July 2013, arsenal cinema

The Real Eighties – Neo Noir

GLORIA, 1980 (© Österreichisches Filmmuseum)

The standard narrative of decline would have it that everything went wrong in the 80s: a turning point when New Hollywood, American film art's last hurrah, gave way to the high concept desert of the present, a transitional decade in which American cinema realigned itself with President Reagan's neoliberal agenda. The Austrian Film Museum sought to challenge this narrative with the "The Real Eighties" film series curated by the Canine Condition, which is unafraid to side with the Hollywood mainstream as it sees fit. From July 4 - 31 we present selected films from the program with a focus on thrillers in the film noir tradition.

BLOW OUT (Brian de Palma, USA 1981, 4.7. with an introduction by Thomas Groh & 19.7.) A early highpoint of the baroque eighties style: Brian de Palma’s deconstructivist thriller Blow Up filters a variation on Michelangelo Antonioni through a Hitchcockian sensibility, creating in the process a unique film technical extravaganza in which a new treat can be discovered in every single frame. While it is a photo that sets up the unstable trail of a crime in its film historical forebear, the mystery is initially transposed to the soundtrack in de Palma’s film. John Travolta, one of the greatest stars of the time following the international success of Saturday "Night Fever" and "Grease", plays sound engineer Jack Terry, who happens to "overhear" a car accident and ends up hearing something oddly jarring in the process. He is soon on the trail of a conspiracy for which cinema offers the only means of decipherment: 24 lies per second. The ending provides one of the most cynical final payoffs in film history.

MIKE'S MURDER (James Bridges, USA 1984, 5. & 22.7.) A re-discovery: the studio executives at Warner Bros didn't quite know what to do with this enigmatic neo-noir, which feels more like a late New Hollywood auteur film than the Debra Winger star vehicle it was likely commissioned as. Winger plays Betty Paris, a young woman who falls in love with her tennis coach and discovers a criminal conspiracy upon his death. The first cut of the film was narrated backwards in the style of Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and deemed so outrageous by the studio executives that they had the material re-cut over an entire year. The final version of MIKE'S MURDER still remains a film about a world torn apart by existential insecurities – and an undeservingly forgotten entry in the psychological cartography of Los Angeles.

GLORIA (John Cassavetes, USA 1980, 5. & 29.7.) This studio production by John Cassavetes shows a greater affinity for genre and popularism than nearly all of his other films, yet still remains full of bewitching idiosyncrasies. Former Mafia broad Gloria, played by the great Gena Rowlands with her uniquely elegant brittleness, gets mixed up with a young boy whose parents were killed by the same criminal syndicate that she herself used to belong to. As the situation escalates, the film repeatedly traverses Cassavetes’ all too familiar economy of affect. GLORIA is also a flight through New York at the start of the 80s, dirty, prosaic and unredeemable, all accompanied by a grandiose and excessive score by Bill Conti.

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (Ridley Scott, USA 1987, 6. & 27.7.) Another underrated genre gem about brittle masculinity and the dark recesses of 80s high-gloss visuality: police officer Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is tasked with protecting (Mimi Rogers), a high-class blonde who was witness to a Mafia murder and whose life continues to be in danger. She stands in stark contrast to the working class brunette in Mike’s marital bed (excellently played by Lorraine Bracco). Yet Keegan is unable to resist temptation for all that long... The technical brilliance with which this classic noir plot is implemented is typical of Ridley Scott; the baroque design of some of the suspense scenes is reminiscent of the Italian gialli of the 70s and the hall of mirrors finale is a small masterpiece. Yet one does not perhaps expect to see such precisely observed details of everyday life in the British director’s films, which give the film and its characters a depth also sociological in nature.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (William Friedkin, USA 1985, 7.7. with an introduction by Nikolaus Perneczky & 24.7.) Friedkin's perfectionist counterfeit money thriller dives right into the 80s aesthetic in order to highlight its dazzling extremes. It's not just the narrative that's about processes of forbidden duplication: the film itself also generates various confusing doublings and characters that mirror one another, all of them appearing to fan out from infernal counterfeit artist Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) in sich a way as to reveal the secret complicity between the bad guy and the director. While Masters' opponent, fanatical secret service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), may carry all the insignia of a hero, yet his compulsion for death makes him – by the unbelievably intense car chase sequence at the latest – into perhaps the darkest character in the film. Masters vs. Chance thus provides a battle for life and death between two mirror images.

BREATHLESS (Jim McBride, USA 1983, 8. & 19.7.) Richard Gere was one of the quintessential stars of the 80s and their first years in particular, his face perennially exuding a slight sense of melancholy. He takes on one of his best, most playful roles in BREATHLESS, Jim McBride’s reimagining of Jean-Luc Godard's "A bout de souffle". The poses made by small-town crook Jesse Lujack are just as difficult to separate from the feelings behind them as the (cinematic/comic) backdrops are from the urban space they portray, as the city of Los Angeles is transformed again and again into its own comic book specters. Gere and McBride do not kowtow to the cinephile cult value of the original, but rather charge headlong into the brightly colored pop culture of the day. While critics took umbrage at this at the time, today it’s all about rediscovering one of film history's great picaresques.

NO WAY OUT (Roger Donaldson, USA 1987, 9.7. with an introduction by Lukas Foerster & 27.7.) The most frenetic films are often hidden behind the most generic titles. NO WAY OUT, a remake of classic noir "The Big Clock" by underrated genre craftsman Donaldson, is a political thriller which blows its fuse early on, starting with the first exchange of glances between the entirely impulsive Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) and giggly aficionado Susan Atwell (Sean Young), and never thinks to replace it. The film's fast-paced second half takes place almost entirely within the Pentagon where it soon becomes impossible to distinguish between political and erotic desire. It concludes with a breathtaking payoff that turns the rules of paranoia cinema on their head with outrageous nonchalance. 

AT CLOSE RANGE (James Foley, USA 1986, 17. & 31.7.) is a stridently dark piece of genre cinema about the relevance of the social: Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) wants to join his father's (Christopher Walken) gang, but soon enters into bloody competition with him instead. The provincial band of criminals whose story AT CLOSE RANGE tells has nothing glamorous or even merely romantic about it. Rather than drawing on apologetic gestures of excess, Foley relies on the feverish intensity of a life lived outside society. (Lukas Foerster, Nikolaus Perneczky)

Thanks to the Austrian Film Musuem / Regina Schlagnitweit.

May '16