noir cinema

REAL MEAN CRITTERS

PUSHER

DENMARK, 1996

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Since the election of Donald Trump the phrase Man Baby has appeared often. Baby is perhaps an exaggeration. Man Boy is better. A Man Boy, we have discovered, is an impatient bully who has an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Man Boys, which may or may not be the plural, think they are entitled to everything their mothers promised them and everything that their inferior mothers lacked the ability to imagine. Man Boys do not regard women as their equals. They cannot. They have feelings of superiority to most human beings. So far the term Man Boy has been used by left wing critics to puncture the reputations of greedy and vulgar businessmen and coarse right wing politicians.  But Man Boys are everywhere. Working class gangsters are Man Boys. This should be no surprise. Gangsters are violent and unpleasant but they have the same interest in money as businessmen.   Man Boys, though, are not just interested in money.   Writers and filmmakers include a fair number of Man Boys.   Bohemia, the cultural homeland and not the place, is full of Man Boys and even Women Girls.   The creative Man Boy witnesses chaos and suffering and rubs his hands at the prospect of an idea for a film.   Twisted violence and torture can make Man Boys giggle.

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Nicolas Winding Refn is the other famous Danish filmmaker and not the one everyone knows.  Like Lars Von Trier, he is talented but a little odd. Although we had seen it all before somehow his film Drive impressed the critics. Winding Refn is a stylish director and he has a sense of character and destiny.  This strength undermined a film about an existential loner and his motor car but what the hell.  Camus has been long dead, more the pity. The films of Winding Refn and Von Trier are bold but also self-important. People give them millions of dollars to spend, which means that there are more than a few people who can live with self-importance. Valhalla Rising was an attempt by Winding Refn to match the epics of the equally odd Werner Van Herzog.  Valhalla Rising cost nearly $6m and made $31,000.   Even money launderers would baulk at that but perhaps that film was more self-important than bold. Winding Refn and Von Trier may just be the challenging filmmakers that audiences need if we are to survive jaded modernity.  Or they may be Man Boys, adult versions of the kind of children who giggled when they were asked to wipe their noses. To the surprise of no one Winding Refn directed a film that was based on the life of Bronson the violent criminal. Now incarcerated in Broadmoor amongst the violent and insane the troubled armed robber Bronson has assaulted an awful lot of people. Sometimes he holds his victims hostage. He also paints and writes poetry. Bronson is a role model for Man Boys everywhere.  Donald Trump may be a fan.

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For those inspired by the Danish record on economic equality and education the term Copenhagen Underworld may sound like an oxymoron. It is not. Winding Refn and Von Trier may be Man Boys but, because they have neither illusions nor moral aspirations, their films can sometimes benefit . The people in Pusher are unpleasant, and their immorality is convincing. These people want the freedom to be better but not in the way Camus imagined. They want more money, status and gratification.

Pusher is the first of a trilogy.   All are set in Copenhagen. Some of the characters appear in more than one film.   Winding Refn was reluctant to make sequels to Pusher but he needed to earn money because he was in debt. Valhalla did not rise.   When potential film projects are mentioned, the name of Winding Refn is often mentioned. Film directors who survive know what it is like to be a desperate hustler. Winding Refyn has also talked about how the second in the Pusher series reflects his own complicated relationship with his father.   This may be why that film is the best of the trilogy.  The series began, though, with a frantic search for money.

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Frank buys drugs from Milo.  Frank intends to sell them to someone else and make a profit.  Frank will pay Milo for the drugs he has bought after he sells them.  The economic model is simple. There is a distributor, wholesaler, retailer and customer, and something supposedly marvellous called credit. Frank is the wholesaler. Pusher may be a criticism of capitalism or it may simply be a tale of chaotic lives. It does, though, expose the network of exploitation and abuse that develops from commercial contracts, profit and the advantage of economic power. Mix in male authority, and somehow people have to survive. This means that dependencies are established. Thanks to the the films of Michelangelo Antonioni we all know the thin line between dependency and prostitution. The girlfriend of Frank says, ‘I’m not a whore. I’m a champagne girl.’ She is confused about how she earns her money but so are the rest of us. When Frank attempts to sell the heroin supplied by Milo, the police intervene and Frank loses both the heroin and the money Milo was expecting to be paid.

