Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Absolute Beginners? (An Overture)

Picking a topic for Film of the Month Club has an active element to it. When you pick a film, you're making a statement: you're telling everyone the sort of movie you'd like to see discussed. There's an idealistic element as well: your vision of Film of the Month Club, and of film discussion in general ("This is the sort of film we should be discussing.").

Chris Cagle e-mailed me a few months ago, asking whether I wanted to pick a film for Film of the Month Club to cover. I wrote back quickly: Absolute Beginners. A movie that doesn't have a very strong critical reputation, wasn't commercially successful, and doesn't even have a cult following that I'm aware of. It's, as auteurism has taught us, a "Julien Temple film," though I'd rather say it's a "movie directed by Julien Temple." It's neither refined nor always rewarding. It's undeniably a product of the great "lost decade" of cinema, the 1980s. So why Absolute Beginners?

A person writing critically (let's call him or her a critic, regardless of actual profession) should be able to write a hundred different essays about the same film, just as a filmmaker should be able to make a hundred films from the same set-up. This is does not invalidate criticism; it reaffirms it as a vital act. If there was only one correct answer, there would be no reason to ask questions, just as if there was a clear right and wrong there'd be no reason for morality or ethics.

Similarly, there is no right or wrong type of film to write about, no right or wrong directors. Many uninformative essays have been written about Fritz Lang. Many insightful things have been written about Tony Scott. It's rare that you read something original about film noir, yet people continue writing about it, when there are hundreds of equally valid genres that no one takes seriously (pornography, for one; American action films, for another). So my pick of Absolute Beginners represents a certain Utopian dream: getting a group of people to watch and consider a film no one watches or considers. To look directly into something that normally exists in our peripheral vision, that we only see out of the corner of our eye.

And the writers and the readers will find there's as much here as in any other film.


Peter Rinaldi said...

You got me excited about a film that I didn't think I'd get excited about. I am going to watch it tonight.

Glad the site is back on track!

Anonymous said...

Ah 50s London...I haven't seen this film, or any other "Julian Temple film" (so I don't even know what that might mean). But what is quite novel for myself is that I've seen it as a stage play, as habits go a novelty in itself, and found that I enjoyed it. I'll try and seek out a copy of it; (in the hope that there will talk of jazz, forbidden sex, mod(ernist) sartorial style, and other hedonistic attitudes) I look forward to the discussion!

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


When I said that it was more "directed by Julien Temple" than "a Julien Temple film" I meant that for me, Temple as a filmmaker is really a jumble of musical tastes and ideas about culture (most notably, the exploitation of the artist). I'm not completely sure if Absolute Beginners is "his" film , but his ideas are definitely giving it direction.

I haven't read the Colin MacInnes novel the movie is based on, but from I understand it's quite different, especially in terms of its focus and the characterizations. From what I read in your link to the stage play's description, it appears to be closer to the tone of the novel (or at least what I imagine a Colin MacInnes novel to be like).

Anonymous said...

MacInnes' novels are unfamiliar to me too, but I think this piece on him sets the pitch (as a background for the film very nicely):

The hero of Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes does not have a name, nor does he need one. For he is an emblem more than a character of that phenomenon of the 1950s, the teenager. An emblem of that supposedly classless class of youth as consumer and pioneer of style and 'cool', making his debut in British literature by way of MacInnes's second novel, now to be staged half a century later, in an adaptation by Roy Williams at Hammersmith's Lyric Theatre.

MacInnes was the decadent chronicler of 1950s Notting Hill, a restless, volatile neighbourhood which was home to one of the UK's biggest West Indian immigrant communities, and the scene of notorious race riots in August 1958. Openly gay when homosexuality was still an illegal taboo, MacInnes revelled in what he saw as the impoverished area's exuberant exoticism. Absolute Beginners was the first novel to capture the city's emerging youth culture, its lustful, teenage adventure dovetailing into MacInnes's sexualised idolisation of black life in Notting Hill and climaxing with the riots that seared the neighbourhood. Nowadays known to many only by way of Julien Temple's almost universally derided film of 1986, Absolute Beginners and MacInnes's preceding book City of Spades, achieved cult status after their publication, and were the first to chronicle, for a white audience at least, the culture of the new immigrants to London.

Notice the disapproving remark on Temple's adaptation – I guess I'll have to see for myself..

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

...Julien Temple's almost universally derided film of 1986...

The movie's critical history is tangled. It was panned by most people back when it was released, but most recent reviews (written around the time of the DVD release) have taken another, more ambiguous stance, saying that it's not a "bad movie" while at the same time never completely endorsing in.

Here's Jonathan Rosenbaum blurb-length review from the Chicago Reader website:

A fascinating attempt by rock video director Julien Temple to do several things at once--adapt a Colin MacInnes novel, show the London youth scene in 1958 (while dealing at length with the racial tensions of the period), build on some of the stylistic innovations of Frank Tashlin, Vincente Minnelli, and Orson Welles, and put to best use a fascinating score by Gil Evans that adapts everything from Charles Mingus to Miles Davis. A mixed success, but an exhilarating try (1986). With David Bowie, Keith Richards [sic], and James Fox. 107 min.

The mention of Keith Richards is a misprint; I think he meant Ray Davies.

Marc Raymond said...

I'm hoping to track this down when I return to Canada later next week, no luck here in Korea yet. I'm intrigued. I haven't seen any of Temple's films, even his Sex Pistols documentaries. My only knowledge of the film prior to these postings was, yes, the reference to the opening shot in Robert Altman's THE PLAYER.

I'm curious to see how it fits (or doesn't fit) with the whole 80s phenomenon of what Justin Wyatt has dubbed "high concept" (films such as those by Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, and others mixing art cinema techniques with a marketable and seductive look).

