(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

On the evidence of The Incident, more people should know the name Larry Peerce.

A lesser known product of the burgeoning New Hollywood Wave that emerged out of the classic studio system, The Incident is filled with well known players from earlier eras and projects to come – Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter and principally a vital turn by a young, emerging Martin Sheen, some years away from the career and life-defining experience of Apocalypse Now. As a character drama, it hangs on performances which belie the fairly low-fi, low-budget, almost TV movie approach Peerce was forced to employ, yet he frequently evolves beyond in his direction. This ends up theatrical, close-quartered, tense and to an extent ground-breaking in what it achieves with so little.

The Incident feels quite ahead of its time in how it brings together an ensemble cast and places them inside a bottleneck; a nightmarish, relatable situation filled with people in the wrong place at the wrong time, terrorised by a pair of wayward, New York thugs played by Sheen (this was his first film role) and Tony Musante, who is particularly mesmerising in how he physically and psychologically breaks down an assorted collection of late night travellers on a New York subway train. Peerce introduces the incendiary pair and then allows his film to steadily build, casting a pallor of dread over the first forty minutes as we await the titular incident.

What follows, in the final hour, ranks among the most nail-chewing, protracted escalating dramas of brewing violence and social deconstruction committed to celluloid.

Continue reading

There is a different aura around Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is the sense of a film maker continuing to season, to look back, not just at his own legacy but that of cinema itself in the last half century.

The title almost says it all. Not just a nod and wink to the king of QT’s beloved Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, and his epic Once Upon a Time in the West, but rather acknowledgement that Tarantino has crafted a Hollywood fable and, as a result, what has to be the most sweet-natured picture he has ever given us. Gone are the loud, vituperative gangsters or assassins, war heroes or slave traders, replaced by the most sensitive of all warriors: the actor.

Continue reading

Oliver Stone manages to capture in The Doors precisely what made the band so compelling – pretentiousness and brilliance all wrapped into one.

There was a level of kismet in how Stone came to detailing the life story of Jim Morrison, the tragic lead singer of the eponymous band. An aspiring filmmaker at the tail end of the 1960’s, Stone missed out on the excessive West Coast counter-culture revolution that the Doors helped fuel, split as he was between serving in Vietnam and living in New York, but he wrote a script which he sent to Morrison—looking to move away from the group that defined him into filmmaking—which tapped into that aesthetic. When he started developing The Doors twenty years later, Stone discovered that Morrison had his script in the Paris apartment where he was found dead in 1971 of heart failure. A sign of filmmaker destiny? Perhaps.

Stone certainly feels like the kind of director who fits the material, given he had built a career before the 1990’s on pictures which depicted the darker side of America’s post-war boom culture, specifically the Vietnam War in films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone understands that the late 60’s saw the death of something cultural and this is very much reflected in the life, career and ultimately demise of Morrison, around whom the film pivots. Without Morrison, there is no The Doors, much like without the front man there was no band, or at least not the same unique, trippy, rock-fuelled quintessence of the Doors at their height. The Doors understands this and Stone wraps his film around Morrison’s languorous, drug-induced egotism.

You can see why The Doors might divide. It’s a film full of life, full of music, full of colour and dappled sun, yet it is surrounded and subsumed by the somber pallor of death and tragedy.

Continue reading

Just under a year ago on my honeymoon, perched by a pool in Phuket, Thailand, baking under stunning sunshine, I found myself about to start Nick Setchfield’s debut novel The War in the Dark, one of several books grabbed as holiday reading. What followed could just have been considered a holiday romance – a dalliance with a tome that blew me away by how stylish, urbane, witty and exciting it turned out to be. It was anything but. I have waited patiently this last year for The Spider Dance to see if that experience might be repeated.

The good news is that, on the whole, it has.

Continue reading

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, is pure, stripped back, character-driven cinema.

After the critical high point of Nashville in the mid-1970’s, Robert Altman struggled with the changing face of Hollywood moviemaking, as the ingenue crowd he joined in bringing to bear the ‘New Hollywood’ wave that replaced the decayed studio system at the end of the 1960’s began to fade under the weight of the blockbuster franchise era. Altman, with his aggressive naturalistic style, his gutsy brand of raw Americana, struggled to find a place amongst the Star Wars and Jaws monster-hits of the burgeoning 1980’s and following the critical failure of Popeye—a film not typically in his wheelhouse—Altman spent the remainder of the 80’s in a self-imposed exile, determined to make the pictures he wanted to make outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

Jimmy Dean—as we’ll refer to this simply as now for ease—is a perfect example of Altman’s two-fingered salute to the New New Hollywood. Set entirely in one location, the titular small-town ‘5 and dime’, with a tiny cast of (almost) all-female characters, and tackling themes and ideas as diverse as social transformation of American life, religious rejection and changing gender, Jimmy Dean is defiantly un-cinematic, almost intentionally. It moves fast, throws a brace of dialogue at the audience from the first moment, and expects you to keep in step with a multi-layered facet of complex, emotionally damaged characters living their own strangely melancholic fantasy.

Continue reading

Hey there, everyone!

Something looks strange, you may well be thinking on reading this post, and well, you’d be right. I’ve had a re-brand, a little re-design, and a larger re-think about my blog space.

Since parting ways as editor of Set The Tape in the spring, I’ve been going back and forth on what this blog space should be, as I anguished over in my last update. It strikes me that if my future doesn’t lie in running a website, and more as an independent author and freelance writer, then I ought to start framing what I do in those terms.

So! Here’s my plan…

Continue reading

Hosted by myself alongside regular guests, Make It So: A Star Trek Picard Podcast is a series devoted to the upcoming CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard, delving into each episode and exploring the show when on the air.

In this debut episode, I’m joined by The Time Is Now‘s Kurt North to talk about the first main Picard trailer which debuted at San Diego Comic Con in July 2019, unpicking the details and theorising about the show to come.

We’ll be back for a couple of retrospective podcasts talking about Captain Jean-Luc Picard before the series launches in early 2020…

Continue reading