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Richard Ayoade discusses ‘The Double’ (interview piece for CineVue)

40 (Originally posted here)
(Review for ‘The Double’ found here)

After drawing critical approval for his directorial debut – an invigorating adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s cult 2008 novel ‘Submarine’, British comic-cum-filmmaker Richard Ayoade returns with sophomore feature The Double, taking as its source Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dark, pre-Kafka novella but repositioning its nineteenth-century action to a more updated, if not wholly identifiable, moment and place in time. In it Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a withdrawn office cog whose incessant self-doubt dictates a life spent at the mercy of his oppressive surroundings – a faceless, disregarding work environment matched by a suicide-heavy apartment complex – and renders him incapable of vocalising his affection for copygirl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a similar casualty of crippling invisibility and isolation.

Contrasting with Simon’s wallflower-esque demeanour is James Simon (the titular double, also played by Eisenberg), an alluring, self-assured new employee who also happens to be Simon’s exact mirror image, a fact that no one other than Simon either notices or seems to care about. Quickly appropriating every facet of his binary opponent’s life, from his apartment and chances of promotion to Hannah’s affections, James excessively personifies Simon’s failings in extremis, forcing the latter to take drastic action or risk fading even further into the sidelines.

Playing out in a foreboding, hermetically sealed yet indistinct timeframe characterised by a reverberating soundscape, severe architecture (think David Lynch’s Eraserhead melded with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)) and, for undisclosed reasons, sixties Japanese pop, The Double is a complete change of pace for Ayoade, whose Submarine (2010) fizzed with romance and nostalgia for a progressive, lovelorn adolescence. It was also long in development, as, after being attracted to Avi Korine’s (brother of Harmony) initial screenplay in 2007, Ayoade embarked on a long-term collaboration that spanned throughout production of his first film, via a couple of Vampire Weekend music videos, until the pair settled on a suitable draft. “I read the book, and what seemed interesting to me was the really unique premise and idea of this double that no one else notices. That seemed very funny to me”, Ayoade opines, and it is indeed a strong foundation for pitch black, almost sadistic humour, where each opportunity for expertly timed jokes come at Simon’s anxious expense, though not in an overtly antagonistic register.

If Submarine (“the only thing of that length I had written on my own”) radiated with soggy optimism, The Double appears immediately more cynical and dank in theme, narrative and tone, yet nestled amongst each literary source material’s preoccupations with the unrequited love of two lost souls – however explicit – is a psychological insight into an antisocial male protagonist. So how did he find going about adjusting Dostoyevsky to his own sensibilities? “It’s really interesting because you have something much bigger to start from than how the film ends up, where it being inevitably distilled – or, depressingly, when things are omitted – can blindside you as to how successful it is in one medium. There’s something counterintuitive about having to alter a story that already works very well in its own form, and trying to make visual equivalences is quite difficult. Actually being on set is really involving and kind of horrible at the same time, but also really privileging and one is lucky and happy to be doing it. But it’s very hard to feel like you’re getting it right”.

One way of loosely presenting the original text’s key ideas is the construction of a particularly distinctive, dystopic verisimilitude, where the world Ayoade and production designer David Crank create is wholly beyond compare, nor subject to identification as to when and where it actually takes place. Largely shot in an abandoned business estate in Crowthorne, Berkshire, and made up of props found in an old Holborn post sorting office, where low doorways slotted perfectly into the image of Simon’s forbidding workplace, this stark, absurdist visual palette is both a contrast and renovation of the social world of imperialist Russia depicted by Dostoyevsky. “The underlying idea was that it was meant to look like the future as imagined by someone in the 50s, so it would be fundamentally wrong, not historically accurate and not something that would happen now or in the future or in the past. So it’s a major left turn of some kind”.

