Thursday, June 24, 2010

Arthur (Gordon 1981)

Coming into Steve Gordon’s one and only directorial effort Arthur (1981), I knew only a few details about the film: first, that Arthur was the story of a wealthy alcoholic looking for love; second, that the title role pretty much defined star Dudley Moore for the rest of his career; and third, that the featured an infuriatingly catchy theme song from Christopher Cross. What I wasn’t expecting was a film that, while often funny, featured such a strong undercurrent of sadness, which Arthur very much does.

And God bless it for featuring such sadness, because Arthur ultimately gains an immense power that it otherwise would lack. Arthur is the story of Arthur Bach, an incredibly wealthy New York alcoholic who spends his time wandering the city with his butler Hobson (John Gielgud, who won an Oscar for his work here), looking for some form of companionship. With his childlike, alcohol fuelled antics embarrassing the family, Arthur is threatened with being cut off from the family fortune unless he agrees to marry Susan, the daughter of another elite family. Of course, it is at this time Arthur meets Linda (Liza Minnelli), a working class woman who captures Arthur’s heart.

While the plot is standard material, Arthur is set apart from similar films which try and carryout a fairytale storyline in a modern setting by embracing the harsher realities of the material, rather than attempting to ignore or mute them. Arthur’s themes include class conflict, escapism, poverty, and absentee parents, and while the central characters may be caught up in their dreams and fantasies, the film never succumbs to the temptation to provide easy, fantasy answers or false resolutions to the questions it proposes. Arthur is a deconstruction of storybook fairytales, particularly those of the Disney mould, as it showcases the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in finding ones’ fairytale “other half.”

Director Gordon accomplishes this by choosing to stand back and observe his characters, allowing them to exist with their flaws on full display rather than idealizing them. Given the immense flaws of his characters, Gordon’s approach runs the risk of allowing them to become fairly grating or horrific, but Gordon lucks out with his cast which manages to bring out the humanity in these people, even at their worst. This is particularly the case with Dudley Moore in the title role, as Arthur’s alcoholic, self-pitying man-child behaviour could have defined the character as a loathsome monster. Instead, Moore brings an innocence to the role that allows Arthur to be as charming and noble as his namesake, while never loosing sight of Arthur’s failings, such as his self-absorption and complete impotency when it comes to taking control of his life.

The fact that Arthur is likeable whilst still clearly being a incapable of looking after himself becomes the crux of the film’s deconstruction of fairytale narratives, as the audience is forced to both confront its desire for a fairytale ending while trying to understand why they want it. We want Arthur and Linda to get together, but what would such a relationship be when one is clearly unable to function in everyday life? If Linda marries Arthur, is she merely gaining a wealthy existence in exchange for being Arthur’s new caretaker? If so, and if we are rooting for this marriage to happen, are we in turn endorsing this conception of marriage? Lastly, if we are indeed supporting vision of Arthur and Linda's relationship, is the audience any better than that of Arthur’s father and grandmother who seek to marry him off to Susan? Are we not worse, given that Linda, like Hobson, will most likely allow Arthur to indulge in his current behaviour rather than force him to mature and sober up?

These questions underpin one crucial scene in which Hobson visits Linda, acting as a sort of fairy godmother figure by prompting her to go to Arthur’s engagement party in a dress he has provided. As written and directed by Gordon, the scene becomes something of a sales pitch from the ill Hobson towards Linda, trying to convince her that his position of Arthur’s “caretaker” is fulfilling. Gielgud plays the scene with an undercurrent of sadness from Hobson, an awareness that he is using his sophistication and intelligence to manipulate this woman into something she desires, but may not fully understand. It is a remarkable scene, and is mirrored later in the film when Linda shows similar awareness of the unlikelihood of Arthur being able to function as a provider when it appears he has been cut off from the family money, despite his grand planning and dreams. It is at this point Linda has become the new Hobson, complying with Arthur’s delusions for his “sake,” and Minnelli performs the scene magnificently.

