Better than BFI’s Top 100: 7-5

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here


7) Odd Man Out (1947), directed by Carol Reed

6) Hunger (2008), directed by Steve McQueen

In the course of the past couple years, I have watched a number of movies from and about Ireland. I’ve seen Ken Loach’s takes, and John Ford’s takes, and Jim Sheridan’s takes; I’ve seen Ireland as a place of tragedy, of music, of romance. As far as I can make out, these are the two best movies about Ireland I have ever seen, and they may even be the two best movies about Ireland we have. They aren’t dissimilar pieces on their faces. Both, although Odd Man Out refuses to name them and Hunger only does so scantly, are about the IRA. In both films there’s a sense of profound religiosity. Odd Man Out does not shy away even a little from making the last meandering day of Johnny McQueen’s life a sort of Via Dolorosa, and Hunger gives us ample understanding of Bobby Sands’ commitment to his cause. (I come back to this every time I talk about this movie. We begin Hunger with a prison guard, a mostly silent man whose bloodied, bruised knuckles, soaked in warm water, tell the whole story of how he expresses himself. We keep returning to him, even as he visits his mother in a nursing home. There, the man who beat up Republicans in Maze is shot to death by one of their comrades who still goes free. If that isn’t a religious statement, a statement of incontrovertible belief and absolute devotion, I don’t know what is.) These are movies with great ensemble casts in support of career-best work from their leading men, James Mason and Michael Fassbender. Both make heroes of their IRA leader protagonists through unimaginable suffering: I would place this quality highest in terms of what makes them similar, but also in what makes them great pictures.

Neither Johnny nor Bobby could have lived peaceful lives in Belfast, but neither man had to seek the suffering out by joining the IRA, working themselves into leadership positions, and in the end making some fatal choice. Odd Man Out begins with Johnny, six months stuck in a house after escaping from prison, as amped up as James Mason gets. His second-in-command doubts whether Johnny should lead the mill raid he’s planned out; indeed, aside from any question of rashness, there’s an insinuation that Johnny is not physically fit enough to do his duty. Johnny’s replies are curt: two rhetorical questions and finally a “When I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.” It’s a decision, whether born of arrogance or boredom or frustration, which will cost him his life. Around the midway point of Hunger, McQueen halts a movie which has been lively, if deliberate. In a seriously theatrical seventeen minutes—theatrical because McQueen points and shoots but never cuts while Fassbender and Liam Cunningham sit and smoke and argue—Bobby gets a visit from Father Moran. Moran knows that Bobby is on the verge of beginning a hunger strike, and he knows that it will end not just with Bobby’s death but the deaths of other men. The word “arrogant” is thrown at Bobby, as are accusations that he’s unable to make normal decisions because he’s spent four years doing no-wash protests and gone without the benefit of humane treatment by his British guards. Bobby’s motivations are given more time to rise than Johnny’s, which is a plot decision. What drives Johnny into the streets is less important than what happens to him out there. After Bobby gives his reasons, the movie really slows down, really gets into the hunger strike itself, which is performed outside the filthy cells and dark visiting room in lieu of a clean, bright, white hospital bed. Moran tells Bobby that he’s choosing to die because he wants the statue, the commemorations, the place in history. Bobby tells Moran he’s going to die because he has always known how to take the punishment. Johnny is the one who gets those allusions to Jesus Christ, but it’s Bobby who tells a parable:

The moral of the story is this: other people know how to talk, and some even know what’s to be done. But the person who can act is a rare one, and Bobby Sands is such a man. By now McQueen has cut from his long take, and it’s the right choice to place the camera just underneath Bobby Sands, the man who we still must look up to, the one who gets to choose because he can act.

