Author: Marc Magill

Marc Magill (@NotRemarcable) is an author and satirist who lives near where they filmed "A Kestrel for a Knave". He hosts the Against Nature podcast with UK painter Ethan Pinch. You can also find his short movies on TikTok @thrillkill3r, and his stand-up on TikTok @totalmarcness
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A dreaming "Billy Liar" from John Schlesinger's 1963 film.

The Intoxicant: John Schlesinger’s “Billy Liar” (1963)

The British New Wave receives less attention than its contemporaries – that’s a disappointment, but one mitigated by context. The French new-wave was loosely characterised by style and escapism, the American new-wave is similar in that way. These examples are painting with broad strokes, but it’s undeniable those counterparts have their own special blends of herbs and spices. The premise of them remains the same: a rejection of old cinematic convention in favour of a new, visionary approach, imitated by their narratives of bucking status quo.

It can be argued that the new wave of any culture is broadly representative of the outlook of its youth, once again painting in broad strokes here. But England was peculiar, our counter-culture was prone to mishaps, and the status quo was harder to shift. In that way, John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar is one of the most quintessentially English, and new wave, films of its time – it reflected back a desperate image, for a youth that was always ground beneath the heel. […]

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A screenshot of the Safdie Brothers' "Heaven Knows What", featuring the two main characters in a delicate moment.

Long Concrete: On The Safdie Brothers’ “Heaven Knows What” (2015)

It used to be that films about NY tweens getting high and fucking each other were all too predictable, a paint-by-numbers indie movie. In those days it was a romantic ideal – scattered souls, moving against the flow of conformity and savings-accounts living for hedonistic pursuits, like a mangy Tropic of Cancer. Eventually Cannes and the rest of the festival circuit moved inexorably onwards in pursuit of the contemporary. But those addicts remained in the streets and parks of NYC, now not only destitute, but culturally unfashionable.

Arielle Holmes was a homeless user when she encountered Josh Safdie. Before Josh’s and his brother’s sleeper hit Good Time or their breakout Uncut Gems, they were fresh from a couple of flops and a reasonably successful sports documentary. In the course of casting what would become Uncut Gems in the Diamond District of Manhattan, they met Holmes soliciting change. They got talking, and they saw potential in her adroit way of describing her experience. The decision to not only adapt her life but also cast her is a brave move, and somehow ends up avoiding exploitation.

The most direct comparison for Heaven Knows What is the Harmony Korine movie Kids, the most well-known of this archetype of subject. It’s undeniable that Heaven is a continuation of something that Kids started – the aromantic treatment of New York as a setting, a voyeuristic sense of glimpsing into fringe experience. However, Kids faced issues of glorifying the kind of momentary satisfactions that the addict lifestyle could offer, whereas Heaven Knows What feels like a spoonful of reality caramelised on a skillet. Kids draped itself in a trendy cultural subversiveness and had a fashionable cast of ne’er-do-wells, Heaven Knows What is anything but trendy, and its cast is dishrag ratty. Holmes is the eye-of-the-storm, implacable in some scenes and then gurning and twisted in others, she’s a weathervane for the downward momentum and a superb player. […]

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A photo of a smiling Sayaka Murata, author of "Convenience Store Woman"

Strange Peg: On “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata (2016)

It’s a certainty that anyone who has worked within a corporate structure has met this person. Doggedly ideologically committed to their workplace, no evidence of a life outside of that workplace. These people are often the object of rumour-mongering, of conspiratorial whispering behind backs. They are often excluded, as they violate the complex, phatic social signals and performances that indicate a neurotypical/psychologically average person. It gets especially strange in jobs of little power or advancement. Then it seems to fill an odd vacancy in a person’s chest.