After the 2008 financial crash there has been debate about whether risk should be proportioned amongst creditors and debtors. The progressive argument is that creditors should be expected to take some of the risk if they expect to make profit or interest. They are exercising a judgement that may or may not be rewarded. The progressives argue that moral hazard is important to all economic decisions. In 2008 the bankers and their friends in government felt otherwise and were happy to make people homeless. Milo thinks like the bankers. He wants his money, and, if it is not paid, Frank can keep his apartment but he will lose a kneecap. This is life on the edge. Money or the lack of it can mean obliteration. Filmmakers must have similar feelings when their deals go sour. We suspect that some of the film, like the sequel, is inspired by the personal experience of Winding Refn.

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At the beginning of the film we see drug dealers Frank and Tonny relaxing.  Winding Refyn researched the film. He spoke to Copehagen criminals and he attended Narcotics Anonymous. Pusher impresses because the scenes of Frank and Tonny having fun are just as disturbing as the violent confrontations that follow. Men like Frank and Tonny need to impress other men.   Reassurance is essential for these aspiring gangsters, and they make exaggerated demands of their friends. Bravery and loyalty is challenged, and in the moments they can afford to relax the drug dealers insist on bear hugs. Empathy is important but complicated by performance and a need to shock.  Of course, it distorts their relationship with women. Frank and Tonny take comfort over what they regard as their superior status to their girlfriends.  The locker room talk between Frank and Tonny is not inauthentic but it is overwritten.  It feels as if a shopping list of sexual activities has been crammed into one conversation.

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Kim Bodnia is the actor that plays Frank. He has played gangsters and sensitive husbands hurt by unloving wives. He has a range. In Pusher he combines violence and vulnerability, the spot of innocence that is, according to Camus, at the heart of everyone.  Pusher reveals how self-destruction in people without hope is informed by not just irresponsibility but fantasy. It becomes the final tool for demonstrating defiance.   By the end of the film we have a sense of how violent and destructive hustlers lack the ability to imagine either the future or life in another place. The criminals in Pusher are trapped in dependency, powerlessness and bravado. Frank and Milo, like most drug dealers in the movies and perhaps real life, are men without a contingency plan. The easy options they use to make money and their willingness to settle arguments with violence leave them with undercooked imaginations. This was what happened to Lee Marvin in the classic thriller Point Blank when he was obliged to retreat in the shadows around him. He only understood what could be achieved through his own violent power and ruthlessness. Frank is the same. He is cunning but unable to comprehend why his lack of culpability in the drug deal that went wrong is no protection against the wrath of Milo. This is a failure of imagination. When a proposal for peace is made by Milo, we watch the imagination of Frank become incoherent. The amoral hustler who thought people could be pushed aside is unable to distinguish between salvation and damnation.   Again, like the champagne girl, Frank is not that different from the rest of us.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

JAR CITY (MYRIN)

2006

ICELAND, GERMANY, DENMARK

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The city in the film title refers to the Iceland plant or factory where gene research takes place.  The jars in the city or plant contain body parts. The company that owned the plant was called de Code Genetics and it existed from 1996 to 2012. De Code Genetics lost money, $530m in fact. Somehow the company was sold for $415m to Amgen, that name is an abbreviated version of Applied Molecular Genetics. Amgen took what they needed from de Code Genetics to help them make profits but when you can lose $530m, and later sell for $415m who cares? We can imagine what Amgen plundered. What was left of de Code Genetics is now owned by a Chinese company called WuXi Pharma Tech. The Chinese paid $65m for the privilege and for whatever it was they discovered amongst the left over jars and body parts. Health, our bodies and what happens to them are big business. Powerful people are interested and want to become global leaders. Whatever our limitations we are numerous and we all have a body which means an awful lot of limbs and organs for geneticists to examine and attend. The powerful want to make a lot of money, and the serious and curious want to do research. They enjoy having a salary and being able to feed a family.

Jar City qualifies as a dark thriller. The people in the film are gloomy and flawed. Living rooms are untidy. The movie is filmed in a dark blue tint by director Amaldur Indriđason. The landscape images have a crisp edge and are clear but darkness is somehow always present, as if it is hiding behind a curtain that has been lifted. The film has an attitude to landscape that is also seen in Australian movies. There is no picturesque solace just relentless mystery, volcanic murmurings and meaningless distance that confines people to 4X4 vehicles. Recently Amaldur Indriđason directed the TV show Trapped. That show was decent. There was more snow in Trapped than in Jar City. In Trapped and amidst all those white hills the lens filter was superfluous. The people, though, are as gloomy and as flawed as they are in Jar City. Anybody would think they were all related. This belief, of course, is why the company de Code Genetics became interested. It had the view that Icelanders had genetic roots that would benefit from being polished.