Thus, the sadness that I described earlier is the sadness that comes from being aware of our willingness to go along with Arthur’s fantasy, but like Linda and Hobson, being aware of the truth of the situation. It would be so much easier if Arthur was unlovable, as he believes himself to be at one point in the film. However, we like Arthur, and as such when we see he and Linda drive off to their happy ending, it is with the bittersweet feeling rather than an uplifting emotion, no matter how great that Christopher Cross song is.

It is unsurprising then that audiences and critics were less than taken with the unnecessary sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) seven years later, despite the well meaning intentions of that film’s director Bud Yorkin and screenwriter Andy Breckman, creator of the television series Monk (Steve Gordon died shortly after the release of Arthur, though I have been unable to find a cause of death). That film takes the undercurrent of sad reality and forces it right into the audience’s face, and as such the complexity of the original is lost. As with many films in this era of Hollywood filmmaking, Arthur is being remade with Russell Brand set to star. While I wish the crew and cast of that film luck, I question whether they will nail the charm or complexity of the original. It’s not impossible, and the presence of Helen Mirren gives me hope. However, in a more politically correct era, I can’t help but feel that this new take on the material will turn it into the very fairytale that the original film sought to question. We shall see next year.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

UPDATE: New Review Tomorrow

New review will be posted tomorrow folks!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sudden Impact (Eastwood 1983)/The Dead Pool (Van Horn 1989)

(Working on three new reviews right now, plus some real life stuff, so here is a heavily re-edited "classic" review from my "Facebook only" days)

Ah, Dirty Harry. The name alone brings up images of Clint Eastwood in his prime, spewing out memorable quotes and dishing out violence against lawbreakers. The character is real pop culture phenomenon, moving beyond being a cinema icon to become something more abstract; a representative symbol of a cultural and political attitude.

It is this very cultural status that is investigated in the final two Dirty Harry films, Sudden Impact (Eastwood 1983) and The Dead Pool (Van Horn 1989). These films appeared after a sizable absence of Harry from the screen: Sudden Impact (Eastwood 1983) was released a full seven years after The Enforcer (Fargo 1976), while The Dead Pool would follow six years after Sudden Impact. The gap between the 1970s instalments in the series and these 1980s productions seems to mark a shift in the tone and look of these films, a change resulting not only from the evolution of film technology but from the awareness of the iconic status that the character eared after the earlier films. However, the manner in which this awareness manifests in the films Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool are entirely different, as one seeks to critically examine how the character reflects and responds to reality, while the other sets out to outright exploit the character‘s iconic status.

Sudden Impact appears to be star and director Clint Eastwood’s attempt to work out the problematic contradictions of the preceding films in the series regarding their political content and function as entertainment. The original Dirty Harry (Siegel 1971) was a straightforward police thriller about an officer who operates as a hero from a western rather than as a modern cop, who ultimately seems to lose his faith in the law and finds himself outside of society that doesn’t seem to like him. Dark, violent and featuring a lead character in Harry who, as portrayed by Eastwood, is pretty darn miserable, Dirty Harry is a film that is a fairly cynical commentary on American after the 1960s. It is this political nature of the film which gives it a powerful edge and transforms it into more than a mere thriller.

However, the 1970s sequels increasingly try to reintegrate Harry into society and mute his harder edges, attempting to make him into a seeming didactic voice of reason whilst simultaneously trying to make him seem less authoritarian. Thus, Harry’s violent streak in these sequels becomes less shocking as it lacks the aggressive political stance of the original. By The Enforcer, the series is little more than a collection of action set pieces with no point or commentary, with Harry as the gruff but loveable lead. Sudden Impact tries to bring back the seriousness of the original film while layering on an additional goal of pointing out the vapid nature of the preceding direction the series was taking, even criticising how commercial filmmaking hides the harsher realities of the subject matter in the name of entertainment.

The central thrust of the film is that a series of murders are being committed by a woman named Jennifer Spencer (Sandra Locke), who ten years preceding the events of the film was raped along with her sister by a group of men with the assistance of another woman. Spencer’s targets are those who committed the crime against her and her sister, one of whom is in San Francisco, where she exacts her revenge before returning to the small town of San Paulo where her remaining targets live. However, the San Francisco murder becomes the excuse for the SFPD management to get Harry out of town for a while, with the investigation taking him to San Paulo and directly into the life of Spencer.