The quiet tyranny of behaviour is innate – the idea that if someone conformed to our idea of a well-functioning, emotionally healthy person, then they would suddenly find themselves just that. This is what probably what the modernists called the human condition. But neurochemistry is complicated, so is trauma. Who’s to say what makes a healthy person? Should we just leave the out-of-shape pegs be? These are questions worth exploring, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman leaves an absence where a meatier, or braver, or more articulate text could fit snugly. […]

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A shot of a terrorist from Rainer Fassbinder's "The Third Generation"

Cops or Robbers? – On Rainer Fassbinder’s “The Third Generation” (1979)

Rainer Fassbinder is one of the critically important voices in 20th century cinema – in fact, he’s good enough to make a boy jealous. He is known not only for his rapidity in his process, but his uncanny ability to extremify the positive points of a movie while glossing over the unimportant features. Unlike his contemporaries Kubrick or Coppola, he wasn’t at all fastidious. He had a laid-back and European approach to his process, instead of the furious quasi-mysticism seen in a lot of American filmmakers operating in this period.

His films are characterised by an austere and stripped back quality to the visuals, one very much in line with the French new-wave. He is an heir-apparent of Brecht – his start in theatre gave him that edge, or innovation; he always stood out from Herzog and Wenders. He captures atmosphere through amazing attention to sound design – dialogue either blending into the overbearing noise, struggling against it, or coming through crisply from silence like the worst thing you’ve ever been told.

The visual magic of his cinema is that despite his subjects being audaciously simple, they are brought to life with a restrained formal complexity. Evidently, each film has a unique atmosphere, like a fingerprint, one established in composition and diegesis. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is domestic and melodramatic and its visuals reflect that, almost soap operatic, and paranoid. Satan’s Brew is an anti-humanist nightmare and farce, characterised by its unappealing, ugly compositions and palettes. […]

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A stylized image of Ladbaby, a UK video blogger.

Quiet Bloodletting: Tax Avoidance and the LadBaby Distraction

It’s 2022, and the UK has 4.3 million children in poverty and 49% of children in lone parent households are amongst that number. Many of them during the height of the pandemic had their free school dinners revoked. After campaigning by football player Marcus Rashford, the government U-turned on this decision, only to send out a “week” of those dinners that in reality were “Two potatoes, one tin of baked beans, eight single cheese slices, two carrots, three apples, two bananas, one small bag of penne, one tomato, three Frubes, two Soreens and a loaf of sliced bread”.

The scandal of one year can be old hat by the next, and completely forgotten by the one after. This is the case with the school dinners fiasco, which embroiled the UK government in early 2021 and is now almost completely forgotten about. The necessary thrust for writing politics can be in how it connotes a larger systemic inadequacy, or act of deliberate machination. And despite UK politics being a narrow niche, you feel compelled to untangle the web.

This article is a portrait of the apparatus UK democracy has assembled – an apparatus in which by covertly cutting services and tightening purse strings the government creates an urgent problem in living standards, and then seems to solve this crisis. However, the solution is worse than the original service, funded by charity/private sector companies, and often owned by Conservative affiliates. This is with the intention of tax-dodging on an enormous scale. The government then obfuscate this underhanded switch by publishing high-profile scandal and policy, ad infinitum. Then follows the inevitable sacrifice of a hapless Minister for Health and Social Care, or Education, and the damage is never undone, justice served. […]

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A stylized shot of Gene Hackman from The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

Fastidious Vice: On Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola gained his reputation through fastidiousness and dedication. Hearts of Darkness, the explosive behind-the-scenes documentary made partly in parallel and then in retrospect with Apocalypse Now, portrays a director with vision, but one wrestling with his own ego, pretentiousness and darker nature. His obsessive tendencies towards filmmaking are evident in a lot of his earlier works, culminating in Apocalypse Now, after which his filmog descends into nothing but laissez-faire mediocrity and stunning failure. This dramatic rise and fall could, and has been, attributed to the nightmarish production of the aforementioned Conrad reinterpretation.