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The criticism of de Code Genetics is muted in the film but it exists. The discontent with genetic research is more obvious in the original novel. For the critics in Iceland the company had a dangerous and divisive notion of what was normal and what constituted deviancy. They established a database that could categorise not just genes but the people who owned them. Because of the promotional publicity, the vision of normality appeared to consist of narrow healthy Icelanders loyal to their country.

Jar City begins and ends with a performance by a police choir. The tune sounds as if it is patriotic. It suggests conformity and national and communal pride. The people in the choir and many of those who are inspired by the music have a group identity that promises the illusion of strength and self-control. These people obey the rules and are rewarded. They have ceremony in their lives. When they die, they will be blessed by the grief of their neighbours in their Iceland homeland and a funeral, a ritual of community that was prepared earlier. The rest, those who are classified as deviants, can be put in jars and used for genetic research. The singing of the police choir continues throughout the soundtrack. It serves as an ironical coda to the grim reality and failure of ordinary lives. The music and the landscape also evoke a mythic mode, a reminder that the heroes of the past were anything but normal and that human tragedy and motives have always been extreme.   The murderous Medea in the play by Euripides is an obvious example.

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Nordic Noir is an overrated literary genre that lacks style and often thought but it sells books.   In its favour Nordic writers are good at producing fresh scenarios and dark visions that avoid references to simple notions of good and evil. Rather than point a finger at uncomplicated beasts they attempt to explain what must be the greatest mystery to Scandinavians. Even in a social democratic paradise lives can be dysfunctional and people will still do damage to others. The mystery is explored in their genre fiction and progressive penal institutions.  The success of both persuades them that they are making progress.

Jar City mixes clichés and innovation. There are also a couple of loose ends in the plot. Victims and assassins in the movie are affected by the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis. The impact of the disease is exaggerated in the film. Fatalities are rare. The disease is not cancerous leprosy.  The plot is a little wild but thanks to strong actors the characters feel real. Reykjavik is the kind of oppressive but interesting location that will persuade any cinema audience to suspend disbelief. Mayhem is caused by three men and a corrupt policeman who have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and a psychology that rejects self-criticism and restraint. The murder being investigated by Detective Eriendur occurs thirty years after the initial mayhem. This murderer is a brooder unable to make emotional progress. What his attractive wife sees in him is a moot point. She appears to have no function in the narrative other than as a reminder that the murderer was not a single parent.

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The time shift where the murderer and the motive of the crime are revealed is functional but audacious and admirable. The world-weary detective has been seen many times before. But few cynical coppers have been preoccupied with daughters who are promiscuous drug addicts. The young men who take advantage of his troubled daughter jeer at the detective and scream that his daughter is a slut. They may not use the language of the geneticists but she is condemned as a deviant. Despite their willingness to have sex with the daughter the accusatory males regard themselves as normal. Detective Eriendur knows how to respond to criticism. He breaks the leg of one of the accusers.

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Detective Eriendur is not condemned in the movie. Legs can be repaired, and his daughter, when not self-destructive, has potential.   Like the rest of us, she needs to share human worth and not the organised gratification designed by those who have the ability to incur half a billion dollars worth of debt. In a memorable scene Detective Eriendur lies down on the sofa next to his daughter. He reveals his vulnerability and how his tough aggression is nothing but armour. We understand the importance of uniforms to policemen and the societies that employ them. If Detective Eriendur and daughter are to survive, they will have to remove the armour they both thought essential. The father will have to respond differently to what he regards as corruption, and the daughter will need to recognise that she is a human being capable of more than gratification and self-destruction. In Jar City gloom is fine but self-hatred is unacceptable. Father and daughter will succeed if they accept that there is no need to worry about judgements as to what is normal and deviant. The geneticists have been warned. No doubt there are schemes for redesigning the human race so it consists only of bland conformists who accept the plans of the powerful. Such schemes have existed for much of human history. This time the science gives the powerful an added edge. No one likes bad dreams and to hear of what the cruel inflict upon the innocent. But without the different and the flawed we all lose the freedom to be ourselves. And without that freedom the casualties will increase and not reduce. More disturbing these human casualties will become sleek and unrecognisable. We will not in the end know what or who should be treated. At the end of the film we see Detective Eriendur in his police uniform and singing in the choir. The expression on his face lets us know that he is different from the other members of the choir. He is no longer persuaded by the normal and he has secrets he will not share with his fellow policemen and policewomen. Meanwhile he has a fragile daughter to support and help discover her potential.

 Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.