St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

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St. Elmo's Fire (1985)

“Do you believe in pre-marital sax?” – Billy Hicks

I would like to share with you my enduring affection for a seminal coming-of-age film, that while bold enough to emblazon teenagers as decadent archetypes, continues to leave me with a sense of affection for the protagonists, perhaps because they have come to represent elements of my own psyche, therefore its almost impossible to turn away from their plights and tribulations of maturity.

With this I refer no less to the wonderful and much maligned ‘St.Elmo’s Fire’.

So what’s the premise of this subjective classic? Like many others of this genre, the story tells of seven young adults moving from the security of adolescence, into the great unknown we call ‘life’. By life, I mean the now uncertainty of career choices, emotional maturity and discovery of the true self.

“Your movie teaches you what it is, not what you think it is” – Joel Schumacher

Taking each character in equal measure, the story of St.Elmo’s Fire graces us with a journey into the minds and hearts of a black sheep, aspiring lawyer, emotional martyr, politician, socialite, stepford wife and a struggling writer. Despite the aesthetic setting of Washington D.C., the loneliness and angst these youngsters disguise behind their arrogant musings, becomes more visible each time I engage with the film.

Perhaps more notably, the production quality is high, albeit accidental, as the 2:35:1 aspect ratio adds a maturity to proceedings, and I just love some of the exterior shots for their autumnal hues and sense of romantic opulence. The David Foster score also separates this film from its contemporaries, largely due to the classically intellectual feel, and yet you cannot help feeling somewhat ‘pumped’ when listening to John Parr’s ‘Man in Motion’.

For reasons that defy any real explanation, I love this film, I have continued to love it, and even feel a sense of exclusivity because I view it free from popular consensus. In fact, every visit to Georgetown reveals new subtleties and moments of reflection, so I cannot imagine growing weary of this cinematic pleasure.

Perhaps because much like these wonderfully written yet superficial friends, I have also felt the grief that maturity brings, so cannot but hold a candle for the unblemished honesty of youth, and the arrogance we lose as the years accumulate.

Ultimately, St.Elmo’s Fire finds itself a mass of contradictions, torn between humour and drama for drama’s sake, but it’s that flaw which brings me back time and time again, and leaves me feeling oddly fulfilled when the final credits roll.

Because after all, beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder.

The Thing (1982)

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The Thing (1982)
‘It’s not Bennings’ by Vincent Carroza

“Why don’t we just wait here a while and see what happens…” – R.J. MacReady

Outpost 31 was the location, and man was on the menu. Back in the early 1980s, John Carpenter set about making a contemporary tale based loosely on the Agatha Christie ‘Ten Little Indians’, but with one exception – blood and gore galore. The first time I watched it was in my early teens, and it immediately tapped into my mistrust of those around me.

Unfortunately, as I continued to re-watch the movie over the years, I began drawing comparisons to Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, with a sense of feeling somewhat insulted that a known, albeit left-field, filmmaker would plagiarise an established concept, only to recapture the public’s fear of extra terrestrial life (if there is any). In fact, for some considerable time it put me off revisiting the MacReady rite of passage; but after some purposeful reflection, I realized there was far more to this sci-fi suspense flick than mere plagiarism. As is always my eventual interpretation, the pattern of human relationships began to filter through, primarily through observation of playing one archetype against another, in order to seduce the viewer into false conclusions as to whom the ‘Thing’ had just inhabited.

This in itself is no easy feat, and full writing credit goes to John Carpenter, for using his own skewed view of people to pull it off. However, In addition to the complex storyline is the inventive use of practical effects, an approach so sorely missed today, and hopefully destined for a renaissance sometime soon.

On a personal note, I feel very strongly about the work of John Carpenter, despite some of his less successful outings (perhaps it’s because he is uncompromising in his vision, and because I trust the method in his madness when it comes to conveying messages through film). Needless to say, I now continue to watch ‘The Thing’ probably once, or even twice a year, because I am now firmly convinced that it requires a place in all of our lives, and because ultimately it’s just a damn good film, and a great way to spend nearly two hours in the dark, munching salted homemade popcorn.

If you haven’t taken the time to see ‘The Thing’ then it comes very highly recommended, particularly in its most current format of blu-ray, and for the purists there is the recent Arrow Video release (of which I have a Limited Edition copy, as yet unwatched), just don’t invest your time in the recent prequel/reboot as it only detracts from Carpenter’s craftsmanship and brings nothing new to the franchise.