The key to understanding the film’s themes and ideas is within the flashbacks to Spencer and her sister’s rape. The flashbacks to the rape reveal that the location was beneath a boardwalk near the town carnival and the sequence in the film is completely disturbing, jump cutting between the rape and the carnival as people carry on, not noticing the horror being carried out nearby. The crime is quickly covered up in a due to a set of circumstances I will not spoil here, but it leaves Spencer and her sister to internalize the event, with the psychological scars rupturing to the surface in Spencer’s art, a rupture which is mirrored cinematically as jump cuts to the flashback appear throughout the film.

For a large period of time, the grim narrative of Spencer’s revenge is kept separate from Harry Callahan’s narrative, in regards to location, plot and even Harry’s involvement in the case. As the film starts, Harry is once again in trouble and carrying out his usual brand of justice, causing an aging mobster to have a heart attack and getting firebombed in his car by a group of fairly moronic young men. San Francisco here is not the same dire city falling apart at the seams as in the original: it is now a playground where Harry and criminals of various sorts shoot it out, giving the audience what they seem to want. These sequences are exciting and often full of humour (Harry’s heart attack inducing visit to the mob boss at his daughter’s wedding is priceless), but they carry no weight when contrasted to the far grimmer narrative of Spencer.

As Harry moves into the town and into Spencer’s life as both an investigator and as a form of love interest, the fun and humour of the early San Francisco portions of the film give way to a much grimmer story. Spencer soon becomes the target of the remaining rapists and Harry finds himself in a world far from the over the top shootouts of San Francisco, entering into the grey areas of the law and his role as upholding it and questioning his own views and values. The audience is thus dragged away from any concept of pure entertainment, and forced to try and reconcile their own desires and the two halves of the film.

Eastwood’s staging of the final shootout at the carnival crystallizes the criticism of entertainment, as personal violation, rage, and the law confront one another and take on a perversity within the surroundings. I will not spoil the ending, but I will note that the film leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, as it should.

The Dead Pool however is an entirely different beast. Once again, the idea of Harry’s role in popular culture and as a figure of entertainment comes to the surface, only this time more overtly. In the film, Harry has become famous for his arrest of a noted mobster, managing to get good publicity for the police department for a change and leaving him the target of the media, a position he could care less for. Soon Harry is assigned to investigate the murder of a rock star, Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey in an early role), who was filming a horror film with director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson). It is soon discovered that Swan and members of his crew are involved in a game titled “the Dead Pool” where bets are made on whether or not the individual can correctly guess which celebrities will die in the coming year, and Harry’s name is on the list.

If Sudden Impact is an attempt to question the co-existence between entertainment and the complexities of reality, The Dead Pool is the exact opposite. It is a film which seeks to be pure entertainment and functioning as a love letter to the character of Harry Callahan and his status as cinematic icon. Oh sure, there are vague themes about the media, celebrity and social responsibility, but the film never lets these themes get in the way of basically letting Harry kick ass. Nor does the film allow logic, character development, or solid screenwriting get in the way either, as all is swept aside for over the top action, bad one-liners and police thriller clich├ęs.

More often than not however, this superficial approach works as a piece of sheer entertainment, if only because of some the bizarre elements that make it into the film. This includes Jim Carrey as a hard rocker lip-syncing to “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Harry being chased on the streets of San Francisco in his car by a radio controlled toy car with a bomb in it. However, the film’s presentation of horror films, filmmakers, and rock stars feel like an episode of Matlock rather than a hard edged police action thriller, showing no sign of understanding any of these elements of the popular culture . While this is funny, it also illustrates why the series needed to be retired at that point, having drifted too far away from the cultural relevancy of the original film. Eastwood more than manages to hold the film together however throughout its running time, by sheer force of screen presence. As such, the film remains an entertaining experience.