The Conversation is an achievement foremost as a work of character insight, with Gene Hackman delivering a formidable performance as Harry Caul. Caul is an engineer who considers himself an artisan. His field is surveillance – specifically, the recording of dialogue between guilty parties. We open with him organising an impressive feat of monitoring on a young couple in a bustling city square, who seem to be concerned that the woman’s jealous and influential husband will off them if he ever finds out about their infidelity. The contract is for said jealous husband. Through using a sniper-scope and directional microphone, and several actors and hidden bugs, Harry manages to capture the damning evidence. […]

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A screenshot of Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog Way of the Samurai

How the World Rots: “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” by Jim Jarmusch (1999)

Jim Jarmusch. His filmography is complicated. Generally in his better outings his films tend to be uneven, lopsided; in Dead Man (1995), a promising opening and set-up degrades into predictability. Stranger Than Paradise (1984) manages to turn lacklustre set-up into rich commentary. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai alchemically alters a boring, hack set-up into something that draws power from its own predictability in character and setting – it manages to take all of the familiar elements of schlubby gangsters and badass hitmen, and it somehow manages to find sympathy in all of them while also dismissing them as ridiculous. Their ridiculousness serves a purpose, because in the world of Ghost Dog nobody truly understands each other.

Jarmusch is a Jim-of-all-Trades, master of very little. What is easy to admire is his rejection of tradition and accumulated wisdom, in pursuit of making something more reflective of his own sensibilities. This is the terrific contradiction of his filmog, in that there is very little to be found that is completely boring and also very little to be found that’s technically well-executed. It almost reads as a kind of brattitude. He insists on the filmic qualities taking a back-seat to his vision, but he doesn’t always have a clear vision of what exactly his vision entails. He’s said himself in interviews that he tries to communicate with a film, and coax it into telling him where it needs to go. This has worked twice in his career: Stranger than Paradise and Ghost Dog. Otherwise this is a recipe for neurosis taking over proceedings, and the wrong qualities being blown up to integral structural mechanisms (ala Dead Man, Paterson, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Dead Don’t Die, Coffee and Cigarettes). It is for this reason that the following discussion is mostly free of technical execution, as Jarmusch has to be read on his own terms in one of his few successes at what he is going for. As a quick note on his camera-ism, he manages to make the action somewhat fluid despite its absurdity – though, it ultimately fails – and the occasional scenes of pigeons flying about are nice. […]

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A shot from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

Importance of Movement: On Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957)

The difficulty in transcribing Shakespeare is in the stylistic qualities. Shakespeare’s characters and themes are endemic to culture, so a straight adaptation risks being old-hat. This necessitates either a gimmick like Baz Luhrmann’s insufferable Romeo + Juliet, with its .45 calibre thumb-biting, on the one hand, or potent cinematography on the other. Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō) by Akira Kurosawa is widely held to be the best adaptation of Macbeth, and is in the latter category of cinematic potency. While the context is moved to feudal Japan, the real elevation of its source material occurs in its ethereal, dream-like and unsettling atmosphere.

Adaptation can fall flat when the focus is purely on transferring the plot of the source material – what makes a great adaptation can be found in retelling a story using a different toolset and collection of stimuli. By translating a work of dramatic prose, you have to eliminate statements and replace it with implication, and texture. This is true in all the widely regarded great adaptations, from The Shining and Apocalypse Now to Naked Lunch. While keeping the elusive soul of the work alive, they can’t ever hope to imitate its manner of expression. That’s where the director’s own proficiency comes into play and becomes pivotal.

And this is where Throne of Blood shines – in its recognition of the vital qualities and the complete exerting of its own voice over the tertiary qualities. Kurosawa recognises the strength of acting required from each player and gives them ample room to manoeuvre. The camera floats lazily, some beautiful shots including the Lady Macbeth analogue, Asaji, walking from shadows with a basin of poison. By allowing a still and uninterrupted capture of an actor’s performance, it almost stimulates a different lobe of the brain from normal cinema-imbibing. There’s the unreal, and the real, and the highest achievement of the movies is to make the former feel like the latter. […]