Jaws (1975)

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Jaws (1975)
‘Jaws Watercolour Painting’ by Paul McPhee

“You’re certifiable Quint, do you know that?” – Chief Brody

If my memory serves me well, I was around six-years old when my mother took me to the cinema. For some insane reason I was able to get in and watch Jaws, a film experience that solidified my fear and fascination for all things shark. As a child, I would spend hours at a time perfecting my sketches of them, ensuring the pectoral fins were in proportion to both the dorsal and tail fins. However, it was not as much about the teeth these predators bore, rather the sleekness of their anatomical design – able to glide silently through the water and be upon you in the blink of an eye.

The zeitgeist of the seventies seemed to revolve around this mythical flick, and I have since lost count of exactly how many visits I have made to Amity Island (or Martha’s vineyard) in search of that sense of impending doom. But as always happens over the passage of time, the fear of one object or threat, changes with a growing awareness of ourselves, and the terrors we project from within.

Writing about Jaws today, the film is a more intimate and in some respects, affectionate affair. Instead of focusing on the beast that lurks beneath, it’s the human dynamic between Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) that resonates most. Every time these three characters are seen pitched against nature and the elements, the camera allows me to observe how fragile, lonely, and in many ways vulnerable, these men are.

In Martin Brody, we had the new kid on the block, the outsider, with no sea legs to speak of, and an inherent fear of the water. Not only was this middle-aged father and husband starting out again, and incidentally way out of his comfort zone, he was forced to confront both his fears and those of an entire island. With little to no support from the authorities assigned his protection, and growing pressure to lie to the very people he needs to win over, I cannot imagine a worse place to wind up.

With Matt Hooper, it is a similar, yet less daunting situation. The wealthy son of an even wealthier family, he has all the toys, but lacks the experience to truly know his worth, despite having a deep love of oceanographic life, and that recognisable need to make his mark amongst his peers. Does he stay and make a name for himself, or hide behind his inadequacies and money?

Quint however, is the real lynchpin of this fable. Plagued by survivor guilt after watching his fallen comrades turn shark bait during the SS Indianapolis disaster, his only sense of existence comes from hunting down and slaying the objects of both his obsession and fear. No matter how many of these abominations he destroys, the nightmares return to haunt him, so what more fitting way to go, other than in the jaws of the biggest shark humankind has ever seen?

When the three of them go in search of this aquatic behemoth, circumstances force them to either pull together, or unhinge from one another, through fear and desperation. However, something quite moving happens instead. Despite their differences in class, age and motivation, these characters push and pull each other to the edge, yet recognize their own need to lean on each other within the third act.

It is sad that Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) is the last man standing now, and I wonder if he shares the same love for Jaws that many others like me do? I recently bought The Deep (1977), hoping to find that similar feel for Robert Shaw’s character, but I think Quint was bottled lightning, and rightly so. More importantly, I have an admiration for all three actors, and as such, Jaws will always hold a place in my heart, just as it frightened the living wits out of me as a boy.

Ultimately, I really don’t need to ponder those who haven’t yet seen this vintage classic, as it’s been around almost as long as I have, but what I do wonder is what the film means to other viewers, and are they still afraid to go into the water?

As they used to say, “Answers on a postcard please”.

 

Taxi Driver (1976)

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Taxi Driver (1976)
‘Taxi Driver’ by Guy Pellaert

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life.” – Travis Bickle

America is in a decade of political upheaval and nursing the hangover of Vietnam. New York is a city borne from struggle and diversity, and the humble cab driver has become the forced witness to urban decay.

Taxi Driver was never intended to be an easy ride, or even an experience crafted to raise the spirits, but it excelled at leaving the viewer feeling both disenfranchised and yet oddly sympathetic to those searching for love, in what is often a cold and unforgiving world.

The story is linear by design, but director Martin Scorsese never allows you, the passenger, to look away or disconnect; instead he draws the viewer ever deeper into the darker recesses of ourselves, forcibly demanding that the audience engage both with the ears and eyes.

Rather remarkably, this unflinching character study is now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and yet Taxi Driver remains a stark reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover, or delude ourselves that we are better than anybody else because social culture and the mainstream media tell us so. All of us are wounded to a greater or lesser extent, and it’s those wounds that require our attention, because without the healing power of love, we run risk of slipping into inky darkness until our hearts simply just give out and die.

For those who feel perturbed by the concept of gritty films such as this, my advice is just to have faith enough to take that cinematic ride, while asking yourself to walk in Travis Bickle’s shoes, and you might be surprised to discover just how much you both have in common.

With regard to the latest medium in which to watch this jolting, acrid film, the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is undoubtedly where it’s at right now, and fortunately it sells for a reasonable price too.

So, if you want to take a trip into downtown America at a time when Robert De Niro was truly at his peak, remember to tip generously or who knows what might happen?