At the end of the day, I have no problems recommending either film, although I admit your enjoyment of The Dead Pool may not match mine, while Sudden Impact, by its very nature is a dark piece of cinema that is sure to turn off its fair share of viewers through its challenging of what one expects from a Dirty Harry film. Still, for those fascinated by cinema’s attempts to reflect on its own nature, these films will prove to be enlightening, showcasing the various sides of a truly legendary character.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Panic in the Year Zero! (Milland 1962)

(NOTE: this is another classic review, originally written in 2008 and before my review of the The Quest)

Late last year, I was working on a project about the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” and picked up a DVD with the first adaptation of the novel, The Last Man On Earth (Salkow 1964), a low budget production from noted B-film horror studio American International Pictures (AIP), producers of many early Roger Corman films. The disc was a double feature DVD which included another AIP production, Panic in the Year Zero!

Panic in the Year Zero! both stars and is directed by Ray Milland, star of Billy Wilder’s famed 1945 film The Lost Weekend (which I still need to see) and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder, working from a script by John Morton and Jay Simms. The film is the story of the Baldwin family, consisting of patriarch Harry (Milland), wife Ann (Jean Hagen of Singin’ In the Rain [Donen and Kelly 1952]), son Rich (teen idol Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel), who are on their way to a camping vacation when they discover a mushroom cloud over the Los Angeles area. As word comes in over the car radio of the destruction of major cities over America (and Canada!), Harry decides the family needs to continue on their journey as opposed to returning home in order to protect themselves both from the fallout and possible lawlessness as society seems to collapse around them. With each mile, the family is pushed by Harry’s increasing survivalist drive into extreme behaviour which pushes them outside the bounds of societal order.

The central thematic and dramatic crux of the film is the conflict between survival and the need to preserve society and civil order, and the point in which irrational panic begins to take control of the former. The masterstroke of the filmmakers is in their use of the stereotypical patriarchal organization of the Baldwin family to organize these themes and allow the audience to gradually witness the system of patriarchy and its values undermine themselves rather than resorting to didactic tactics.

While Ann occasionally voices questions about Harry’s increasingly aggressive measures to ensure his family’s safety, her willingness to submit with ease to Harry’s decisions allows the viewer to witness the contradictory, simplistic and dangerous aspects to Harry’s militaristic and survivalist attitudes for themselves. Harry frequently references potential threats towards the family in order to coerce their willingness to go along with his plans. However it is his behaviour that is closest to the threats he describes, turning to using weapons on store keeps and causing a massive traffic accident in order to get his family across a major highway. When Harry is finally confronted with what appears to be the threat he has been worried about, the situation only escalates because of Harry’s insistence of possessing firearms.

In perhaps the most damning moment of the film, Harry, having established his family’s base in a cave, preaches about the need to attempt to maintain a semblance of civilized life. However, unlike Ann’s previous and later moments of stating the need to maintain rational behaviour and trust in her fellow man, Harry’s view of civilization is limited to the need for daily shaving. Civilized behaviour is merely an act to be preformed, an act without substance.

Milland has a complex character in Harry, and his performance is up to par, allowing the viewer to keep sympathy for Harry even as he continues to dig his own grave and one for his family. The only other actor given substantial material to work with is Avalon as Harry’s son, and his performance is solid if not up to Milland’s work. Harry’s use of his son within the film is alternatively frightening and loving, as he tries to transform Rich into a man such as himself.

Where the film struggles is in its third act, in what I can only guess at the moment is due to the film being produced during the days of the Hay’s Code. After two acts of Harry’s increasing ethically questionable behaviour, the film attempts to shoehorn in a group of villains in order to mitigate the questions surrounding the actions of the Baldwin family. The filmmakers do their best within these constrictions to keep the moral ambiguity going however, as the last minute crisis of the film is the result of another of Harry’s fear based decisions, and the ending of the film refuses narrative closure, undermining the attempted moralizing on the part of two individuals at the film’s conclusion. The end result is fascinating to behold.