Odd Man Out moves in the other direction. Once Johnny is wounded in the raid and worse, accidentally thrown from a moving car, he can no longer act for himself or make those forceful decisions. His comrades are killed or captured with some celerity—they are so gullible, and so desperate for comfort, that we get some sense of how essential Johnny must be to his IRA battalion—but there’s a long stretch where Johnny is hiding out, in between hallucinations which may credibly belong to the kind he’s been having for much of the movie or to something more corporeal. He tries to stay on the movie, tries to get back to the place he’s been hiding and the girl who loves him, but he is too disadvantaged. Johnny McQueen was already a celebrity for average Belfasters. He now is a notorious one, wanted for money by the cops, hunted and, as he grows weaker and weaker, passed around. In much the same way that one’s approach to Jesus says an awful lot about a person, how people approach Johnny McQueen shows us a great deal about them. As he wastes away, hallucinating the faces of others in the bubbles of a spilled drink, other people try to decide his fate, like imperial powers setting up at the Berlin Conference. I want him for the money, a down-and-out birdman says. I want him for God, the priest says. I want him for my art, the painter says. I want him because I love him, his lover says. Just about everyone gets a piece of him by the end of the picture, but it is his lover who finally corrals him. Kathleen is, in her own way, as grimly determined and idealistic as Bobby Sands, and although everyone else has tried to have at least some of Johnny McQueen, who she finds spreadeagled against a wall, struggling to take breath, she is the only one who will have all of him or nothing.

The differences in the looks of these movies and the approaches to them are as manifold as the number of similarities they share in theme and character. Reed’s movie looks like noir even if its soul, warm to the touch, is actively hostile to some of noir’s dead-eyed excesses. (Kathleen may have plans for Johnny as much as Phyllis has plans for Walter, or Kathie has plans for Jeff and Whit, but they are not exploitative: they are passionate and idealistic.) Many of the same technical bravado that raises The Third Man is present here, with unusual camera angles and showoffish lighting. Reed is fond of the American shot; in a movie about bodies, about fumbling fingers and arms in slings, it is not enough to present close-ups and hope or the best. McQueen, on the other hand, comes to Hunger as a veteran of Britart, knowledgeable about where the shock value lies. (“If Charles Saatchi had put up the money to display Hunger at the Tate Modern, would Hunger get the attention it deserves? A manifesto—”) This is a movie which looks for the shock, that jolt that separates good movies from great ones, and which finds ways to pound us with it again and again. He lets us feel the crippling fear of the naked inmates when the guards beat on their riot gear and pummel them through a long line which leads to humiliation, injury, savagery. He kills that guard. He lets that story about the foal linger. He shows us an emaciated body in all of its ugliness and decay. Most of all, there’s the sequence where the guards come through and clean the ridiculously filthy cells and hallways of Maze. Someone has made his feces into a not unattractive spiral pattern on the wall. It is power washed away, dripping down onto the floor, and there’s a rush of emotion for us. Someone made that his testament, desperate for a way to reach out or find meaning or create in that prison: how quickly it is washed away, and how convincing it makes Bobby’s argument to Father Moran later on in the movie.

5) Topsy-Turvy (1999), directed by Mike Leigh

Japan is not the first Asian nation that one connects with Britain’s imperialist history, which I think is an advantage Leigh has in showcasing what is kindly called cultural appropriation but which is also known as soft racism. The movie never makes the out-and-out connection that is frequently bandied about when discussing The Mikado, namely, that it is a way to lampoon the values of English society in an “exotic” guise; most of the time, the movie lampoons its own characters instead. Gilbert gets the idea for the libretto when a sword he bought at the Japanese exhibition falls off the wall. He picks it up, screws up his face, and begins jabbering in what he must presume to be Japanese-ish noises. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch, but it’s followed by a series of events where Gilbert insists to his cast and crew that the show be as “Japanese” as possible. What he understands to be Japanese, after an afternoon seeing Japanese people and Japanese culture for the first time, is a little dubious, and yet it’s also obvious that he’s trying. There’s a good-sized scene in which Gilbert clashes with the dance instructor (an almost unrecognizably fey Andy Serkis). D’Auban has choreographed silly, mincing movements for the three little maids from school they are, etc., having done similar choreography for similar shows in the past. Gilbert wants a more natural look, one that he insists is more authentically Japanese, and in the end he gets it. He and his surrogates clash with cast members about the costumes. In the eyes of an actress, they are too modest; in the eyes of an actor, they are too immodest; both are troubled by their missing corsets. In the end, Gilbert’s “realistic” approach wins out. What results is a show which is, by any of our standards of good taste, well beyond them; on the other hand, there are worse moments in productions of The Mikado which actively try to avoid being racist. (I’m thinking of the “White Mikado” production which one sees done again and again since the ’86 version by the English National Opera. In the opening number, the “gentlemen of Japan” make the slanted eyes gesture which got Yuli Gurriel into not nearly enough hot water during the 2017 World Series.)