Taking place in an inarticulate metropolis of encumbering machinery, where the only source of light is artificial and nightmarish alt-logic reigns supreme, Ayoade consciously weighs in on previous representations of the office space in cinema – “A repository for broken dreams”, akin to The Apartment (1960) and Welles’ The Trial (1962) – by illustrating it as an alternate reality “where people still toiled under a bureaucratic system and were subject to tyrannical bosses”, in this case the tough Mr. Papadopoulos and seldom seen The Colonel, played by Wallace Shawn and James Fox respectively (two of many notable cameos sprinkled throughout). This allows for the romantic subplot, a miniscule component in the novella buried in and amongst the internalised headspace of its protagonist, between Simon and Hannah to transcend and negate the alienation of the office environment, offering both a narrative spine and a cause for a redemptive showdown. Asked why he enlarged this aspect of the story, Ayoade admits “while I completely emotionally relate to Simon, what causes his disintegration doesn’t quite feel like the same cosmology that we occupy, where you can unravel that much through status at work. I could be wrong because I don’t have a proper job, but it doesn’t feel as important as not being recognised by someone who you love, which seems to be far more dangerous or of a threat to you.”

Though romance ostensibly tinges the central conceit, The Double is by and large a disorientating blend of intricate existential lunacy à la Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam at his most introspective (though Brazil (1985) is an obvious thematic equivalent), a sad treatise on loneliness that gives Eisenberg another opportunity to seamlessly and impressively disappear into two contrasting roles custom-made for him. It also proves once again that Ayoade is both astutely conscious of the language of cinema and a filmmaking name to take note of, continuing a Bergman-esque ambiguousness in terms of the geographical and temporal backdrops of his features that render them a sort of quasi-naturalistic peek into an alternative universe. An idiosyncratic auteurist stamp, yet how significant a tool is this approach? “There’s something funny about films that can so accurately present reality in minute detail that there’s often so much information that doesn’t feel appropriate, to the extent that I prefer ‘Old Hollywood’ to ‘On-Location Hollywood’”, foregrounding visual construction over naturalism. “For some films you don’t want too much reality because it gets in the way of the story. It felt appropriate to these projects, but I could imagine doing something that was contemporary and was in that vein if it felt right”.

Though The Double is European in flavour, with inflections of Edward Hopper, Magritte, and the cinematic output of Aki Kaurismaki, Louis Malle and Roy Andersson, Ayoade does cite The Dardennes Brothers and Lenny Abrahamson’s recent hit What Richard Did (2012) as contemporary examples of a – however inevitably heightened – organic style he could see himself adopting if the right film came along, though he’s quick to emphasise the pleasures found in the assembled world of Jacques Tati. Bashfully silent on the topic of future directorial outings, The Double is solid proof of Ayoade’s considerable talent at the helm of the lens, though ardent fans may be waiting a long time to see him on the other side. Asked if he would ever direct himself, he staunchly refuses to even consider it: “I couldn’t imagine not being able to think of someone better. There would have to be such an outbreak of influenza or a global strike for that to be remotely possible. And I would be a scab at that stage and there would be other things to deal with”, he says in customarily self-deprecating, deadpan fashion. It could be the premise of his next film.

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Which Hitch is Which?

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(Originally posted at Take One)

There’s an uncomfortable sense of irony that radiates from the arrival of two films looking to re-evaluate perhaps cinema’s greatest practitioner, Alfred Hitchcock, whilst acting as a response to his recent re-appraisal. Not only did 2012 see the so-called Master of Suspense’s extensive (55 films, barring lost and unfinished projects) back catalogue reprised to the baying contemporary crowds in the BFI’s exhaustive ‘The Genius of Hitchcock’ season, it also laid witness to something of a seismic shift in cinematic appreciation when Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound magazine’s greatest film of all time, as voted for by critics and filmmakers worldwide.

However much the great filmmaker’s career is back in the public consciousness (although it arguably rarely left it), there lies in the shadow of its rejuvenated appreciation naysayers that make wobbly attempts at deconstructing Hitchcock, surmising that a handful of his most critically celebrated works were a product of psychotic obsession and perverse manipulation, to the point of overt misogyny. These come in the form of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, which prides itself on telling the untold story behind Psycho – ‘the film that shocked the world’, and Julian Jarrold’s BBC/HBO production The Girl, a ruthless indication of Hitchcock’s apparent mistreatment of actress Tippi Hedren whilst making The Birds and Marnie. Whilst each film masquerades as matching dissections of their subject’s clearly complex psyche, they are both frustratingly opaque and deeply subjective, using cinema to simultaneously observe and attack him whilst airing the dirty laundry of a man who can no longer answer back to such damning indictments.