Milland’s direction of the film is solid if unspectacular, making the best of the low budget production values of AIP. Unfortunately these limitations occasionally become noticeable, including the use of some obvious stock footage and a poorly realized mushroom cloud. Thankfully the film is mostly an actor’s piece, allowing Milland to focus upon the drama and thematic issues rather than effects work, elaborate sets and staging. In Milland’s favour is also the solid screenwriting of Morton and Simms. A set of third act coincidences however are problematic, unnecessarily bringing back characters whose roles could easily have been fulfilled by other characters.

Oh, and I could not talk about the film without discussing Les Baxter’s music. Having written music for many AIP pictures, Baxter here writes a very jazzy score which, while seemingly at odds with what is onscreen, strangely enough works for the film in the end, giving the film an off kilter feel which matches the shifting morality of the family.

All in all, Panic in the Year Zero! is worth checking out, a thematically rich and dramatic B-film. Personally, I really want to check out more of these AIP films given my success thus far with them. However, in order to get a bit of possible pain out of the way, I think I am going to watch another film with actor directing himself next: The Quest (Van Damme 1996).

God help us all.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Full Treatment [Stop Me Before I Kill!] (Guest 1960)

As you will notice from the heading of this review, the film under discussion today has two titles. The proper title for the film and the one which the film was originally released under in the UK, is The Full Treatment, while the North American release title (and the one included on the DVD edition of the film here in region one) is Stop Me Before I Kill! While both titles reflect the content of the film, neither title is totally successful in reflecting the ironies and complexities of this psychologically and sexually focused thriller. Director Val Guest has, as the second title suggests, crafted a pulpy film that sets out to titillate and shock, but the film is more than just a cheap thriller, as it explores male fears of emasculation and the complexities of psychoanalysis through playing with audience identification, voyeurism, and the audience's desire for control over the narrative's meaning.

The Full Treatment is the story of a famous English race car driver named Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) and his wife Denise (Diane Cilento), who on their wedding day are involved in an accident. Nearly a year later, the couple are reattempting their honeymoon in Cannes, but Colby is afraid that sexual desires seem to be manifesting in a desire to kill his wife. During their trip, they encounter Dr. David Prade (Claude Dauphin), a French psychiatrist who operates out of London, who takes a interest in the couple, an interest which unsettles Alan. However, with his violent urges growing, and a push from his wife, Alan agrees to undergo treatment with Dr. Prade, a treatment which turns out to be more than Alan and Denise ever expected as Dr. Prade‘s own desires come into play.

The plot of the film is deceptively simple, with the surface narrative suggesting a tale of a man who loves his wife but is afraid to harm her do to his own personal guilt, who manages to salvage himself by submitting to analysis and finally proving his worth as a healthy male. This surface narrative however is unable to truly contain the underlying contradictions and ambiguities, which transform the film into an exploration of male misogyny, driven by fears of emasculation by women and the comforts of the homosocial environment. These themes are further complicated by the films explicit guidance of the audience to perform a psychological analysis on the film, whilst at the same time pointing out the failings of such an approach.

The opening scene of the film is overwhelming in the information it reveals to the audience. Filmed as a long tracking shot, the opening scene reveals several important details: first, that the accident happens on the wedding day of Alan and Denise, as revealed by a “just married” sign on their badly damaged car; second, Denise, while injured, is conscious and able to move, only collapsing after checking her husband; lastly, we discover that Alan is a famous race car drive from his picture being on the side of a petrol tanker which stops at the crash. This opening scene reveals much about the complicated existence of its protagonists, as the spectacle of the accident also is imbued with the spectacle of celebrity, and the couple’s marriage becomes correlated with the accident.

This correlation is one of the most vital points of the film with regards to subtext, as Alan’s inability to drive and function within a sexual relationship begins with the accident. Alan’s sense of masculine identity is tied to his abilities of a race car driver, a profession noted for dangerous driving while remaining “in control.” This profession brings Alan fame, and as the film points out, large numbers of women with whom to engage sexually. The event of marriage, an event in which the individual becomes part of a larger unit, requires a degree of relinquishing a sense of control over ones life to that of another, as well as sexual freedom. Thus, the wedding/crash becomes a double site, and “sight” for the audience, of Alan’s emasculation both sexually and professionally, the latter seemingly being the result of the former. Furthermore, since Denise is the only one with memory of the accident, she holds a level of control over Alan who lacks this knowledge.