Leigh manages to maneuver through this labyrinth brilliantly. His movie is not a racist one—his scenes focus on rehearsals and dress rehearsals and the craftsmanship of Gilbert and Sullivan to the extent that a newcomer to The Mikado would be totally in the dark about the plot. He is generous with his characters without being entirely forgiving. Gilbert, who has seen snatches of a Kabuki performance, tries so hard to make an authentic Japanese play, and yet he is as inadequate to do that as he is to satisfy his wife as a husband. Some of the actors dining on oysters (to excess, as it turns out) in one scene, and the first time around it’s easy to think that they’re there for the comedy which will come later. Grossmith, the company’s leading comedic actor, and his costar Barrington try to negotiate higher salaries with their boss on one front while trying to protect themselves being outflanked by shellfish that night. The second time around there’s a very different way to read that scene. They’re not just eating oysters: they’re talking about Gordon’s defeat at the hands of the Mahdi. Grossmith says some racist things, invokes the White Man’s Burden, and while Barrington more or less accepts that it isn’t cricket for the Mahdi to pulverize Gordon’s command, only Lely (a Scotsman) has even an inkling as to the irony of that perspective. Of course these people are willing to accept that they should play Japanese men named Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-bah.

Topsy-Turvy, a film billed as movie about The Mikado, naturally begins with opening night of Princess Ida. The morning after, Gilbert is in a tizzy reading the review in the newspaper. The reviewer finds Sullivan’s music enjoyable below the standard of his previous Savoy work, and Gilbert’s story amenable, but can tell the dough has been kneaded too much. Princess Ida never finds its footing, attendance lags badly during the summer, and it’s not long before Carte ruefully pulls the show in favor of what that reviewer called the best of Sullivan’s work, The Sorcerer. These are Victorians who do not much care to put their innermost thoughts out before the world, but there can be no doubt in a meeting between Carte, Helen, and the creative pair that things are incredibly bleak. The partnership that has made the Savoy Theatre profitable is on the verge of dissipation, and, excepting Sullivan, none of them have a backup plan. Of course, it doesn’t end that way. Gilbert’s endlessly chipper wife, Lucy, gets her husband to come to a Japanese exhibition, and presto-changeo, The Mikado. The applause is deafening at the end of the opening night performance. The thing is, nothing feels all that different after the fact. Grossmith has been odd even by his neurotic standards; nobody sees but us that he’s indulging a morphine habit. Gilbert goes home and tells Lucy, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success,” a comment which, in its own topsy-turvy way, leads the two of them to realize that their marriage is but the flimsiest outline of wedlock. The next day, Sullivan’s health, which he’d gone to the Continent to try to ameliorate, is in a bad way; his best girl tells him she’s pregnant again. In the penultimate scene, Leonora Braham, an alcoholic whose drinking has gotten her a talking-to by Carte earlier in the film, is holding her little goblet, murmuring Yum-Yum’s lines (“Yes, I am indeed beautiful…”) and staring at herself in the mirror. It’s not a long epilogue, less than ten minutes, and in it Mike Leigh makes his case as England’s greatest filmmaker. These flawed people will never know a greater professional success in their lives, made as much because of their flaws as despite them. Despite their professional success, they are still much the same. When the final number is sung, it’s so joyful and vivid and gay that it’s hard to imagine feeling bad again. But then: applause, dressing rooms, home, bed, dawn. When he wakes up the next morning to breathless reviews of The Mikado, will Gilbert be able to share them so freely with Lucy, knowing as he knows now that his disinterest in her has ruined her hope of a family? “Climax and anticlimax, Willie,” Lucy replied to her husband when he made that counterintuitive statement about success. A simple idea, to be sure, but Leigh’s choice to end on the anticlimax is as subtly ambitious as it gets. Movies simply do not come any more densely packed than this one.

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