The frothier of the two, Gervasi’s plainly titled Hitchcock is something of a visual interpretation of Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book ‘Alfred Hitchcock and The Making Of Psycho’, depicting Hitch’s (physically imitated with oafish, pouting detachment by Anthony Hopkins) desperation to turn Robert Bloch’s striking (and factually based) 1959 novel into his next picture after deeming his career to be in a state of stagnation. Pointedly asked by the paparazzi whether, after forty years in the industry, he should quit whilst on top, Hitch puts the wheels in motion towards what would eventually become a landmark of suspense cinema as well as a bold confrontation of stifling censorship rules (“No American movie has ever found it necessary to show a toilet, let alone to flush one!”) and a complete overhaul of attendance records the likes of which would rarely be seen again until Spielberg’s Jaws fifteen years later.

As fascinating as this behind-the-scenes glimpse of a masterpiece is, the virtues of Rebello’s book stop here, diluted as they are by gauche artificiality that undercut the film’s claims for authenticity. Bookended by a gawky framing device that uses monologues in the vein of the director’s television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and soundtracked by its theme tune), Gervasi’s film is less an historical illustration as it is, effectively, a love story about the various wedges that formulate between Hitchcock and his long-serving, long-suffering wife Alma (played here by Helen Mirren). Interjecting factual accuracy, Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin contrive for the film a would-be affair Alma embarks upon with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who worked on the scripts for several of Hitchcock’s notable works. Posing a threat to the co-dependent relationship shared between the two protagonists, this possibly fictional aside fails to weave into the overarching non-fiction of the piece, which is already at odds with itself over what story it is ultimately trying to tell. The making of Psycho is a mere surface ruse to mask other angles and intentions: to create a duality between the troubled persona of Hitchcock and of Ed Gein – the psychotic murderer who inspired Bloch’s novel. Gein, who masked his sadistic front in public just like Norman Bates and, McLaughlin hints, Hitchcock himself, appears in the film in a parallel flashback of sorts as well as a ghostly figure hovering at Hitchcock’s shoulder, goading him to embrace his sadistic identity and corpulent mortality.

Yet Hitchcock’s ostensible depravity and his relationship with the dark recesses of his own mind are kept relatively dialled down as the film journeys on, stumbling on its attempts at examining anything resembling psychological complexity. The questions over Hitchcock’s deep fascination with the source text is immediately dropped in favour of the principal romantic conflict, building to a sympathetic ending where conflicts are resolved and genre conventions restored, as is the filmmaker’s recognition of his love and respect for both Alma (his stalwart) and women in general.

This dramatically conflicts with Jarrold’s The Girl; whereas Hitchcock allows the director to get away relatively unscathed by his shady obsessions, Jarrold and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes condemn him for them, levelling a series of post-mortem charges without conjecture. Based partly on Hedren’s recent allegations (she has been cited as calling him “evil and deviant”) as well as Donald Spoto’s contemptuous book ‘Spellbound by Beauty’, The Girl appears to be the cinematic equivalent of one of Hitch’s prominent quotes: “Blondes make the best victims”, going so far as quoting this macabre line in its opening frame. Played by Toby Jones, Hitchcock here is portrayed as nothing more than a gravelly voiced predator honing in on his prey, making constant bids for Hedren’s emotions whilst ignoring Alma, who, played more fittingly by an understated Imelda Staunton, is seen in more of a birdlike, submissive light than Mirren’s romanticised version.

Like the knife that plunges into the writhing body of Marion Crane in the 78 edits that comprise Psycho’s infamous 45 second sequence, one can almost visualise the hatchet pounding into the director here, portrayed as a man at war with his alcoholism, inflated egotism, sexual impotence and a loathing of his own physical appearance. He is played by Jones as a skulking crustacean, shuffling around awkwardly, spitting out the innuendo-laden and provocative remarks his sardonic wit was known for, as well as providing a steady stream of lecherous advances toward his leading lady. While perhaps the more effective of the two films in its analysis of the making of a classic – a sequence illustrating the lengthy shooting of the attic scene, where Hedren was showered with live birds for five days, is exact and quite arresting – it has more of a deplorable yearning to paint a biased and sensationalist portrait that has widely been condemned as false. However much Hedren and Spoto howl to the contrary, these vindictive reassessments are being unanimously denied by previous Hitchcock sirens such as Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak, who endorse their career benefactor, and even Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson in Hitchcock) labels him a sweetheart compared to the likes of Orson Welles. Hedren can be seen to be contrasting her own evaluation of history, considering her decades long silence and the warm anecdotes she is seen telling in interviews and the documentary All About The Birds. Furthermore, her accusations can be perceived as nothing more than rabble rousing and scandalous slander, the product of bitterness at her own sparse acting career.

