Hard Eight (IMDb / Mubi) was a bit of a surprise. It shouldn’t have been – I came into it knowing I’ve enjoyed every Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve seen.
It all started with the majestic There Will Be Blood – one of my favourites, and one which I’m so glad I saw on the big screen with its widescreen panoramas and all-encompassing sound production.
And then every year or so I’d happen to put another P.T. Anderson flick on – maybe it was a weird Netflix suggestion, or Matthew Culnane wouldn’t shut up about Boogie Nights, or I was mourning the death of the singular Philip Seymour Hoffman.
What I’m trying to say is that Hard Eight shouldn’t have been a surprise, but boy was it. I loved it.
I suppose knowing it was a wunderkind director’s début picture could have given me reason to doubt it would be any good, but it needn’t have. There are very few elements of this film that even suggest that this is an early production, let alone a début. There are just too many great locations, solid performances, and glorious tracking shots that Anderson has since become famous for. On top of that, the music choices feel vital, and considered – not thrown together at the last minute due to budget constraints.
There’s some uninspired dialogue here and there, but not enough to take away from the likes of Philip Baker Hall absolutely smashing it out of the park with his performance. On which note, John C. Reilly is perhaps the film’s biggest surprise – he’s brilliant. But then, that’s another thing P.T. Anderson has a weird knack for: extracting great performances from surprising casting choices.
My voyage into Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography continues, and the standard remains high.
The next film I watched on Mubi after The Golem was Gilda, a noir-ish casino-based thriller from 1946.
It’s typically melodramatic and peppered with shots like that shown above which just ooze class and mystique. There’s nice attention to detail, although some lines/roles feel a bit wooden. It’s the first Rita Hayworth film I’ve watched and by crikey is she something else. The central relationship is an abusive one, which is a little hard to swallow nearly seventy years on, and the ending is a little abrupt and less credible than the rest of it, but it doesn’t get in the way of what is a very enjoyable film.
Gilda was also packed full of people who make smoking look incredibly cool. Casinos, too. This theme was to continue in the next film I watched…
I recently started watching films a bit more regularly than I have done for a while.
I’ve signed up to Mubi, whose USP is providing films for streaming (and downloading to devices) one per day, for thirty days. This means there are always 30 films to choose from.
The idea is that a small, well-curated selection of films might actually be of better value to the viewer than a vast, sloppy, loose selection.
I’ve watched about ten films in the past fortnight, and that’s probably more than I had seen all year so far, so it must be working. I’ve not loved them all, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed about five or six.
Guess what this blog post is about.
The first film I watched after starting my subscription was The Golem: How He Came Into The World, a murky fairytale horror from Germany in 1920. The story is of a rabbi who creates a monster that protects the Jews of Prague from persecution. Apparently it’s an old Jewish folk tale.
The story is obviously interesting for its more modern connotations, but I was happy to lie back and just enjoy the fairytale for what it was. The sets were delicious – not a straight line in sight, and I got a bit trigger happy taking screenshots of architectural features of the walled town like windows, doors, rooflines, and hinges. Seriously, look at those wonderfully gnarled hinges!
Of course it was silent, with a fun soundtrack with recurring motifs, and the stark, melodramatic, monochromatic shots were occasionally augmented by the use of colour tinting, as can be seen above.
As a horror film (albeit a very early one), it even managed to provide two distinct sequences I can recall that absolutely gave me a sense of the willies. I was just as fascinated by the making of the film as its look and feel, and those sequences in particular were great from both perspectives.
I couldn’t have asked for a better film to kick off my subscription to a service like Mubi. And, as I’ve said, the quality hasn’t really let up since.
I hadn’t listened to Lateralus in what must be a good eight years or more when, out of the blue, I decided to stick it in the queue for my walk to work this morning.
It might have been a brief tweet I saw from someone recommending a new album (of which more at a later date), which described it as lacking the bloat and cruft of ‘doom’ records of the last decade. Lateralus sprang to mind as a record I remember being occasionally delightful, but sometimes mired in a thick fog of pretension and a miasma of unnecessary instrumental interludes.
Turns out, Lateralus holds up pretty well almost fifteen years after its release. It sounds richer – well, actually, just as rich – than I had remembered, with crisp, tack-sharp production combined with more murky, atmospheric soundscapes.1
Listening to the album is something rather like wandering through a murky cave system. Distant, haunted murmurs lead you forwards, deeper into the network, until you occasionally come across a vast cavern filled with light and sound and 🎵paaaiiiiinnnnn🎵.
What most surprised me in listening to Lateralus again after all this time was how relatively lacking in filler it seemed; the good bits – climactic breakdowns, connecting drops, and vast, soaring choruses – are more commonly found throughout the album than I remembered.
Perhaps I have more patience for meandering prog rock than I did when I was in my late teens, or perhaps it was just the novelty at not having listened in so long, but the album moves along at a brisker pace than I had feared. But not too brisk: that meandering, atmospheric connective tissue is vital to the whole feel of the album, and is rarely out of place or unnecessary.
