined by their needs – for food, music, coffee, conversation, and being seen. One of the angels is frustrated by his lack of these needs, so he falls to earth and falls in love. He meets Peter Falk, bleeds, rubs his hands together to make them warm, smokes a cigarette, makes a sound that echoes and realises that death is a small price to pay for a life of such sensation. A film full of wisdom, which provokes thought and feeling in tribute to real life.
Further viewing for W: Window Water Baby Moving, When the Levees Broke, Walking
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V is for Les Vampires
Tracing conventions and trends through the DNA of film history will inevitably throw up some key influential texts which have, directly or indirectly, helped dictate the course of cinema. Louis Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires is the mothership of the thriller genre, whose influence is still felt today. A winding plot follows the eponymous criminal gang whose sinister activity runs deep into the Paris underworld. What sustains the film’s power is how truly dark it is – episodes contain decapitation, corruption and devilish disguise as the scale of the Vampires’ organisation is revealed. Musidora is especially frightening as the murderous Irma Vep, who was the inspiration for the excellent 1996 Oliver Assayas film of the same name. A perfectly thrilling document of crime and conflict in Paris from one hundred years ago.
Further viewing for V: Vertigo
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U is for Upstream Color
A film every bit as esoteric as its title suggets, Upstream Color is the second effort from filmic factotum Shane Carruth. The plot moves through body-horror, romance and mystery, following the anti-meet cute of Kris and Jeff, two people with trauma in their past and an unusual psychic connection. The characterisation and performances are outstanding, but Carruth structures the narrative in a sort of free association style, using incidental sound effects as stepping stones or literally going beneath the characters’ skin. If the film asks for a little surrender of doubt from the audience, the reward is an immersive, visceral tour through the rhythms of growth and decay. This is a film that can’t be seen from a distance – Carruth submerges you like a pebble at the bed of a river. His delicate, attentive camerawork and droning soundtrack seem intended to overwhelm the senses. Like the mysterious organism at the centre of the story, you’ll feel like you have passed through a living system.
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T is for The Tree of Life
Like most earnest people, Terrence Malick is easy to ridicule. Over the course of his unique career his style has become increasingly ethereal, the camera often seeming to float in the air over forests and fields while characters stand mumbling profundities. The Tree of Life spares none of this potent ambition – this is a film about Life with a capital L. The origin of the universe is woven into small town life in Texas; what remains is an exploration into how we come to learn the ways in which we exist. It’s been dismissed as pretentious, but that seems unfairly disparaging for a film that pays such loving attention to the sensuous experiences of spectatorship. Light, colour, sound and movement have rarely been utilised to such rapturous effect. Malick loves the universe, and appears to be trying to capture God on film. He sees it in a shadow, a father, a nebula, a dinosaur, and a death. If he pulls it off, it can remind the audience to love the universe too.
Further viewing for T: This Is England, The Thin Blue Line, Tropical Malady
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R is for Rumble Fish
“Even the most primitive of societies has an innate respect for the insane.” These words, spoken in Mickey Rourke’s boyish hush, typify the youthful energy at the heart of Rumble Fish. The story of sibling rivalry and street gangs isn’t original, but Francis Ford Coppola gives such attention to every beat of the film that it becomes a symphonic experience. The characters’ slang, the roar of the city and Stewart Copeland’s unique soundtrack all build an immersive soundscape of wound-up frustration and time running out. Thankfully for a filmmaker dealing with Youth In Trouble, Coppola eschews social realism for heady expressionist noir, soaking the anonymous cityscape in the flights of everyday queerness in young life. Rumble Fish shows us a difficult world of rough surfaces and fugitive beauty.