Of course, such personal and serious accounts shouldn’t be ignored, but what should be questioned is the manner in which they are deployed and exploited. Yet these petty excursions in rotund pastiche make little effort in searching for truths, so absorbed are they with representing the master filmmaker – shot almost always side on, in his distinguished profile – in such shallow depths, however illuminating they are in showing his knack for self-promotion (even his quoting of Sardou’s line “Torture the women!” can be taken with a pinch of conscious provocation on his part). Whether audiences choose to believe the differing opinions on show here or not, where these films work best is offering reminders of just how fascinating and debatable Psycho, The Birds and even Marnie are; the three career peaks before a slow dwindling of artistic prominence.

Focus On: Woody Allen

(Originally posted at Take One)

Woody Allen is one of the most dedicated and prolific filmmakers working in the industry today. At the age of seventy-six, the chequered American director continues to contribute a film a year to his remarkable forty-three film canon, something he has done since simultaneously directing the throwaway farce A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and the ingenious faux documentary Zeligin 1982.

Allen has never been as publicly approachable as he has in recent years: personally appearing at the Cannes Film Festival on several occasions to promote his latest offering, speaking candidly in interviews and, of course, opening his doors to director Robert Weide and permitting an all-access pass to his unshowy lifestyle.

As refreshing as this is (and for his unwavering fans it is quite the godsend), this lifting of the lid on his personal life smacks of a possible desire to redress the fading public opinion of him and his career; an attempt to alleviate the constant critical destruction of the past decade’s batch of films. Since its heyday in the 1970s, Allen’s cinematic stance has perhaps never been scrutinised as much as it has been of late, and although last year’s Midnight in Paris had its supporters, each new film is picked apart by critics in an attempt to figure out whether it stands as that most tired and subjective of achievements, ‘a return to form’.

In a climate where box office behemoths are shamelessly conjured up from a variety of sources (see Battleship based on the strategy board game of the same name), and made solely for the benefit of financial charts, Allen’s latest work has to some extent been looked upon, with a degree of scorn, as prosaic and behind the times. One of the many highlights of Robert Woody Allen: A Documentary is the illumination of the director’s approach to writing his screenplays: on his trusty typewriter, using scissors and staples to rudimentarily cut out and insert new or old sections. An unfathomably elemental process in contrast to today’s standard method of digitally cutting and pasting on a word processor. This charming insight is mirrored by Allen’s seeming refusal to alter his directorial disposition as a purveyor of human behaviour and relationship quandaries, something dealt with in one form or another in almost all of his films.

Allen’s devotion to the cinema of his heroes, from Ingmar Bergman to Federico Fellini (to whom he paid something of an explicit homage in films such as Interiorsand Stardust Memories) is reflected in the way that his films deal with the existential crises of a group of bourgeois city dwellers, the fragility of the human condition, and their conjoined effects upon the relationships his characters frequently enter into and fall out of. Constantly prescient in their themes, his films can be seen to exist in their own timeless bubbles, the characters dealing with love, death, fidelity, luck, familial angst and the tricky presence that fate plays in their lives. They take place in their own individual timeframes: for instance, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, despite some minute details, feels ageless and most importantly spaceless. It plays out in a shimmering, nondescript London that could easily pass for a summery New York, his most accustomed locale. Allen’s films feel like throwbacks to simpler times, uninterested by large budgets and glossy special effects.

