As in The Paperboy and Side Effects, there's nothing more thrilling than a jump between genres

Plus, the spirit of the Blitz in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and a funny man who can pull off straight roles

Share
Related Topics

One of my favourite Hitchcock moves occurs in a film that I
don't think anybody would identify as one of his greats – the 1976
crime caper Family Plot. As I remember it opens with Bruce Dern and
Barbara Harris driving at night, bickering together about their
next scam. Suddenly Dern slams on the brakes and you see that a
woman (Karen Black, in fact) has walked out in front of his car and
very nearly under it. At which point Hitchcock doesn't cut back to
Dern and Harris and the evolving plot they've been talking about
but pursues the jaywalker instead. It's as if the camera has
completely forgotten what it was doing and been lured into another
film entirely.

You eventually discover, of course, that the connection between these three people isn't just a vehicular near miss – but for the moment it seems that the narrative has jumped the tracks, landing upright on a nearby line that curves away in a different direction.

Hitchcock's device is pure control, of course, not its absence, but I still think of it as an emblem of those moments in the movies when a film either gets away from the audience or – sometimes – from the director. I've seen three examples recently, all of which got mixed reviews (the full one-star to five-star range in at least one case) and all of which were marked by the thrilling jolts you experience when a film leaves the paved road for rougher ground.

I think they're thrilling anyway, though judging from some reviews of Chan-Woon Park's Stoker, Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and and Lee Daniels' The Paperboy this view isn't universal. And I say "paved road" because what you don't get in any of them is that expeditious Hollywood freeway, which, once you know what genre you're in, will take you predictably from A to B, with well-signposted rest stops along the way. In some of these films establishing the genre is tricky in itself. Soderbergh's Side Effects, for example begins as what looks like an arraignment of Big Pharma, full of tart scenes that expose the corrupting crossover between clinical and commercial judgement. But then gradually it morphs into something else entirely – the sort of twisted noir you can imagine Bette Davis starring in back in the Forties. You think you have Stoker placed as one of those artful studies of teenage disaffection when it suddenly bucks sideways towards horror and then back again to a category for which the index card hasn't yet been written. And The Paperboy seems to be several things all at once – a steamy gumbo of miscarriage thriller, Southern gothic and overheated sexual fantasy.

The question that arises with all of them is how much did the directors intend things to get this messy? It shouldn't stay up for long with Park, because he's manifestly in charge of every frame of Stoker, a film art-directed to within an inch of its life (but only if you expand that cliché to allow for auto-erotic strangulation).

It won't stay up for long with Soderbergh, simply because his filmography is extensive enough to make most viewers assume that the bumpy ride is deliberate.

But Lee Daniels is likely to have a harder time. And if you don't actively get the credit for turbulence in style and narrative line, then you almost always get the blame for it. This isn't a knowing game with genre expectations and narrative arcs, we think; it's incompetence. It's not improvisation, he just can't read the score. I'm not sure it always matters, though, if the official score is duller than the departures from it.

Don't see any of these films if you like a smooth ride that gets you there on schedule. But if you like unexpected swerves and bumps I'd recommend all three.

Spirit of the Blitz, again and again

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life offers re-runs at the existence of its lead character, who dies repeatedly only to reappear in a parallel history in which she has cheated death. In the Blitz she figures both as victim and as air-raid warden. I was reminded of Sarah Waters's novel The Night Watch and of Elizabeth Bowen and others. It occurred that for a woman wanting a character to experience war at first hand there can be no better setting. It's essentially a co-ed version of the trenches, surreally confounding domestic mundanity with arbitrary and terrible violence, and a famous promoter of nocturnal encounters too. We'll surely see more.

Funny man pulls off a straight role

It's always risky casting a performer best known as a comedian in a straight role, but Harold Finley gets away with it in his production of his own play, A Thousand Miles of History, in part because the character Adam Riches plays was a comic of sorts himself. Riches' performance as Andy Warhol is a treat – a kind of living Warhol portrait in which the actor's association with flamboyant pastiche sits just slightly out of register with the character's self-parodic persona. But I wondered who should get the credit for the funniest moment – a scene that ends with Warhol alone on stage, discomfited by the rapid disappearance of his friends. "Well, this scene's obviously over," he says, tartly. Ad-lib or script? Or incorporated ad-lib? In which case, perhaps honours should be shared.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Pay between ?110 - ?130 Day: Randstad Education Cardiff:...

SAP Deployment Manager

£480 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Deployment Manager-Ta...

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Urgently seeking a Dynam...

Test Lead - Financial Reporting - Banking - London

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Banking, Financial Reporting, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Are we politely looking the other way when it comes to Kate, the ever-shrinking Duchess?

Grace Dent
 

The daily catch-up: art of the unapology, a bet on UKIP and printer ink molecules

John Rentoul
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game