Further viewing for R: Roger & Me, Robocop, Rushmore
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Q is for Quasi at the Quackadero
The massive impact of Pixar – whose success is down to narrative formula as much as animation technique – has been hailed as the dawn of a new golden age of animation. But while a few CG films have been great, most are just as dull and monotonous as their live-action counterparts. For real innovation, try this ten-minute short that looks like it was drawn with felt pens. Quasi the duck, his girlfriend Anita and their robot Rollo visit a time travel amusement park. Their trip is a colourful burst of animation history, where everything from Betty Boop to Fritz the Cat has been thrown into a 1970s roller coaster and served with a cherry on top. A short, sweet film that’s packed so dense with ideas that it threatens to burst at the seams.
Further viewing for Q: The Queen of Versailles
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P is for Punch-Drunk Love
There was a time when young cineastes would resolve their existential doubt with gloomy European cinema. Bergman, Antonioni and Tarvovsky made films in which characters would skulk around self-consciously bemoaning the burden of existence and the death of God. A lot of the Americans who watched those films grew up to make films themselves, of course, and decided that there’s no reason Hollywood couldn’t do the same. So we’ve ended up with possibly the most heartfelt and authentic depiction of a soul in anguish: a 90-minute romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. What speaks to today’s youth more than harangued businessman Barry Egan choking the line “I don’t know if there is anything wrong, because I don’t know how other people are”? Paul Thomas Anderson’s least ambitious and most successful film is a frantic reworking of Superman mythology, so giddy with life that the screen will occasion bleed into pure colour to complement Jon Brion’s euphoric soundtrack. Sandler, Anderson and Brion are three men who appear to understand exactly how difficult/wonderful/strange it is to exist (delete as appropriate). Punch-Drunk Love presents the case that love is the superpower we can all discover in ourselves.
Further viewing for P: Playtime, Pom Poko, Protagonist
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M is for Man Bites Dog
Meet Ben: raconteur, musician, man of the people, serial killer. The socially awkward humour of mockumentary is taken to extremes as a film crew follows Ben around Belgium. He bemoans the decline of social standards, recites poetry, eats with his family, and murders dozens of people. Benoît Poelvoorde gives a flawless performance as Ben, thrilled to be the centre of attention and desperate to come across as an intellectual free spirit; he’s a cross between David Brent and John Wayne Gacy. Initially a likeable host, Ben grows bullying and unstable, while the camera crew get more implicated in his crimes, with increasingly severe consequences. The film is rich with nuanced irony, cleverly painting cultural commentators as those who bemoan the excesses of society while fully indulging in them. So Ben can criticise architecture that isolates residents without mentioning that he kills them, or tell one victim not to be intimidated by the camera before scaring her to death. In the film’s final act, the filmmakers don’t shy away from the real darkness of violent crime, nor from making the audience feel uncomfortable for making Ben a star in the first place. A brilliant, funny and refreshingly thoughtful look at violence and media.
Further viewing for M: Mabou Mines Dollhouse, Modern Times, Moonwalker
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L is for Late Spring
Ozu sneaks up on you. His films are so poised and confidently rhythmic that you may find yourself crying at a character’s throwaway remark before you even process it. Late Spring is perhaps the most perfect example of his style, and has rewarded film critics with apparently endless analysis and rediscovery. Each shot has been scrutinised with the same rigour that the director clearly applied in its making. The plot, concerning a father-daughter relationship in post-war Japan, is familiar from most of his other films. Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara stars, in every moment radiant with her famous smile and thoughtful eyes. To watching her gleefully ride a bike or gently hide her tears is still a mesmerising experience. The film’s pacing and composition are, of course, impeccable. Late Spring contains a fragile melancholy about time, and provokes the kind of feeling usually experienced in solitude, through quiet reflection. It is the sadness of things passing, and the wrenching beauty in that transience too. Even contentment is upsetting, because time never changes, but under its tyranny nothing else stays the same. Cinema has the power to record things in time; we can testify to life’s beauty and witness its passing all at once. Late Spring is concise in its poetry, leaving an impression of rigorous yet impassive observation in time.
Further viewing for L: Land and Freedom, London, Léon
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