Anonymous said...

Ignatiy --This is an inspirational introductory post. From time to time we need a little push, a nudge, a reminder of why we need to keep thinking and writing about our favorite subject, and a reminder to explore areas we may have overlooked as well. Thank you.

I have an sincere question: why term the 1980s "the great 'lost decade' of cinema?"

I'm looking forward to seeing the film (on its way through the mail as I write this) and the upcoming discussion.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I feel that of all decades since the start of the movies, the 1980s are the most underrated, especially in the US. It marked the end of the New Hollywood, probably the most overrated era in American cinema. I would take Cimino over Coppola any day of the week and Alan Rudolph over Scorcese.

And, so far as cinephilia is concerned, it's kind of a lost era--it's seen as a transitional period too often instead of a decade on its own. It produced some of the best mainstream English-language filmmaking, introduced us to the greatest filmmakers Britain has ever produced (Davies, Jarman, Leigh), gave us original works from some of the greatest directors of the 1960s (Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Resnais, to name a few). It's Ferrara's first decade, and Michael Mann's. Not to mention Hou's early films, Woo's first action work. It's as good as the 1950s.

weepingsam said...

The 80s are an odd case - it's hard to reconcile the tendency (which I have too) to dismiss the 80s with the number of 80s films I love and respect. It might be because it's hard to build up a narrative about the 80s, the way narratives about the 60s or 70s have been told - "transitional" is a good term for it. All the good films seem to come from people or movements already established - or from individuals, without a strong sense of a movement around them. I tend to think of them that way myself - despite being a fan of some of the things that did have a strong sense of a movement around them - Hong Kong films (new wave or otherwise); Taiwanese films; the revival of Japanese films in the 80s (Imamura and Kurosawa and others actually making films for cinemas again). I think it tends to be a very decentralized decade - several areas or trends or filmmakers were important, but there weren't clear unifying themes...

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

I doubt we'll ever have a single unified movement in filmmaking again. I think concurrent trends is the more likely scenario, and the longer film history progresses, the less these trends will be tied to national cinemas. It's happening already: we can identify tendencies, but they cross continents and hemispheres, with the exception of trends in American film, which remains insular, and pre-established traditions in French cinema which continue being expanded and re-invented. These two cinemas, which once said everything about the world, haven't quite moved into the 21th century model of interaction. This doesn't mean the US and France don't produce vital work--but the ways in which the major filmmakers of those countries function is very different from the way filmmakers across, say, Asia, Africa or the rest of Europe are interfacing with one another.

Marc Raymond said...

I think there are many reasons why the 80s are considered a subpar decade in the art of film:

(1) Mainstream Hollywood films became much less interesting, and this often defines cinema as a whole. Certainly, by most criteria of value, a glace at the top ten box office charts from the 70s to the 80s sees a large drop in quality.

(2) In art cinema, this was certainly a "transitional" period, as has been noted. You had the death or retirement of Fassbinder, Bergman, and Truffaut and the impression (however false we may consider it) that the older directors (especially Godard) were no longer making exciting (read: accessible for fans of art cinema) work.

(3) Probably the biggest reason is the social/historical context. With the rise of conservative governments in America and Britain, the possibility of real social change that sparked the 60s and 70s was seen as completely lost. Even if there were still great films being made (and there were), the excitement of cinema as being at a new wave of a social movement had faded. It would take the discovery of other national cinemas like Iran, Taiwan and others to rejuvenate this interest.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

I'll agree that the social / historical context was a reason why Iranian and Taiwanese cinema was able to become popular in the West -- under different circumstances, these great films might have been ignored for years to come (as Iranian cinema, much of which was great even before the 1980s, had until that point).

But I'll say this: I've always been fascinated by the fact that what I feel is some of the greatest British cinema (and popular music) was produced under Thatcher. It seemed almost like a reaction against the political climate.

As far as mainstream film in the Anglosphere goes, I think Hollywood filmmaking in the 1980s is vastly underrated and ripe for re-examination, though I will agree that the era's biggest box office successes are all pretty bland. But these films will fade--some of them have already. Deciding to do a little research, I looked up the top ten box office draws for each year of the 1980s. Several significant things stand out. The number 1 spot usually made $100-200 million more than the number 2 spot. And many of the top earners have been forgotten: who knew that the top American grossing film of 1987 was Three Men and a Baby? It seems that receipts don't buy cultural cache--at least not in the long run.

david said...

It's a period when people like Cronenberg, Ferrara, Larry Cohen, David Lynch and the Neil Jordan of Mona Lisa and The Company of Wolves ( there's a puzzle mechanism for you)who'd started working in the late Seventies began getting mainstream attention without their films getting adulterated.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Another good point--we often forget that filmmakers associated with a decade usually started in the previous one. The New Wave filmmakers made movies throughout the 1950s (Rivette and Rohmer made their first short films in 1950), but it took until the 1960s for studios and audiences to start supporting their work.

Anonymous said...

have started to explore and re-think the eighties about two years ago, with astonishing results.
Before, I used to think the 80s were mainly blockbusters, kitsch and camp - now I'm starting to seriously appreciate the kitsch and the camp, and the 80s are evolving into my favorite movie-decade.
From a distance, the 80s seems like a reinvention and reinforcement of the 50s, with coonservative values breeding the opposite as well. Art cinema seems to be more radical, the B-Movie finally enters Hollywood's A-List, and the playfulness of the French New Wave gets repeated (what we call neo(-) or postmodern).

I completely agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky - the 80s are totally ripe for discovery.

The 80s works of Ken McMullen, Mamoru Oshii, Sogo Ishii, Straub/Huillet, Milius, Beneix, Carax, Zulawski, Skolimowski, Sijan, Doillon, and many others are in dire need of (re)discovery.