Some say that Allen’s more recent films have become bogged down in dated and imitative reflections on life and love, especially the moody, London-set dullard Cassandra’s Dream. Some have typecast him as a one-note director who deals in monotony. But he still has the ability to convey both his creativity and his wit, whilst remaining unable to comprehend or appreciate the present tense. Whereas his handsome, melancholic Radio Days looked back to his youth during the golden days of radio, his interest in the past is specifically observed in Midnight in Paris, his most profitable film to date. Owen Wilson, on fine form as the wide-eyed Allen cypher, plays Gil Pender, a writer nonsensically transported to the Paris of the 1920s, an era he is unequivocally obsessed with, to enjoy a series of cahoots with his many literary heroes, from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil’s fixation with these midnight flights of fancy has repercussions in the present tense with his fiancée, yet does wonders for his novel (which, coincidentally, is a story examining nostalgia).

It can all too easily be assumed that Allen seems to be embracing, both in and outside of his work, a nostalgia for a time when his films had an intrinsic critical relevancy, a passionate fanbase and some form of box office clout. These elements appear to be missing with each yearly release (barring, of course, Midnight in Paris). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, according to Allen, a revisiting of the leitmotifs and observations in the morose Interiors; Whatever Works, in which Allen took a detour from his extended European vacation to depict a misanthropic New Yorker hesitantly entering into a relationship with a younger woman (a plot device used several times before, from Manhattan to Husbands and Wives). Even his upcoming To Rome With Love takes on an episodic, multi-narrative structure analogous to Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (1972).

For all this outwardly brazen rehashing of previous works, this is Allen proving that he is still a filmmaker learning on the job, changing and updating his sage outlook on humanity as he himself becomes older and wiser. No one is more critical of his work than Allen himself, who is notably unhappy with the outcome of a high percentage of his filmography, yet he continues to tell stories because that is what he enjoys doing. Even if he retains an indifference to the processes of filmmaking, preserving a lax approach to directing coupled with a nonchalant attitude to reviews and box office figures, Allen should be commended for carving out a career doing exactly what he wants to do, and what his impressively permissive auteurist bearing allows him to do. His career is best described as a delightful and well-earned form of arrogance that disregards public and critical opinion.

If anything, he stands, like independent cinema wunderkind John Cassavetes before him, as a challenger to the opposable dominance of mainstream filmmaking that governs and destroys so many careers, resisting surrender and simply moving to a different continent if he is refused funding. How many other filmmakers have bounded, albeit shakily, from the USA to Europe so successfully? Like the character of Leonard Zelig in Zelig, a social hermit who has the ability to adapt physically and mentally to any given surrounding, Allen is able to flit in and out of the cinema each year, remaining in the public consciousness whilst taking on different locations and actors and interlacing them into new and singular works that preserve his bashful idiosyncrasies.

In perhaps his most celebrated masterpiece Annie Hall, which changed the game for the romantic comedy genre in 1977, Allen’s character Alvy Singer recalls, in one of many meditative reflections, an old joke about a man telling a doctor how his brother thinks he is a chicken, and how he doesn’t turn him in because he needs the eggs. He laments: “I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships– you know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but, I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs”. Although he has unfairly been accused of taking on a somewhat lackadaisical approach to filmmaking in recent times, and however admittedly mediocre some of his latest films seem to be, we still need him to produce those eggs, because one day this treasured filmmaker will, inevitably, stop laying. And what a loss that will be.

3D and the Destruction of the Upcoming Feature.

At a recent screening for Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) at my local mainstream-championing cineplex (unfortunately the only cinema in my area for a number of miles), the one thing that frustrated me more than the film, and the customarily noisy patrons, was the trailers section for the ‘upcoming features’, something that once was a rite of passage for me when it came to my regular film-going experience, but now a crippling, headache-inducing test of endurance. It detailed four upcoming movies all aimed at kids, so the material was barely of interest to me, and they all ended with that jarring, gravely-voiced adage “…in 3D”; two words that have the simultaneous ability to make the heart sink and foul the mood of the more discerning cinemagoer. In short, 3D is an unwelcome addition and now stands for a lot more than integrating the viewer into the cinematic world, assuming that a clouded depth of field can make up for even the most lackluster of materials (see Alice in Wonderland (2010), Clash of the Titans (2010) etc). It also diminishes any excitement I once held for the future of mainstream cinema, itself something of a guilty pleasure in a climate of shameless cash-ins over legitimate independence, which remembers cinema is first and foremost an art form, not another zero on a paycheck. Continue reading