🎬 #6 Every film is about escape
Hello. I’m sure you’ve heard the idea that there are only se7en stories. I think it’s even more condensed than that. I think there are only two types of film. One is an escape to a better place, away from life’s less attractive aspects for the duration of the runtime. The other is an escape to a worse kind of place, that reminds you that your life isn’t so bad after all, no matter how bad it feels at the time.
Storytelling, (filmmaking to me is one of the most potent methods) is about giving a shape to our unstructured world, and so every film is an escape to structure - to meaning. A heavier intro than usual but fitting for the two films this week. Both are literally about escape. And by the time you finish them you’ll realise that working from home really isn’t even an issue.
Happy choosing, happy viewing,
FILM ONE: PAPILLON
1973 Dir Franklin J Schaffner
This is the kind of film that makes you feel alive. I literally clapped my hands when I first saw it - just ask my friend Joe [shout out to Joe]. Imagine that - clapping a film in your house, bursting into spontaneous applause in front of a screen like a madman. That’s the reaction it inspired - please don’t unsubscribe if you fail to have a similar reaction. How did it spark such a reaction? Well, this is a prison escape epic, based on a true story, grander in scope and feel than McQueen’s own Great Escape. Which I always thought of as a tonally odd, but still very enjoyable film. Franklin J Schaffner here is like an Americanised, populist Lean, from the dont-make-them-like-this-anymore school of storytelling on a big ‘muscular’ scale. The camera placement decisive - as if laying the foundations for a skyscraper, the beats moving like the gears of an industrial, but beautiful machine, the music sparing but operatic - propulsive - locomotive. McQueen delivers, what Tarantino referred to as ‘maybe McQueen’s finest serious acting moment on film.’ This is McQueen playing into and against the expectation of his persona up to that point.
Tarantino also rightly points out that it is unrelentingly grim. But that’s what makes it so powerful. It takes the screenwriting principle of putting your protagonist through hell quite literally. There is an amazing moment where a pin pick of light makes its way into McQueen’s pitch black cell. A moment of visual poetry, a respite from the hellish tropical prison. This is the kind of moment films are made for.
McQueen and Hoffman’s chemistry is a bond of friendship that endures and despite the difficult shooting conditions, they clearly relished every minute. I could say the film is so impactful because its about the unrelenting durability of the human spirit and it is that. It also embodies the most accurate description of a human I’ve heard - as ‘something that can get used to anything,’ even the most depraved punishment for multiple escape attempts. It is all those things. But it also represents our desire to escape. To get back to something or get out of something or get to something better. Whereas we seek out cinema to allow us to escape to a structured, meaning-filled world. We are like Hoffman’s Dega, wanting to cling on to structure. But the reverse is true for McQueen’s Papillon. He desires to escape the structure of prison life and get back to the beautiful messy reality of the real world, just out of reach off screen.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 31 minutes of my precious life watching this? Go through hell with Steve McQueen expertly guided by Schaffner on top form after Planet of the Apes and Patton, as we see how much more we can endure in our desire to escape.
*Available for free to Amazon Prime subscribers, for a small rental fee on Youtube, Google Play, Sky Store and Apple TV*
Fact: The composer Jerry Goldsmith would go on to compose the score to Alien six years later. Bonus: McQueen insisted he perform the major set piece stunt himself and called it the most exhilarating experience of his life.
FILM TWO: PUNISHMENT PARK
1971 Dir Peter Watkins
Punishment Park. I’m not going to lie, it feels like you’re with those being punished. It’s an uncomfortable watch considering the state of the world at the moment. It’s a pioneering pseudo-documentary which makes it feel like we’re watching real events that are unfolding, in this case, in front of the lens of a news crew. They’re documenting a new type of punishment for ‘law breakers’ and ‘rebels.’ A type of capture the flag game - and if they are successful they’ll have their freedom. Punishment Park is dangled as an option presented to each prisoner as an alternative to a normal prison sentence. And because it holds that tantalising glimmer of hope, their desire for escape pushes them down that road - out into the deep desert. I remember the first time I saw it - it felt too real. There have been a lot of faux docs made, but the fact that we recognise none of the actors, the fact that the performances feel very improvised amps up the sense of reality to a cringe-worthy degree. The actors react to events, the camera reacts to them, they over react, and the other performers retaliate. This together with the director’s voice just audible off camera piles on another heaping of real world. We could be watching a psychology experiment from the 1970’s. A kind of top secret documentary into the dynamics of punishment amid the promise of escape.
Peter Watkins is part filmmaker part artist, and this film does feel like it could play in a gallery. It’s an odd but very satisfying watch as the prisoner’s combined glimmer of hope gets more and more eroded as the tensions mount on their mission to find the flag and their escape. By the film’s end you’ll be glad to turn it off and return to the world we know - that at the moment doesn’t yet quite have a Punishment Park. And hopefully we can watch it and escape back to our reality knowing that this is, for the time being, an experience confined to art house cinema.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 31 minutes of my precious life watching this? Sit back and get a profound sense of relief that you aren’t being made to cross a desert in the hopes of escape from a cruel prison system, in one of the most uncanny fake documentaries I’ve ever seen.
*Unfortunately this isn’t available on any of the traditional streamers*
Fact: There was no rehearsal time on the film and each character was cast based on their real political beliefs.