Were the film to stop here with regards to exploring/explaining Alan’s drive to violence, the film would simply be reflecting a sense of gynophobia which emerges in acts of misogynistic behaviour on the part of the filmmakers as well as the characters. However, I am not sure that film is this this conservative and regressive. Given that the central dramatic thrust is focused upon Alan and Prade, in which Alan undergoes a further emasculation by the lecherous drives of Prade, Denise is sidelined, and serves mostly as a figure of victimization by both Prade and Alan, Denise is less a character and more of a figure onto which Alan and Prade project their desires and fears. Mind you, this victim status and Denise’ willingness to be subjected to abuse and manipulation by both reveals a sexist attitude on the part of the filmmakers which leaves her a weak character, but it does manage to avoid outright misogyny by focusing its attention squarely upon two heavily flawed men.

Then again, perhaps I just reworking the film to my own ends, creating a narrative subtext that fits my views and attitudes in order to give me a sense of mastery over the text. At least, the film wants the viewer to reflect on this possibility with its most subversive tactic: the inclusion of psychoanalysis in the narrative proper in the figure of Dr. Prad. As noted, Alan and Denise are not merely any couple, but celebrities who very existence becomes something of a spectacle for the public at large. In this sense, the Colby couple become evocative of the spectacle of cinema itself, and through Prade, the film challenges the audience’s voyeuristic drive and meaning generating agendas. If there is any doubt about this, consider that Prade first encounters the Colby couple in Cannes, the site of the world famous film festival that has taken place since 1946.

Prade’s voyeuristic desires to know and understand Alan’s psychology and ultimately substitute himself in place of Alan mirrors the audiences own voyeurism and the identification process with the film‘s characters. Prade’s psychoanalysis of Alan mirrors the audience’s own desire for understanding of the character and his behaviour, a point made by the repetition of Prade looking upon the couple at a distance. However, as Prade’s own desires become increasingly obvious Prade’s analysis and its results come into question: to what degree is the analysis “true,” and to what degree is it tainted by Prade’s obsession? Prade’s desire to gain “possession” and control over Denise begins to mirror our own desire to control the film’s meaning, disrupting the process of analysis and forcing a reflection upon the degree to which we bend a given text to fit our own needs. It is complex meta material, far beyond what the lurid title of Stop Me Before I Kill! would suggest.

The film’s pleasure are not entirely intellectual however. Director Guest has crafted a tense film filled with visual flair, which only manages to stubble in its resolution, which requires the smartest character in the film to make a foolish decision and a moment of chance in which a character witnesses something they more than likely would not. Moreover, Guest manages to pull serviceable performances from Lewis and Cilento, while giving Dauphin room to steal the film from everyone around him in a performance which recalls (and predates) Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character of Hannibal Lecter.

It should be noted that the version I watched of the film is 108 minutes in length and found on the Icons of Suspense Collection of Hammer Films. If the IMDB is too be believed, the original UK version of the film is a full 12 minutes longer than the American cut, though for the life of me I cannot figure out what material would be missing, as the film is tightly constructed without feeling incomplete. This means that the biggest complaint I have with the film is the American title, and it is not often that the title is the only thing to complain about. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Robinson 1989)

Let me get this out of the way: I am not exactly the biggest fan of the auteur theory, or at least in the way that it has been adopted by modern Hollywood and other film industries. The idea of an auteur, of a discernable author to be found in a director who, in a very personal way shapes a given film, is wonderful in theory and problematic in practice most of the time, with very few directors honestly having a firm sense of being personal authors over a given work. Yet in practice, we frequently see the cursed “Film By” credit on films by the most impersonal of filmmakers, including Brett Ratner and Ron Howard. At best, their work is workman like and effective at carrying a film; at worst, vapid and hollow, doing little more than pointing a camera and calling shots. These are not filmmakers who a filmgoer gains any insight or understanding of, a point which even Michael Bay has managed to accomplish with his films, even though that personal insight amounts to little more than “I like to blow things up.”

