Archive for November 9, 2021

The Soho Dialogues

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2021 by dcairns

Something different — Fiona and I bounce around thoughts on Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, avoiding major spoilers — but if you want to go in clean and blind, you still might want to bookmark this for afterwards.

DC: So, we both enjoyed LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, though you loved it more than I did. It was certainly nice to see a filmmaker enjoying himself so much — several of my worries about the project proved quite unfounded. To start on a high note — I loved the dance where the two lead actresses keep substituting for one another, in a long take which uses framing and blocking rather than visible special effects to make the changes. Edgar Wright COULD have been using CGI to enhance the trick, but the beauty of it was that it wasn’t visible. Rather like the mirror tricks in our recent viewing, THE HALFWAY HOUSE. I enjoy special effects but in-camera stuff has it’s own thrill.

FW: At the end I wanted to stand up and applaud, but then I had an emotional connection to it that you didn’t. I empathised with Eloise so deeply that I was dragged in, almost unwillingly at first, into the narrative.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is such a tour de force of filmmaking. I didn’t frighten me, apart from one superb jump scare, I was just vibing on the emotions and the extremely clever steals from other movies. I struck up a conversation with a couple in their twenties who’d been seated behind us and I was really surprised when the guy admitted to being scared shitless by it. We, being old hands, had to explain that most of what we’d just witnessed was a wickedly clever homage to other films, so it was more of a hugely enjoyable box-ticking exercise for us. I really like that cinephiles and non-cinephiles can appreciate it together for different reasons.

DC: Agree that the story and dialogue do a great job of setting up the character and making us feel for her, by giving her such an implacably hostile environment, personified by the awful Jocasta. I have a slight question about why that evil woman scenario is the right way to set up a story about toxic masculinity and the patriarchy in sixties media, which seems to have been the foundation of Wright’s interest in the material. But that’s maybe one example of why it’s often best to ignore what the filmmaker says about their work. But it makes me wonder if the two writers were on the same page. There’s a tantalising story told by Wright that he had wanted to make all the sixties sequences musical numbers, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns talked him out of that. The idea being they could get more emotion in if there was dialogue, which strikes me as a failure to understand musicals. I kind of wish he’d made that version, because as stylish as the film is, that could have been truly remarkable.

FW: When you think about something like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, you don’t have to give up emotion at the expense of the genre. I’d love to see Wright’s original conception of this movie. However, I also loved what Wilson-Cairns brought to the piece, so I feel a bit torn. I still felt like I was caught up in a maelstrom of film and being flung about hither and thither by its makers. Normally I don’t like feeling out of control, but this was just so deliciously delirious. When we got home, I started declaiming Wright as one of those rare British directors who take flamboyance to the next level. I was putting him in the same pantheon as Ken Russell, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. You, very wisely, pointed out that they were originals, so I came to the conclusion that Wright is more like a supremely talented magpie, exuberantly stealing ideas out of other filmmakers nests. 

Shall we talk about the ‘colour’ problem?

DC: Well, in term of the film’s colour palette there’s no problem, just a luscious blend of Bava, Argento, Clouzot’s pop-art phase and Hitchcock’s tests for the unmade KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY. 

In terms of race and representation, yes, we each picked up on different things. I found it strange that there are no gay characters in either the sixties section (Soho, polari, a vibrant queer culture) or the modern section (a fashion college). Homosexuality seems not to exist, even as a concept, so that Eloise never even wonders if the sympathetic John (Michael Ajao), who’s a fashion student who’s interested in her as a person, not a lust object, might be gay. There may have been something I missed, but if so it was very minor.

FW: I pointed out that I was surprised there seemed to be no people of colour in 1960s Soho, which was incomprehensible to me. Also, Eloise’s boyfriend, John (Michael Ajao) seemed almost tokenistic in his representation.

DC: That’s very weird, as you see all races even in British films of that milieu made at the time. The customers in the particular nightclubs depicted may well have been overwhelmingly white, but you have black performers in BEAT GIRL and JUNGLE STREET, and Burt Kwouk turns up on the Soho Streets in both EXPRESSO BONGO, eating fast food, and DEEP END, selling fast food. And then there’s FLAME IN THE STREETS and SAPPHIRE.

Wright’s movies have been pretty damn white — BABY DRIVER is the only one with a major Black character, but it was shot in Atlanta, where you might expect to see more than one. So, in a film that wants to cast a critical eye over the entertainment industry’s exploitation of women, is there no room for any other kind of representation? It’s great to see Ajao featured, but he has to stand in for the entirety of a multiethnic metropolis here.

FW: HA HA HA. I’ve just re-watched the trailer and they’ve put Psycho ‘stabs’ into Land Of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett the Walker Bros! Genius.

Shall we talk about the use of music? You seem to know more about the inspiration behind, and the making of, the film than I do, because I went in completely ‘blind.’ As we’re still writing about it, I’m really struggling not to look at other people’s reviews because I want my response to be pure and untainted. So far, I’m winning, but I’m teetering on the brink.

DC: I went in as blind as the trailer leaves you, but it was all interesting enough to make me want to read up on it. Wright has an impressive list of influences.

Since he’s adept at using music that’s quite on-the-nose, but never being clumsy in a Zemeckis way (e.g. the use of the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society in HOT FUZZ) I was waiting for a couple of songs to turn up: the Pogues’ beautiful A Rainy Night in Soho (produced by Elvis Costello) and Pulp’s Bar Italia (Soho is “where all the broken people go”) but the concentration on sixties tunes, even in the modern sections, ruled that out I guess. He’s said he liked the idea of using songs that have well-known cover versions, reintroducing the originals people might not have heard. What did you think of the use of songs and score?

FW: Oh God! She’s so adorable.

