Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Brick (2005) / Looper (2012) with Rian Johnson Q&A, at the Prince Charles Cinema, 15th April 2013

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan in Brick
From the off Rian Johnson seems like a pretty cool guy.  Having noticed that The Prince Charles Cinema was screening a double feature of Brick coupled with The Maltese Falcon he got in touch with the cinema and offered to turn up and do a question and answer session.  Taking a quick break from his holiday in Paris he popped up to London to chat with us about chat with us about film-making for an hour so.  The Prince Charles figured that if they’re having the man himself there, they may as well make this a Johnson double feature, and swapped out The Maltese Falcon for his 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper.  I’ve already talked about Looper at length here, so for the majority of this article I’ll be talking about Brick.

Ever since seeing Brick back in 2006 or so I’ve been smitten with Rian Johnson.  Brick is absolutely outstanding, one of the most confident and assured directorial debuts in recent memory.  In the simplest possible terms, this is a film noir set in high school.  The prospect doesn’t sound instantly appealing; sight unseen you might conjure an image of a modern Bugsy Malone - some kind of paper-thin parody composed of creaky old noir clich├ęs   You only need to get one minute into Brick and those fears will dissipate like dust in the wind, Johnson grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go for an hour and fifty-five minutes.

At the dead centre, and a huge part of why this is so damn great is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  In 2004, with the impressive Mysterious Skin under his belt, Gordon-Levitt was an actor with something to prove, wanting to show off his dramatic chops actor and get away from the comedic roles that made him famous.  After watching this it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the hyper-intelligent, obsessive, masochistic, romantic hero Brendan.  He’s our Philip Marlowe, a tarnished would-be white knight all-to-ready to immerse himself in the mire of mire criminality in a fruitless attempt to first save the poor, doomed girl he loves, then to make sure those responsible for her death meet justice.

Brendan isn't the easiest protagonist to identify with; he’s sulky, seems to take a certain pleasure in violence and coldly manipulates just about everybody he comes into contact with.  But Gordon-Levitt imbues him with a sardonic confidence that makes him curiously attractive.  It’s the little character moments, like the way he puts his glasses away when he senses violence or the way he patches up his clothes with duct tape.  It’s also easy to admire his sheer determination; by the final act he’s a complete mess.  He staggers around, vomiting after swallowing too much blood, probably concussed and seriously sleep deprived.  After a certain point the fact that he’s on his feet at all becomes a marvel, let alone that he can still outsmart everyone around him, instinctively realising what makes people tick, and playing them off each other like a game of chess.

While the big picture in Brick is pretty great, and the central mystery compelling as hell, I’ve seen it ten times or so and the narrative isn’t why I keep coming back.  It’s the little details that make it so rewatchable, every time I notice new intricacies in the costume choices, sound design and tiny character beats. For example, there are a hell of a lot of shots of shoes in this film.  Almost every time we meet a character we’re treated to a quick shot of their shoes; a neatly intelligent choice that allows the audience to quickly play at being Sherlock, deducing what we can from their choice of footwear.  This shoe gazing pays off in the action scenes, most notably when Brendan is being pursued by a knife-wielding thug.  As he runs through the school the soundtrack drops out except for the rhythmic tap tap tap of his shoes on the asphalt.  When we cut to the thug, his footfall is louder, deeper, a thud of boots.  This pays off in the climax to the scene, Brendan utilises the soundtrack of the film to both mask his movements and predict when the thug will round the corner, tripping him, sending him flying into a post with a satisfying metallic *KLONK*.  Death by diegetic sound!  God this film is great.

When you're talking about Brick it'd be remiss not to mention the stylised dialogue.  Indeed, when I mentioned that I was going to a screening, a friend said "Is that the film where you can't understand what anyone's talking about?" An example:
“Bulls would gum it. They'd flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they'd trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we're doing this I want the whole story.”
The characters in Brick spit this dialogue out machine-gun fast, and occasionally you detect that this is a wilful attempt to bewilder the audience.  Frankly I love it, it's important to remember though you might not understand everything that the characters are saying, you never lose sight of their motivations.  There’s parallels here with the dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, whose dialogue frequently strays into highly specialised fast-paced jargon with little breathing space to decipher what it all means.  But Sorkin’s genius was recognising that understanding what people are talking about doesn't have to be that important - as long as we’re emotionally invested we don’t need care about what they’re saying, so long as we can intelligently work it out from what we already know and who is speaking to who.  In almost every dialogue sequence in Brick, two characters are verbally squaring off against each other, usually Brendan trying to trick someone into giving up information, and another character trying their best to avoid his verbal probes.  It's this lyrical combat that's the real scene; if you spend your time trying to decipher ever bit of obsolete slang you'll lose the emotional thread.

I think, despite the fact that my DVD of the film has seen some serious use, this was my favourite viewing, and the film works fantastically well with an audience.  The Prince Charles had secured a 35mm copy - watching it made me realise just how used I've become to digital projection.  For the first five minutes I was faintly horrified.  The colours looked washed out, there were scratches and dust on the film and the projector was wobbling ever so slightly.  But soon I began to appreciate what this did for the film.  Everything looked slightly desaturated, yet in high contrast.  And this is going to sound like I've definitely disappeared up my own arse - but the blacks were properly black in a way that digital hasn't quite managed to simulate.

As far I'm concerned Brick is a masterpiece, I think it's practically perfect in every way.  It's a film that gives itself up for dissection: the more you consider the artistic decisions behind it, the more you appreciate the beauty and complexity that's on screen in front of you.  From the universally great performances, to the coolly composed wide-open cinematography, to the sly humour, to Richard Roundtree, to the outstanding junkyard soundtrack, to the way that the film trusts its audience to be as intelligent as it is - ah hell, I just love it to bits. 

Rian Johnson on the left there.
Given how much I like the film, I was quite pleased to find that Rian Johnson was so friendly and open in the Q&A.  Many of the questions were from budding screenwriters asking after his writing technique.  His answers tended to the practical and I like the detail that he writes out his films in longhand rather than sitting down at a laptop using a script-writing programme, something that seems faintly romantic.  Frankly I'd have preferred more questions about the how he composes his shots, and how much input he puts into costuming decisions and collaboration with the soundtrack.  But hey, you can't have it all.

My favourite bit was when you detect some of his white hot passion for film-making.  He  explained that he used to use a video camera hooked up a VCR; creating short films using toys.  His advice to budding film-makers was just to get out there and start making films.  Everybody's got a video camera in their pocket these days, and yeah it's unlikely you're going to make Lawrence of Arabia on an iPhone, but at the very least it'll teach you the basics.  This DIY "just start doing it" philosophy appeals to my sensibilities.  It's easy to fall into the trap of just talking about how you'd like to be a writer, a musician or a director, waiting for the just the right moment to arrive.  If you behave like this it never will happen.  If you really had the passion deep in your bones you'd have already done it by now, in fact you'd have a pen, guitar or camera in your hand right now.  

Incidentally, Looper, screened after the Q&A was just as good the second time, especially when you pick up on the nuances of Gordon-Levitt's Bruce Willis impression.   But my bum did start getting a bit restless in the second half when the film deliberately slows down.  It was getting on for 11pm, and I hadn't had any dinner.  Still, I made it through and had a wonderful night.  At one point Johnson told us we should appreciate how lucky we are to have a cinema like the Prince Charles with such a great programme.  He's damn right.

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