So it is always nice to come across a film like How to Get Ahead in Advertising from writer/director Bruce Robinson, a film which is a work of a legitimate auteur. There is not one moment in this film where the guiding hand of Robinson isn’t to be found, not one scene where the audience cannot tell that Robinson is talking directly to them. This is all the more apparent because when all is said and done, regardless of how funny the film may be, How to Get Ahead in Advertising is a film boiling over with anger. And if there is one emotion that everyone can recognize, its anger.

The story of How to Get Ahead in Advertising is as simple as it is absurd: advertising executive Dennis Bagley (Richard E. Grant) is stressed out over his inability to find a way to sell a new brand of pimple cream. This stress reaches a point where Bagley seemingly snaps, turning against advertising at the same time he develops a stress boil. His wife (Rachel Ward) believes that Bagley has gone almost completely insane when Bagley starts to claim that the boil is talking to him and other people. As the boil grows however, it begins to take control of Bagley’s life, leading to a series of surprising and disturbing developments which leaves Julia questioning her husband’s supposed insanity.

While consumerism and advertising are the obvious targets that Robinson attacks in the film, Robinson is most interested in the way language has been usurped, twisted and corrupted by the forces which control mass media, distorting language to the point that greed, hate and other vile concepts are naturalized and accepted. Moreover, the manipulation and alteration of language has made resistance within the world of the film impossible, with Bagley having so internalised the corruption that his initial resistance manifests as signs of insanity.

If some of these concepts sound familiar, they should, as they in part derive from the concepts of “newspeak” and “doublethink” from George Orwell’s masterpiece of fiction, 1984, which is directly referenced in the film and is the key intertext needed to understand the themes of How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Robinson goes beyond suggesting that advertising is engaged in a similar manipulation and reduction of language found in Orwell’s text by expanding the concept to show how visual arts have also been co-opted in a similar manner, thus evoking the cinematic apparatus in its criticism. The media not only have the power to shape realit here, but do so by naturalising the worst aspects of humanity.

Given this inclusion of commercial cinema as being part of the problem, Robinson deliberately sets out to make the film as artificial as possible in order to avoid being guilty of the very things he is attacking: the characters are more caricatures than real people, the situations that the characters find themselves in are contrived, and even the visual look of the film is heightened to appear clearly constructed as the film goes forward, including the practical effects which are deliberately rubbery and cheep. In the central role, Richard E. Grant is allowed to go for broke, brining a level of megalomania that seems more in place with a 1960s Bond villain, with Rachel Ward’s performance coming off as natural only by comparison.

All of this will likely be off putting for audiences expecting a narrative and character driven film. While the central premise would seem to be open to psychoanalysis as an analytical approach, particularly given the similarities of the premise to the concept of body horror, How to Get Ahead in Advertising only uses a loose narrative as a means of exploring and “dramatising” the ideas and concepts it seeks to talk about, with characters functioning as overt symbols. As an idea driven film however, the approach is appropriate and seeks to engage the audience on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level.

The irony of this approach though is that it does damn the film, in a manner of speaking, with regards to its audience. The bluntness of the film’s approach will likely be off putting to those seeking a greater sense of subtlety and complexity from the film, yet given the film’s resistance to commercial narrative practice and emphasis on ideas over cohesion and character, the film will likely be off putting to the audience Robinson’s arguments would be most important to. Robinson himself seems to be aware of this, as an early scene in which Bagley tries to explain to the very nature of language manipulation fails due not only to resistance from average consumers to the idea, but also because Bagley openly distains these people.

As such, How to Get Ahead in Advertising is hideously bleak film, while being a conflicting but fascinating work of art. Within the context of similarly themed films, such as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the film will likely be found lacking, but it remains a complex and engaging work none the less worthy of viewing and study. Most importantly though, for those seeking a film looking to know and feel the artist behind a work, How to Get Ahead in Advertising is Bruce Robinson at his most raw.