 Maybe we should talk about the performances and how great they are. And also how neither of the leads are English but they do flawless Cornish and London accents respectively.

DC: Almost nobody in this film is using their own accent: McKenzie and Rita Tushingham are being Cornish, Taylor-Joy is doing London, Matt Smith does Cockney. Only Ajao, Terrence Stamp and Pauline McGlynn are talking naturally, but you’d never know it because everyone’s so good.

FW: Anyway, back to the soundtrack. I loved it. It’s given as much importance as the visuals. The result is overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Triple threat Anya Taylor-Joy actually did cover versions for the movie.

Was just watching the Anya Taylor-Joy video and picked up ANOTHER cinematic reference. Last night, as our Halloween treat, we watched DEAD OF NIGHT. There are shots in LNIS that reminded me of Robert Hamer’s Haunted Mirror section from that movie. 

DC: Which goes back to your enjoyment of non-digital effects in LNIS. DEAD OF NIGHT and THE HALFWAY HOUSE are jam-packed with practical effects that are still incredibly impressive to this day.

FW: I guess Wright wanted to keep an element of “old-fashioned” filmmaking in his period-infused movie. There’s also superb editing going on, courtesy of Paul Machliss, who worked on Wright’s BABY DRIVER, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD and THE WORLD’S END.

I was fascinated when you told me the cinematographer was Chung-hoon Chung, who’s probably known best for OLD BOY. When the Oscar noms are handed out, expect to see his name. He’s done an absolutely spectacular job on LNIS.

Production designer Marcus Rowland, another Wright regular, also deserves a nod.

DC: One missed opportunity in the film — there’s a sequence where Matt Smith’s bad guy bites Sandie and it’s Eloise who receives the hickey, so we learn that her link to the sixties is actually physical as well as audio-visual. What happens to Sandie happens to her. But this never recurs. Which seems like a missed opportunity (1) to develop and clarify the rules of the game and (2) to add jeopardy. There is actually another scene where Eloise experiences Sandie being injured, but this time she does NOT share the injury. Inconsistent, and weaker dramatically than it would be if they’d kept that idea going. (If you die in a dream you die in real life.)

FW: Yes. They had a marvellous opportunity to enlarge on that material and inject some real jeopardy. That loose end might have been caused by two writers coming together who hadn’t worked as a unit before, but surely someone else reading it could have pointed out that are real-life consequences to the events in Eloise’s dream world. You mentioned before that they might not have been on the same page, and this certainly seems to reinforce that idea.

Inspired by this, I started thinking about what I might have done with the material as a writer, based on my own experiences. As a child, growing up in an abusive household, I had such horrifying nightmares that I would dig my nails into the palms of my hands until they drew blood to stop myself from falling asleep. I think that once Eloise discovered that these wonderful, inspirational dreams had taken a very dark turn and were actually having an effect on her own body, she would do anything to stay awake – Do what I did. Drink gallons of coffee. ANYTHING to stop it. This would cause severe sleep deprivation in the ‘real’ world. Sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations. But she wouldn’t have any control over her autonomic nervous system, so she would fall asleep anyway, in the design studio, on the underground, anywhere in fact, leaving her in a constant state of terror. She would still want to solve the mystery, but this would be balanced with her need to stay safe and not get sucked into a potentially fatal situation in the dreams.

DC: I’m very glad that Diana Rigg got a decent role at the end of her life: the oldsters in HOT FUZZ were very welcome but it looks in retrospect a bit uncomfortable to have Simon Pegg kicking them in the head, when they were all so close to the end. Rigg’s role is juicy and doesn’t have the same kind of discomfort.

What else can we say? It embraces giallo style without indulging in giallo-style misogyny. I know Farran Smith prefers to use the word “sexist” when it’s adequate, but sometimes only the M word will do. The stuff that allows the film to escape misogynist sadism is the psychological and parapsychological angle, which tries to introduce fear unrelated to physical violence. And the #MeToo theme makes it imperative that leering sexism and sadism be avoided, and it mostly is. But the giallo is also a genre of crazy plot twists, and maybe overmechanistic plots have a tendency to pull filmmakers back to stereotypes and retrograde attitudes. I’m not sure why that should be, unless we accept Daniel Riccuto’s “narrative is evil” theorem. Which might be right. Or, at least, it might be right that when a creator is trying to follow what feels like the right narrative line, they’ll be unconsciously guided by hidden prejudices. At any rate, the need to make things turn out neatly turns a film about female victimization into something about female predation. Wright and Wilson-Cairns do inject some surprising tender beats into the climax which are commendable, but it’s almost like someone trying their damnedest to subvert a genre they really love and not quite admitting whether what they want to make is an anti-giallo. And then it’s weird to do all that and then serve up a female hate-figure like Jocasta.

FW: I completely agree. It’s an admirable attempt to do something different with a traditionally misogynistic genre. At the end I wanted to stand up and cheer. I’d been picked up and carried off by a cinematic twister, just like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, another film about alternate realities. It’s a tornado of film, throwing you about all over the place as you descend into the eye of the storm, then depositing you in a field, miraculously unharmed. And LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is not just about alternate realities. We’ve got time travel and the supernatural in the form of Stone Tape theory. It’s an exhilarating mix. I also connected to it emotionally in a way I wasn’t expecting.  I think I said, “Whoa! What a ride!”

But that ending. Are we supposed to feel pleased about what Eloise sees in the mirror, or disturbed that the image is still there? It adds an interesting element of unease.

MY VERDICT – Flawed but brilliant.

DC: I don’t have a fixed opinion — it seems quite likely I’ll love it or hate it more next time I see it, so I’ll record an open verdict on this unusual venture. More films like it would definitely improve the national cinema’s hit-rate, even if it took a few tries.