I never saw Tool live – indeed, I’m not sure whether that would have even been chronologically possible; I know so little about them as a band. I don’t even know what their members look like. I’ve never thought to look, and now I don’t think I want to.
I think when I try and imagine Tool – partly due to the strength of the percussion throughout the record and partly due to the enigmatic lack of photographs in their album art – I get visions of a sort of nu-metal Blue Man Group2, pounding vast kettle drums, wide-eyed faces staring unblinkingly into the dark void that they inhabit.
Why would I bother checking what they actually look like, and risk shattering such a perfect image?
But my point is that Tool exist, for me, entirely as sound and visuals. Some of those visuals are, naturally, derived from their bleak yet exquisite album art.3 I don’t know much more about the band, aside from guest appearances on other records from vocalist Maynard James Keenan. And I think I like it that way. The band remain an enigma, and their records exist, for me, in a perfectly-formed vacuum.
Anyway. Lateralus holds up much better than I had expected it to, even if some of the lyrics (and the general tone) float around in the realms of the pretentious. But when it’s this well executed, all you can really do is applaud, lie back, and enjoy it.
The guitars scree and wail away into the darkness, with pounding drums and deep bass guitar keeping the off-kilter time signatures in check. Meanwhile, that ever-present sense of dread is executed perfectly by synths and other weird digital effects which bring to mind those murmuring, tortured souls, desperate to escape from their subterranean lair.
If you only check out one track, it’s hard not to recommend Parabola – but if you’ve got an extra thirty seconds, make sure to stick on the tail-end of Parabol, which precedes it, for a truly delicious and hearty segue between tracks – something this record does particularly well.
Interestingly, amongst a series of other records of the metal/nu-metal/etc. genre, the album’s producer David Bottrill also produced the soaring, orchestral Diorama by Silverchair. ↩
Aside: The sleeve for Lateralus follow-up 10,000 Days featured a built-in stereoscope which, when unfolded, revealed 3D images within the booklet. While working at a public library, we came across a stack of old stereoscopic photographs of the local area. While researching online to find a pair of stereoscopic glasses with which to view them, I suddenly remembered that our audiovisual section had 2-3 copies of 10,000 Days, and I ran down and grabbed one off the shelves. ↩
This weekend, exhausted by an unexpectedly debilitating strain of hay fever, Megan suggested the two of us find something to do in London that didn’t involve parks or other pollen-filled outdoor spaces.
We found ourselves on a bright, blowy section of the Thames, on a bend with views to the left of Battersea Power Station, and to the right of more familiar sights like the London Eye. Our destination was the Nine Elms Apothecary Experience (a/k/a The Horticultural Spa), along the South Bank (close to Vauxhall tube station, MI6, and all that).
Set back from the river’s edge was a modest-sized translucent dome with a wooden structure attached. Scattered around were chilled people of various ages enjoying free herbal tea and the summer sun. The dome was smaller than we’d anticipated, but roomy for 10-12 visitors to gather inside it.
After a short wait, we entered through a Velcro airlock – my boots covered with plastic overshoes, Megan’s flip-flops removed – and found ourselves in a rather otherworldly space.
A small device was pumping out a steady flow of steam, and two volunteers talked us through the whole thing. One would add herbally-infused essential oils and waft the steam with a towel, and the other would occasionally chip in – between deep nosefuls of vapours – to explain the significance of that particular scent.
Sat on the floor of the tent – some of us bundled up, and others stretched out – our small group proceeded to control our breathing, and to allow ourselves to become engulfed by a thick cloud of steam. At times, visibility was such that you could barely see the ends of your own outstretched legs. It was much like sitting in a steam room, or perhaps quite like being caught within a cloud on a mountaintop. There was a nicely odd acoustic quality to our little plastic bubble, too, which added to the strange effect.
We spent fifteen minutes or so in an almost meditative state as five different scents were carefully added to the vapour. Our session seemed to be aiming at restoring balance, both to our mindset and our digestive system, with the aid of dill, coriander, rose geranium, lavender, and parsley.
Occasionally the wind – along with the hazy sensation of the sun, only a dim reminder of the outside world – would knock the sides of our vulnerable bubble. This would cause droplets of condensation to drip drip drip down, feeling almost like a wander through woodland after a shower.
As the scent programme came to an end, we were encouraged to take our time before leaving. It was an unhurried, relaxing experience. To wander in off the South Bank to a womb-like sanctuary for a brief spell made it feel like precious a resource, and one to treasure. Alas, I don’t think it is there any more. But I’m glad we found it while it was.
And as an antidote to hay fever? Well, I sneezed once when the dill first wafted in and my nostrils adjusted to the humid cloud, but from the blissful look on Megan’s face as it came time to leave, I’d say it had the desired effect – at least temporarily.